Bringing Up The (Fictional) Bodies by Carl R. Brush

Bringing Up The (Fictional) Bodies by Carl R. Brush

The Suspense is Terrible. I Hope it Will Last—Oscar Wilde

Hilary Mantel gets my nomination for one of the great novel titles of the decade with Bringing Up The Bodies, her blockbuster companion piece to her Mann Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall. Thinking about Bringing Up The Bodies for some reason got me thinking about bodies as a good metaphor for how we design our plots.

"He knows where the bodies are buried" is cliché for describing someone who knows all the secrets in an organization. Secrets that can be used as weapons or rewards, and, knowledge being power, the secret keeper can decide who gets hurt or gets helped. As the author, you're the person who knows where your plot secrets are buried. The trick is to bring them up at the right time and the right way.

Hitchcock once said that if there's a bomb on a bus and the audience knows it, you've got suspense. Who put it there? Why? Is it intended for a particular person? When will it go off? Will it go off at all? If it does, how many people will be on the bus at the time? Will the bomber's "target" still be aboard? If you don't have questions like these in place before the explosion, if the bomb just blows up, all you have for your readers is a surprise. You've robbed them of all that delicious anticipation.

It's best to get your reader wondering about the answers to questions like these early on. (Just as important as wondering about the answers is caring about them, but that's a topic for another blog.)

Even if you're not writing crime or thriller or sci-fi, the principle applies. The romantic heroine has been waiting for love how long? Why hasn't she found it? Is it somehow her fault? (Better for your piece if it is, in my opinion.) Or has she found it and watched it (let it?) slip away?

There are many ways to play your setup, of course. You can show us Jeffrey planting the bomb early on. We don't have to know till much later that his planned victim killed his father, that Jeffrey's been tracking him down for years. In fact it's probably better if we don't know till much later that he's not the villain we assumed he was when we saw him leave that explosive brief case under the seat in chapter one or two.

In the case of the romance, we can watch Marilyn ruin her relationship with two or three perfect men. We don't have to know right away that she learned her behavior from her mother, whose penchant for keeping men at a distance might have stemmed from a rape or a father's abandonment or ... so many other reasons.

The specifics aren't as important as the process of building your reader's curiosity about those buried bodies, then bringing them up one by one just as the suspense is at its height. You don't want to do an "info dump" and waste all your secrets in one big hunk of backstory. Especially at the beginning, where backstory is really the enemy of narrative pace. And, unlike Hilary Mantel in her tale, you won't be escorting your bodies to Tower Green for beheading. You'll be artfully constructing the dramatic tableau that only gradually reveals the shape of your story. Where to place them and when creates that dramatic tension that keeps those pages turning.

Oh, he's handsome, your reader notes. I wonder who's going next to him and in what pose. Whoa! She's bleeding. Why? Who did that to her? Was it that handsome guy? And why?

As Stephen Sondheim says in "Putting it Together"...

Bit by bit,

Piece by Piece-

Only way to make a work of art.

Every little detail plays a part.

Of course,

Art isn't easy.

Even if you're smart.

You think it's all put together,

But then something falls apart

Art isn't easy.

But, I say, as one writer to another,  it's such great fun.

Guest Blogger Bio

Carl Brush has been writing since he could write, which is quite a long time now. He grew up and lives in Northern California, close to the roots of the people and action of his historical thrillers, The Maxwell Vendetta, and its sequel, The Second Vendetta. A third volume of the trilogy, Bonita, set in pre-gold-rush San Francisco is completed and awaiting publication.
You can find Carl living with his wife in Oakland, California, where he enjoys the blessings of nearby children and grandchildren.
Journals in which his work has appeared include The Summerset Review, Right Hand Pointing, Blazevox, Storyglossia, Feathertale, and The Kiss Machine.  He has participated in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Tin House Writers’ Workshop, and the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers conference. 

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  1. Insightful blog, Carl. Other giveaways are book titles, chapter headings and blurbs! Glad to see your third book in the trilogy is due out soon!

  2. Carl always delivers great insights like this. Smart guy!

  3. Interesting discussion of Hitchcock's use of plot devices, like a mysterious bomb--he also was a heavy user of the "MacGuffin" which was pioneered by Dasheill Hammet in the Maltese Falcon. Of no intrinsic value itself, it sure did motivate characters! I really appreciate your insights hiere, got me thinking.Good luck on the third volume in the trilogy... Cheers, Brian Kenyon


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