I hate to break the streak Michaeline and Jilly started, but alas, I have no fun flash fiction to share. What I do have is a great big pile of scenes and sequences and chapters of my WIP in various stages of revision. And then there are the over-arching issues…oh, the overarching issues.
Recently, as I was pondering the varied and sundry ways my first act went off the rails, I read a post about protagonists over at 8LW mentor Jenny Crusie’s blog. One little line in the post jumped out at me: “[The protagonist] does not make the story, though; that’s the antagonist who shapes the narrative in the way he or she pushes back.” And I said to myself, ‘yes, that!’
That was the moment that several things that had been swirling around in my brain coalesced into one concrete thought: my antagonist is not in Act 1. OK, that’s not entirely true. He is mentioned, discussed, and hanging over the life of my protagonist in ominous ways. We hear his voice and start to see his world view through the voicemails and texts he sends our girl. But he doesn’t show up physically until nearly the end of Act II. And for my story, it just isn’t working.
To get you quickly up to speed without presenting too many spoilers, I should tell you a little about this lead protagonist, Eileen, and her antagonist, Jim. It was a dark and stormy night…at least emotionally, the last time Eileen saw Jim. Because once upon a time, the two were married, until the night when controlling and emotionally abusive Jim turned physically violent. Jim is handsome, charming, wicked smart, and sociopathic. After going on a violent tear that started with beating Eileen and ended in trying to set fire to the house of the neighbor who tried to help Eileen, Jim went to prison. And Eileen got a divorce. But that’s all back story.
When the story of this book begins, Eileen has just learned that Jim is getting paroled, earlier than she expected. The news gets Eileen laser focused, and she fast-tracks her plan to open her classic car restoration business. This is a side project she’s been developing for years so that she can 1) earn more money (money=protection/safety), and 2) show Jim that her life is now wholly her own and there is no place in it for him (he hated that she was skilled with cars and dreamed of leaving her adjunct teaching job at the college where they both worked to become a ‘grease monkey’).
In Act I, though, Jim isn’t yet back out on the streets, and Eileen certainly isn’t going to visit him in prison, so the reader doesn’t get a chance to see him, to observe his sociopathic, self-serving behavior even as he proclaims his love for Eileen and begs her forgiveness. He’s making phone calls and sending texts (he’s the type who would find a way to do that from prison) and Eileen is reacting, but even with little bits of the abuse backstory dropped into Act I, the feeling of urgency and story movement created by a strong antagonist pushing and pulling the protagonist just isn’t there. That’s not to say the offpage/offscreen antagonist can’t work; I just can’t make it work here. For this story, I need to spring Jim from the Big House earlier and get him back in town, in Eileen’s face. And then the real back-and-forth of antag pushing and protag reacting/pushing back can begin. Major overhaul of Act I, here I come.
Have you read/seen antagonists who are offpage/offscreen for big chunks of a story but still manage to shape the narrative? I guess I’m still holding out hope of finding an example that could help me salvage my current structure…And if you’re currently revising your WIP, please share your recent triumphs or setbacks in the comments (misery loves company :-().