What’s Next?

by jkatejohnston

21 August 2014

Ever since giving away the who-done-it part of my book, I’ve been thinking about plot and story and whether it’s a bad sign that I don’t care who done it. I care about who didn’t do it and whether he’s going to get convicted. I care about how much of our defense the judge is going to exclude from evidence and whether he’s right.

But back to plot. What’s-next-what’s-next-what’s-next? The voice in my head that never stops talking is often just saying that. Do the next thing, move forward. It’s annoying, and I understand why people meditate to quiet that voice. So maybe a plot gives the what’s next part of your mind something to do with its constant whirring. Life doesn’t have a story. That’s one of the many things wrong with it. You have to read if you want to find out what’s next.

When I think about meditating and living in the moment, I end up feeling very cranky and disapproving because that whole view of life seems to go against anticipation and regret, also known as hope and memory. We have these minds that can go places, move in time, listen to a story, dread evil, hope for happy endings, come up with a decent closing argument while flossing. You do not reject the gifts of the gods. And if you have to live in constant low-grade anxiety, well, you were born human. Man up. But I’m totally dying to meditate, and any moment now I’m going to start.

One thing about story that I don’t understand at all, but I’m very grateful for it, is that knowing how it all comes out doesn’t lessen your interest in it, if the story and people were any good in the first place. The part of your mind that wants a story doesn’t care that much about the ending. It just wants to click into something that moves forward. Go.


Fair warning: what follows are long quotes from fat books. I found the spots in a few Trollope books where he talks about plot and giving it away. This will make perfect sense to readers who have practically memorized the same books I have and almost no sense at all to anyone else.

He has been murdered,” said Mr. Low. The reader need hardly be told that, as regards this great offence, Phineas Finn was as white as snow. The maintenance of any doubt on that matter,—were it even desirable to maintain a doubt,—would be altogether beyond the power of the present writer. The reader has probably perceived, from the first moment of the discovery of the body on the steps at the end of the passage, that Mr. Bonteen had been killed by that ingenious gentleman, the Rev. Mr. Emilius, who found it to be worth his while to take the step with the view of suppressing his enemy’s evidence as to his former marriage. (Phineas Redux chapter 47 Showing What Mrs. Bunce Said To The Policeman.)


I venture to think, I may almost say to hope, that Lady Mason’s confession at the end of the last chapter will not have taken anybody by surprise. If such surprise be felt I must have told my tale badly. I do not like such revulsions of feeling with regard to regard to my characters as surprises of this nature must generate. That Lady Mason had committed the terrible deed for which she was about to be tried, that Mr. Furnival’s suspicion of her guilt was only too well founded, that Mr. Dockwrath with his wicked ingenuity had discovered no more than the truth, will, in its open revelation, have caused no surprise to the reader;—but it did cause terrible surprise to Sir Peregrine Orme. (Orley Farm Chapter 45 Showing How Mrs. Orme Could Be Very Weak Minded.)


But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was the picture before which was hung Mrs. Radcliffe’s solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us, merely a receptacle for old bones, and inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then, how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. ‘Oh, you needn’t be alarmed, for Augusta, of course, she accepts Gustavus in the end.’ ‘How very ill-natured you are, Susan,’ says Kitty, with tears in her eyes; ‘I don’t care a bit about it now.’ Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the last chapter, if you please—learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed, there be any interest in it to lose. (Barchester Towers Chapter 15 The Widow’s Suitors.)


I’d like to write Phineas Finn, from the point of view of Mr. Chaffanbrass.