Wednesday, February 24, 2010

BIG QUESTIONS: Marcelo in the Real World

In her blog post about her first reading of the manuscript that became Marcelo in the Real World, editor Cheryl Klein described what impressed her in one of the scenes in which Marcelo and Rabbi Heschel are talking together:

It was the ambition of it, the way it reached for the Big Questions and caught them. It was the reality and humanity of it—that I could genuinely believe this anguished young man in the button-up shirt and this older woman in the neon-green-framed glasses lived and thought and felt up somewhere near Boston. And it was the way the religious issues chimed within my own heart, my own complex internal stew of Big Questions and small actions and deep longing.

There are Big Questions, all right, threaded throughout the novel. Big Questions like:

  • “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?” (p. 166)
  • “Am I supposed to put my father ahead of everything?”(p. 211)
  • “What if doing God’s will hurts the people we love?” (p. 279)
  • “Only how is it possible to live without being either numb to [pain] or overwhelmed by it?” (p. 302)

So many questions, that Jasmine asks, “Do you always ask so many questions?” (p. 260)

I became fascinated by the way Stork, through Marcelo, asks the Big Questions, questions lurking in us all, yet the story never becomes weighted down by them. Initially Marcelo resists the Real World, yet he is thrown into it by his father’s demand that he work at the law office. Marcelo confronts the challenges he faces from a foundation anchored in religion. “My special interest is God,” he tells Jasmine on his first day working in the mailroom. “Religion. What humankind has said and thought about God. I like to read and think about that.” (p. 57)

In an interview of Francisco X. Stork posted by Martin Wilson just a few days ago, Stork discusses religion in the novel. Wilson asked:

Martin Wilson: Ideas of faith and religion run through the novel. But it’s a unique, personal kind of faith that Marcelo has. Is your faith very important to you? Were you trying to say something about religion in this novel?

FXS: Yes, my faith is very important to me. It’s what gives meaning to my life. One of the things I wanted to say about religion in the novel is that religion needs to be looked at the way Marcelo looks at it. He is interested in all religions. He is a Catholic who visits with a rabbi every week who names his dog after a Buddhist prayer. Marcelo has an innate sense of the universality of all religions.

In his book The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, Donald Maass says:

Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality of you.

Later, he adds,

Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that, if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author's experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. (p. 133)

Marcelo thinks about right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, trust, justice, friendship, and God—“large talk,” as opposed to “small talk” (p. 75). We look at these issues through the lens of Marcelo, and the issues are clarified. Marcelo realizes: “I can do justice for Ixtel” (p. 278). Righting wrong: that’s power.

Maass says, “Having something to say, or something you wish us to experience, is what gives your novel its power. Identify it. Make it loud. Do not be afraid of what's burning in your heart. When it comes through on the page, you will be a true storyteller.” (p. 249)

Maass suggests some exercises to help us writers focus on what’s burning in our hearts:

  • What in the world of your story makes you angry? What are we not seeing? What is the most important question? What puzzle has no answer? What is dangerous in this world? What causes pain?
  • Where in the world of your story is there unexpected grace? What is beautiful? Who is an unrecognized hero? What needs to be saved?
  • Passion is expansive. It sweeps us up, carries us away. What is your passion? Get it into your story, especially through your characters. What angers you can anger them. What lifts them up will inspire us in turn. Ordinary people don't need to be bland. They can be poets, prophets and saints. Their world is a microcosm. Why else are you writing about it? (p. 250)

I’ll give the last word to Stork, from an interview posted by

TRC: Toward the end, Rabbi Heschel gives this advice to Marcelo: “Trust the sense you have that you are traveling the right direction because, when it comes down to it, that and the ability to tell the difference between a dried-up fig and a pomegranate is all you have.” A poignant quote. What does it mean to you personally?

FXS: What it means to me personally is that I have to trust I am able to hear the “right note” if I care to listen. And then I have to trust that the “right note” is right enough for me to follow. The sense of “the right note” was placed in us for a reason, and we should make it work for us. But we are not alone. Others can help us, traditions, wise or holy persons who have traveled this path before us, all can guide us. But in the end, the ultimate test of whether the note was right is the fruit of your action. Did you increase love and lessen suffering? If you did, your note was the right note.

StorySleuths Tip # 49: Write your passion. In the words of Donald Maass, from the exercise above, “Passion is expansive. It sweeps us up, carries us away. What is your passion? Get it into your story, especially through your characters.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD: Contrasting characters

Dear Meg and Allyson,

One of the things that I noticed when reading Marcelo in the Real World was the way Francisco X. Stork developed contrasting pairs of characters.

For example, Marcelo and Wendell are an obvious pair. Both boys are spending their summer vacations working at the law firm that their fathers founded (Sandoval and Holmes).

Despite their surface similarities, however, they are very different people. Marcelo is an intellectual person who loves music and religious thinking. Wendell is… well, more physically oriented. Marcelo is the son of the “Minority hire” lawyer. Wendell is the son of “an old Boston family” (p 127).

Marcelo and Wendell represent opposite extremes in their approaches to work, life, love, ethics, etc., and Stork uses these opposing or contrasting views almost like a physical force. For example, Wendell pushes Marcelo about inviting Jasmine to his boat, and Marcelo resists. The more Marcelo resists, the harder Wendell pushes.

Karl Iglesias, author of Writing for Emotional Impact, says that,

Contrast is another form of conflict, which always brings character to the surface and creates clarity… Contrasting a character with another [character] distinguishes and reveals their personalities. It can also spice up a story when other elements are contrasted, such as different ambitions, motivations, backgrounds, goals, attitudes and values (p. 57).
Marcelo and Wendell are not the only such contrasting pair in Marcelo in the Real World. Jasmine and Juliet are another pair, each providing office support,one as mail room manager, the other as an executive assistant, in the law firm. Wendell summarizes their differences by explaining their “feminine beauty” to Marcelo.
… Juliet there across the hall is a representative of the Elegant Woman. Elegants are usually on the thin side. Their demeanor is cold and unapproachable.
Jasmine, on the other hand, is an Elemental.
The attractive force behind Elemental beauty is that it holds out the promise of totality, of full, complete and never-ending satisfaction… she has all the elements that make up womanhood, but in an understated way… (pp. 89-90).
Of course, Juliet and Jasmine’s differences extend far beyond their looks to how they approach their jobs and how they treat others.

Another contrasting pair consists of Marcelo’s father, Arturo Sandoval, and Jerry Garcia, the lawyer representing the young girl in the picture Marcelo finds. Both men are Harvard-educated attorneys who graduated the same year. They were two of just seven Mexican-Americans in the school.

But Arturo went on to professional success, creating his own law firm representing large corporations. He lives in the suburbs and drives a sports car to work. Jerry chose a different path, opening “a solo practice in a poor neighborhood” where he provides legal assistance to Spanish-speaking clients (p. 190).

Although Stork has ample material for conflict between these three pairs of characters, he then uses the pairs to develop interesting triangles of conflict (think “love triangle,” although as you will see, love isn’t always the issue at hand).

An obvious example is the triangle between Marcelo, Wendell and Jasmine. Wendell has the hots for Jasmine. Jasmine abhors Wendell. Marcelo wants to be friends with both. How will he handle Wendell’s increasing demands for help “getting Jasmine”?

A more subtle triangle is that between Marcelo, Wendell and Arturo. In this case, Arturo seems to wish Marcelo were more like Wendell. Arturo tells Marcelo, “…there is no need for you and Jasmine to be friends…. You should make friends with Wendell. He can be helpful to you” (p. 103). Marcelo wants to please his father, but for much of the book neither Arturo nor Marcelo seems to see Wendell as he truly is. Will they get caught in Wendell’s manipulations?

As the novel unfolds, much of its complexity evolves out of the many relationships between pairs of characters as well as different triangular variations (e.g. Marcelo-Arturo-Jerry, Marcelo-Arturo-Jasmine). These relationships cause conflict for Marcelo. They force him into uncomfortable positions where he must sort out right from wrong. They push him into making difficult choices. And they force him to see people and situations for what they really are.

StorySleuths Tip #48: Use contrast as a method to build conflict and reveal character. Look for ways to develop connections between contrasting pairs of characters, and then increase the conflict by adding a third person to the relationship for even more tension.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Dear Heather and Meg,

In an interview with Kathie Josephs of Children's Literature Francisco Stork said of his experience writing Marcelo in the Real World,

I had this actor like ability to get into the role of the person I am writing about. While I am speaking on behalf of that person, I am that character. In a novel you are going to have to move back and forth. One second you are Marcello and the next second you are Wendell.

This reminded me of something I’d heard Jerry Spinelli say at the Highlights Foundation’s Writing for Children conference in Chautauqua, New York a few years ago. Spinelli was asked a question about a scene from his holocaust novel, Milkweed in which the main character, Misha, is hiding in terror from the jackboots. It is a scene in which Misha has snuck out of the ghetto to steal food and cannot find his way home. Meanwhile, the jackboots with their guns and flamethrowers are getting closer.

“How did you do that?” Spinelli was asked. “Since you were never a child trying to return to the ghetto while being terrified that the Jackboots would kill you, how did you write that scene with such true emotion?”

Jerry replied with an anecdote about growing up as a boy in Pennsylvania. He lived in a working class neighborhood where there were scrawny kids like him, and there were bullies. He had a very vivid memory of being a young boy out later than he should have been at night. He needed to get home, but the bullies were out, too. He knew that if they caught him, they would beat him up, and he was terrified and worried that he might never make it home. The memory of the fear he felt that night as a little boy in Pennsylvania is what he assigned to the character Misha in Milkweed.

So now, thinking about Stork’s comment, I draw the conclusion that perhaps what we as writers really need to tap into is the emotions of the character we are trying to portray, and we do this by drawing upon our own memories. But, is that what actors do? And if so, how do they access the emotions associated with those memories?

George Pierce Baker, Professor of Dramatic Literature at Harvard University in the early 1900’s said this about the role of emotion in drama: “Accurately conveyed emotion is the great fundamental in all good drama.”

And in his book An Actor Prepares, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great acting teacher of the early twentieth century said,
No matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings. To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for the part. (167)

Lee Strasberg was a devotee of Stanislavsky’s work who went on to develop the acting school known as The Method. Strasberg focused on teaching actors how to get to this emotional place so that they could bring life to their characters. The core of his work involved using something called Affective Memory exercises in which acting students relived a past experience, and rather than focus on the experience itself, they focused on how the senses were affected by that experience. The nugget I took away from reading about Strasberg’s Method was that the way to reach a place of emotional memory was to focus on the senses associated with that memory.

Going back to Jerry Spinelli hiding from the bullies, Strasberg would likely have coached him to close his eyes, return to that hiding place and focus on what it felt like to be there. What sounds did he hear? Was it warm or cold? Did he smell leaf mold, or a neighbor barbecuing burgers?

And coming full circle to Francisco Stork’s work, I wonder if, when writing of Marcelo’s experience camping out beside Jasmine whether Stork closed his eyes and harkened back to a time when he was camping outdoors? Were there insects chirruping nearby? Did he smell a distant campfire? Feel a cool breeze brush back his hair?

There is much that we as writers can learn from actors about how to bring emotional resonance to our characters.

StorySleuths Tip #47: To explore a character’s emotional truth use your own memories, and deepen those by recalling the way your senses were affected during the course of that experience.

Monday, February 15, 2010

GUEST POST: Mitali Perkins

Wonderful writer Mitali Perkins posted on January 11th the reasons why she loved Marcelo in the Real World. The StorySleuths contacted Mitali and received her permission to replay her post here:


Here are ten reasons I'll be happy if this year's ALA Printz Award goes to MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco X. Stork:

10. The story is classic bildungsroman.

9. We get a Latino teen guy protagonist who isn't in a gang, on the streets, or primarily defined by cultural angst.

8. We're intrigued and captivated by descriptions of music. (Stork even created a playlist to accompany the book for the New York Times' blog, Paper Cuts.)

7. We're given a stark, honest portrayal of sexual tensions in the workplace.

6. Who doesn't enjoy a good legal thriller?

5. We root with all our might for a flawed but brave hero in Marcelo.

4. We come to love a flawed but strong character in Jasmine.

3. We'll want to know more about an individual's situation the next time we hear the word "autism."

2. Faith is expressed and explored freely.

1. Justice rolls down as the "weak" are able to right wrongs perpetrated by the "strong."

Best of all, perhaps, is that I couldn't put it down. I really did love it, in the way that Stork himself defines the verb. I'm looking forward to his THE LAST SUMMER OF THE DEATH WARRIORS, coming March 1, 2010 from Arthur A. Levine Books

Mitali, thanks so much for sharing with us! We can't wait to read your book, Bamboo People coming out in July, 2010 from Charlsebridge.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

UNIFYING ELEMENT: Marcelo in the Real World

Hi Allyson and Heather,

I love books that have a unifying element, like The Secret Garden, in which Mary’s growth is mirrored in the rescue and tending of the neglected garden. Stork’s choice of music as the unifying element of Marcelo in the Real World echoes Marcelo’s challenges, struggles, and growth.

At the outset, Dr. Malone is intent on understanding what Marcelo’s mental music, or “internal music”--IM for short--is like, as compared to what Tony, another doctor, calls the “real stuff”-- music “that is piped in through the speaker in the machine” (p. 2). Marcelo describes IM as “coming from inside the brain.” (p. 3) It’s an integral part of him.

As Marcelo learns more and more about the “real world,” he finds it harder and harder to access the IM:
I don’t know why it is harder to reach the place of the IM. It is impossible to listen to the IM at work even on the rare occasions without anything to do. It is like the IM is afraid to be heard for fear that it will be ridiculed. (pp. 93-94)
When Marcelo has successfully navigated the real world of the law office and friendship with Jasmine, she asks him to tell her about his internal music. He says, “…now it is harder to find it. It is almost all gone, I would say.” (p. 255) What he has found instead are the sounds of the real world, “all the sounds the lake makes. And also the sounds of Jasmine trying to fish.” (p. 255)

And later, when he is driving with Aurora to see Rabbi Heschel, he realizes “The IM has stopped. It will never come back.” He feels lost, with no “way of knowing what to do about Ixtel, about my father, about Jasmine.” (p. 268) But when he is with the rabbi he hears the music of the real world. “We both look up toward the sound of a robin’s double whistle: Pheee-Pheeeu. Pheee-Pheeeu. Pheee-Pheeeu” (p. 271) Music is a metaphor for Marcelo’s growing connection with the real world.

Stork uses musical references throughout the novel not only to reflect Marcelo’s growth, but to define the characters in relation to one another. The music of Marcelo’s world is very different from that of his father’s--when Marcelo is with his father at the gym, Marcelo notes, “there is a white speaker above us blasting popular music.” (p. 97). Marcelo refers to the music as “strident,” reflecting his disconnect with his father—he would rather lift weights, but Arturo wants to have a “chat about how things are going.” (p. 97).

Stork also uses music references to clarify setting. For example, when Marcelo arrives in Lawrence to visit Ixtel he
begins to see more and more signs in Spanish—storefronts, restaurants. The beat of Latin music fills the air. (p. 192)
Musical instruments add tone to the settings. In Jasmine’s studio apartment, “At the end of the bed, on the side closest to where we stand, is an electric keyboard that I can tell has all eighty-eight keys of a regular piano” (p. 144). In Robert Seely’s house Marcelo notices a “red battery-operated keyboard that contains only eight keys” (p. 202). The piano in Jasmine’s childhood home is the only acoustic piano in the book: “Jasmine comes out to the living room where I am standing by an upright mahogany piano.” (p. 225) It has a “mellow sound,” and it is “in tune,” foreshadowing Marcelo’s decision to go to Vermont after he graduates, where he can play “his counterpoint.” (p. 311)

Even music-related props serve a function in the story. Take headphones, for example. Sometimes headphones define characters--in his tree house Marcelo says: “On the desk I have a CD player, headphones, and my laptop” (p. 26). Other times they link characters together--as Marcelo scans the mail room, even before Jasmine has spoken to him, he notices the larger wooden desk in the room “has a white CD player with headphones connected to it” (p. 48). And headphones even serve to differentiate characters—“Sometimes I wonder what Belinda was like and whether Jasmine would put her headphones on if Belinda were working here instead of me” (p. 75).

Music illuminates the theme of the book. When Marcelo asks Jasmine, “How do I know the next note is the right one?” she responds: “The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong.” (p. 169) Marcelo remembers this conversation when he’s sitting with Jerry Garcia, wondering what he will say when the lawyer asks him why he has come.
"The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong,” I remember Jasmine saying. And so I listen carefully now and try to detect what I hear inside, trying to listen for the note. (p. 187)
At the lake, when Marcelo has made a decision with regard to Ixtel, he says, “I hear the right note. I recognize the wrong note.” (p. 253) And at the end of the story, when Jasmine says that he has to make sure he comes to Vermont for the right reason, Marcelo replies:
“It has to be the right note.”
“Yes, in the overall piece.”
“But how do I know the next note is the right one?”
"The right note sounds right,” she says, laughing. (p. 312)
Marcelo says that Aurora used to watch him sort the daily mail, and that she sometimes could not figure out his logic.
It must have been hard [for her] to find the one unifying element amongst many possible ones. (p. 152)
Stork selected music as the unifying element of his novel. It’s an apt choice, as Marcelo comes to understand and appreciate the melodies of the real world and grows into a harmonious relationship with Jasmine towards an ending that still resonates after the final chord.

StorySleuths Tip #46: Choose a unifying element that is integral to the story, then use references to that unifying element to clarify characters, setting and theme.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Dear Heather and Meg,

As I read Heather’s post I was reminded of a writing session she and I had at Tully’s last fall. As we took a break from our writing and sipped lattes, Heather expressed concern that not enough was happening in her story about a young girl’s journey to India, yet she could not put her finger on what was missing. Heather, it was so gratifying to read your post about the lesson on plot you took away from Marcelo in the Real World. Isn’t that the point of this, after all? In reading successful novels our goal is to understand at a craft level what this author is doing that we are not, and to take it a step further by applying what we’ve learned to our own writing. I can’t wait to see the results of this discovery in your novel!

I’m going to follow your lead, Heather, sticking to plot, and to an analysis of my own writing. In this case the problem I’ve run into is my saggy middle. Not the one that comes from too few sit-ups and too much time at a computer – I am referring to the spot in my novel-in-progress when I find myself stopping to clip my toenails, pluck my eyebrows, and check to see if there are any new dishes in need of washing. It is the point in the novel when I am bored to tears, and know that my readers will be, too. In Marcelo in the Real World there was never a time when I had a yearning to pull out the toenail clippers, tweezers or dish soap. So how does Stork accomplish that? The conclusion I’ve drawn is that he keeps me, as the reader, in a state of almost constant suspense as it is defined by Elizabeth George in her book Write Away:

that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them (p 43).
Looking back at my experience reading Stork’s novel I recalled that there was never a time in Marcelo in the Real World when I didn’t find myself wondering what was going to happen. I went back and revisited the book with this in mind to see what he does to create this perpetual state of suspense, and to try and understand how I could apply his technique to my own work.

The first thing I noticed is that Stork never gives poor Marcelo a break, constantly throwing obstacles in his way. In the first chapter we are introduced to what Heather referred to as the first plot layer: Marcelo’s father wishes for his son to change schools, leaving the safety of Paterson to attend Oak Ridge, a school that is, “not for Marcelo.” Just as we are digesting what this would mean for Marcelo, Stork ups the ante: Marcelo can earn the right to go to the school of his choice provided that he succeeds at a summertime position working at his father’s law firm rather than working at a stable—the job Marcelo aches to do. Right from the start, Marcelo is faced with a painful choice.

As the story progresses Stork tosses out more stones over which Marcelo might stumble, each time deepening suspense for readers. Will Marcelo be able to manage the competitive nature of the firm and the rigors of his job? The scrutiny of assorted secretaries and partners? The dysfunctional “friendship” with Wendell? The evolving friendship with Jasmine? The disturbing fear that his father, whom he has been taught to trust implicitly, has been involved in unscrupulous practices? The story progresses and we sit at the edge of our seats watching Marcelo make choices that chip away at his chances of success, and the whole time we are wondering, what is going to happen?

It is worth taking a moment here to refer back to Heather’s post. I believe that the multiple plot lines provide more opportunity for suspense building. In Marcelo’s quest to succeed at his job and therefore go to the school of his choice, in his relationships with Jasmine and Wendell, in his quest to right the wrong that his father’s firm committed in denying compensation to an injured girl—every one of these storylines develops side-by-side, providing Stork a wide palette of hurdles for Marcelo to stumble over, and for the reader to wonder whether he will succeed.

Another way that Stork kept me interested at all times was with his gradual revelation of character and fact. We think we know Wendell, but then we REALLY get to know Wendell. The same is true of Jasmine, and Arturo. In my writing I can sometimes be like a kid with a secret—I can’t wait to introduce my readers to every single character and reveal everything about them. Stork’s slow unveiling of details served to keep me as the reader always hungry for more.

Another suspense building technique which Stork used very well was to set clocks ticking.

  • Marcelo has the duration of the summer to succeed. Tick, tick, tick.

  • Wendell imposes a time limit by when Marcelo must deliver Jasmine. Tick, tick, tick.

The result is that, as a reader, I am now left wondering not only will the character accomplish the goal, but will he accomplish it in time?

Looking back at my own saggy middle I see that the problematic scenes are ones in which nothing is happening. Past problems have been resolved. Future problems have yet to be introduced. There is no suspense.

Heather and Meg, when you see me at Tully’s you know what I’ll be working on!

StorySleuths Tip #45: Create suspense by building scenes which beg the question, “What is going to happen?”, by revealing characters and facts gradually, and by constraining the time in which your character must solve his problem.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Happy February! This month we’ll be talking about Francisco X. Stork’s YA novel, Marcelo in the Real World, which recently received the Schneider Family Book Award at the ALA Conference in Boston.

As we move out of our exploration of the short stories in Geektastic, we wanted to announce that the winner of our first StorySleuths StoryChallenge is Easter, who worked on a story featuring a Jane Austen fan. Thank you, Easter, for participating!

Dear Meg and Allyson,

Every book or story I read provides tips, examples and inspiration for me as a writer. I gather these lessons like apples from a tree, some to use right away and some to save for later. Every now and then, however, a book comes along with a major writing lesson that hits me directly on the head, Newton-like, and clarifies a pressing problem I face in my current project. Marcelo in the Real World is one of those books.

It occurred to me as I was trying to write a synopsis of my work-in-progress that the basic premises of my novel and Marcelo in the Real World are similar. In my novel, the protagonist moves to a new country, where she must adapt, against her will, to an unfamiliar culture. Marcelo, too, must go against his will to work in an unfamiliar country, “the real world,” which is located in the mailroom of his father’s law firm.

Lesson #1: Make the stakes clear. If Marcelo lives by the rules of the real world during his summer job, he will be able to choose what high school to attend in the fall. He wants to return to Paterson, a private school for children with disabilities, while his father, Arturo, wants him to transfer to the public high school for senior year. The stakes for my character… uh, still working on that.

But the lesson on stakes is just a minor point. The real lesson—a real bruiser—came when I contemplated the different plot lines that emerge from Marcelo’s experience at the law firm. The story is not just about Marcelo learning how to deliver mail and manage unreasonable deadlines or irrational secretaries. At work, Marcelo encounters new people and situations that challenge him to move outside his comfort zone. These people and situations develop into different plot lines that compliment, deepen, and even transform Marcelo’s original quest.

In contrast, my novel, so far, is primarily about my protagonist and her struggles adapting to her new living environment. The struggles are interesting, but they are not enough to sustain an entire novel. They do not push my character into changing as a person.

Marcelo in the Real World has four major plot lines:

  • Marcelo’s quest to succeed at work so that he can choose which school to attend (Layer 1).
  • Marcelo’s relationship with Jasmine, his boss (Layer 2).
  • Marcelo’s relationship with Wendell, the son of another lawyer in the firm (Layer 3).
  • Marcelo’s desire to help the girl in a photo he discovers in a file at work (Layer 4).

Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, would call these four plot lines plot layers, in other words “plot lines given to the same character” (p. 99). [Note: according to Maass, subplots are “plot lines given to different characters.”] Plot layers create textured stories that reflect the complexity of real life. In Marcelo in the Real World, the four plot layers noted above make Marcelo’s quest to succeed more challenging as well as more rewarding.

Plot layers alone, Maass contends, are not enough. He says that writers must then look for ways to link the layers together in “nodes of conjunction” (p. 99). These nodes might occur when a character from one plot layer encounters a character from another plot layer or when action in one plot line results in consequences that affect other plot lines. Several nodes of conjunction occur in Marcelo in the Real World.

Marcelo’s lunch with Wendell is an example of a node of conjunction. Marcelo assumes that Wendell has invited him to lunch because their fathers have encouraged their friendship. However, as soon as they order their meals, Wendell explains the real reason for his invitation: he would like Marcelo to help him “get Jasmine” (p. 122). Specifically, he would like Marcelo to bring Jasmine along on an evening cruise on Wendell’s yacht.

“Then all you have to do on the yacht is entertain yourself for a while up on deck while I take Jasmine below” (p. 125).
While Marcelo doesn’t immediately grasp Wendell’s intentions, he does know that Jasmine doesn’t like Wendell and he wants to protect her from him. Wendell’s request brings together Layers 2 and 3.

When Marcelo refuses to help Wendell “get Jasmine,” Wendell fires back with a new proposition. He will help Marcelo succeed at work (Layer 1) in return for Marcelo’s help with Jasmine. Now three plot layers intersect, leaving Marcelo in a quandary. Can he accept Wendell’s help at work without compromising his relationship with Jasmine?

This node of conjunction complicates life for Marcelo. As a result of lunch with Wendell, Marcelo gets a new assignment at work, which pleases his father but displeases Jasmine. Marcelo’s new task, organizing files relating to the firm’s biggest client, also leads him to the discovery of the photograph that launches Plot Layer 4.

As the story progresses, Stork continues to develop these four plot layers both independently and in relation to each other, resulting in a very “real world” portrayal of the complexities of real life.

(By the way, if you want to see how I analyzed the plot lines in Marcelo in the Real World, click over to Composition Book where I’ve posted pictures of a plot map.)

StorySleuths Tip #44: After establishing clear stakes for the protagonist, use plot layers to compliment, deepen and even transform the story arc.

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