WCAD Walkthrough: Chapters 5 & 6

Subjects touched upon herein: contrast, point of view, theme, foreshadowing, and more stage-2 gardening.


The mamas and the papas

It’s been two years since Ben’s mom last laid eyes on him, and her response is a scowl. He maintains his good humor in the face of her lack of welcome, as if it’s the norm and not worth getting bothered about — likewise for rejecting his gifts and not calling him if something’s wrong.

Tally’s dad is the big, strong, gruff type who’s a marshmallow when it comes to his little princess, worries she works too hard, always leaves the light on for her, menaces good-for-nothing boys who sniff around her, and gives fatherly advice about robbing liquor stores.

Tally’s abusive mother made Tally and her dad feel like they were in prison. (The code they had tapped out through the cell wall between them metaphor came to be after deciding Tally’s dad used to work at a prison — sometimes word choice comes down to pulling insignificant little baby threads up to the surface to reinforce the appearance of their color in the palette.)

It hasn’t come up in the story yet, but Ben’s father was a philandering wife beater.

Tally almost exclusively references Wayne as “dad.” (When the rare exception occurs, I thought “father” sounded better in that particular sentence — sometimes word choice comes down to ear feel.) Her mother is always “mother,” never “mom.” (That’s another thing that might be invisible to readers, but it’s an important linguistic distinction to me.)

Ben swings both ways with “mom” and “mother,” depending on his ratio of adoration to frustration at any given moment. He refers to his father by endearments such as “an abusive, unfaithful piece of shit.”

Yo mama so rude…

I keep filter cards in front of me after the rough draft so I can see at a glance through what lenses the protagonists view the world — the fears, hangups, weaknesses, and neuroses that affect how they perceive, think about, and react to everything put in front of them — so I can stay in their headspace while I’m writing their parts. (Before I finish the rough draft, I don’t know the characters well enough to know what their filters are.) Point of view should never be interchangeable because no two characters should have the same set of filters.

You come home at night, the house is dark, you turn on the light, you go about whatever your business is. But suppose someone is scared of the dark. She leaves a light on when she leaves the house, anticipating the dreaded darkness even by the light of morning, but this time, the bulb burns out while she’s away, so she opens the door to darkness, and what should be an ordinary homecoming suddenly becomes an ordeal. “Fear of the dark” would be a filter to keep in mind while writing that character because it’s always there in her mind, affecting every decision it touches.

And there’s no point saddling some poor fictional slob with a handicap if I’m not going to exploit it, so I then look for opportunities to make it relevant in the plot. She can’t rent a great apartment because she would have to go all the way into the dark walk-in closet to turn on the light, so she ends up in this less-desirable-but-well-lit place instead. Her love interest takes it the wrong way when she flees from a romantic makeout session in some shadowy place because he doesn’t know she’s terrified of shadowy places and she’s too embarrassed by this stupid little-kid fear to tell him. A sibling harasses her about it — maybe a sibling who locked her in a dark closet when she was five.

Filters aren’t just randomly assigned quirks. They’re pervasive, emotionally impactful, inhibiting, and demanding. If she’s afraid of the dark, her story cannot take place in brightly lit places. If she’s afraid of the dark, her story demands darkness, and lots of it.

Character and plot are not separate entities. Characters steer plot, which transports them where they need to go. Plot crashes into trees and falls to pieces without the right characters guiding it to a destination. Where one goeth, whither must the other. Give the characters pervasive, emotionally impactful, inhibiting, and demanding filters, and then the plot is all about finding a rational series of situations to test those filters.

In WCAD, Tally is secretive, has low self-worth and high anxiety, and wants to be left alone (to generalize a few). She has a very different perspective from Ben, who blurts out whatever thought is in his head, for whom everything comes easily (except relationships), and who hates being alone (to generalize a few that contrast with hers). Ben will never worry about spending money (because he has plenty). If Tally gets through a scene without agonizing over a nickel, it’s only because she’s more worried about something else (because she’s broke). Ben views his long string of failed relationships as evidence of his character defects (because he wants one commitment that lasts and is the common denominator in all the failures). Tally views his string of relationships as social adeptness she lacks because her history consists of a couple of duds she has no interest in repeating (because her faith in humanity is in the toilet). Ben thinks taking her to the bar to show the whole town they’re together will prove to her he’s not ashamed to be seen with her (because he can’t see any reason he’d be ashamed to be seen with her). Tally thinks he doesn’t take her somewhere nicer because he’s ashamed to be seen with a hick stripper (because she’s so used to being treated like a hick stripper, she assumes everyone sees her as such). Each filter they have gets put through its paces repeatedly throughout the story, and they often conflict with the other’s.

I rarely do filters for secondary characters because I don’t like having them onstage so much that they steal the spotlight from the stars of the show and therefore don’t make them so difficult to understand that I need to be reminded what drives them.

However, in the rough draft, Ben’s mom came across as so bitchy in regard to Tally, I hated her. To stop myself from letting her run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and get eaten by possums, I made a card for her, too, to remind me that this girl broke her son’s heart so badly, he lost all will to pursue his future for six months and nearly lost all his opportunities to do so.


I wouldn’t be friendly toward someone who shattered my kid, either, and I would say whatever was necessary to discourage my kid from getting reinvolved with that person lest history repeat itself. She’s still way over the line of good manners, but she has a better excuse for relishing Tally’s fall from grace than a generic gossipmonger with no personal stakes.

Keeping the peace

Ben would do just about anything in the name of a few more minutes of peace. He’s an appeaser, and not just with Tally.

He couldn’t protect his mother or Tally from being hurt. He has a horror of inflicting more hurt upon them, in any way, so he’s outwardly agreeable with whatever they want, even when inwardly he’s not happy — thereby orchestrating a lot of his unhappiness.


Ben posited in Chapter 1 that only he and Tally knew about their relationship.

His mom and her dad aren’t as clueless as the kiddies like to believe — and neither has any great fondness for the other’s child as a result.

Go, Broncos!

The editor whose services I won’t be using again (for reasons other than sports ignorance) whined at length about “the football stuff.” My good editor and copyeditor, on the other hand, had even more insight into the relevance of the football stuff than I did when I wrote and rewrote it (insight I incorporated in revisions), so by overwhelming majority, the football stuff stayed. In the event we are the only three women who can appreciate its relevance, rather than being representative of 75% of the population, lemme ‘splain.

“You’re ready to trade in our QB for a newer model over one point? Didn’t any of the other players show up?”

“He’s in charge. Winning is his responsibility.”

“Tough job when he’s only allowed on the field half the time.”

Football, like a relationship, is a team effort, not one person’s responsibility. Everyone has to contribute. Everyone has to dependably do their part so everyone else can concentrate on doing their own part well so one person doesn’t end up stretching their efforts thin trying to hold everything together alone. One person can’t carry the whole team to victory.

“What we ought to do is get one of those young, dynamic quarterbacks who gets the first down even if it means diving headfirst into the defensive line.”

One of those young, dynamic quarterbacks he referred to as reckless showoffs any other day.

In football, as in a relationship, when being cautious has you on the fast track to defeat, maybe it’s time to try something reckless.

“You’re spoiling my post-defeat wallow.”

“I stand by my team when they’re down while acknowledging that losing always sucks.”

Tally’s having her own post-defeat wallow and would do well to stand by Team Tally when she’s down, while acknowledging that losing always sucks.

All of which sounds kind of thematic, don’t it?

I didn’t plan it that way. I wrote a dad/daughter scene with a casual discussion of the day’s events that I figured would get trimmed in revisions for lack of relevance, and life lessons ended up splattered all over the walls. As with everything else that finds its way onto the page, you get rid of the mess, or you make something of it. Unlike symbolism, theme (or armature, if, like me, you can’t say “theme” without an erudite douchebag accent and associated Grey Poupon face because every lit teacher you ever had made the written word a total drag) is actually structurally important, so I used what the story gave me.

Really, everything you need to know about life and love can be efficiently framed in sports metaphor. If I’d gotten into football and hockey sooner, I could have saved a fortune on therapy.

Omens, portents, and prophecies, oh my

Still in Act I, still setting up, but there will be less seeding from here on out because (a) most of the chapters are shorter and (b) the balance starts to shift gradually toward paying off what was set up previously.


(I’m looking at that image now and thinking there’s something deeply screwed up. The y axis shouldn’t be what it is because Setup looks like it’s at 100% for most of the course. Or it’s entirely the wrong form of graph. But my graph-making skills or lack thereof aside, all setup in the beginning turns to all payoff at the end.)

  • he didn’t burden her with his bruised feelings — expect Ben to sometimes not be any more forthcoming than any of the women he wishes would be more forthcoming
  • Those ugly slippers were the only gift he’d ever given her that wasn’t gathering dust in a closet. / She had refused his offer to renovate her kitchen, too. — expect Ben’s mom to not jump all over his offer to set her up in Seattle
  • Fuck the peace — expect Tally to be the one cause Ben’s willing to go to war over
  • bread she’d sold herself at cost from the bakery — expect Tally to view taking handouts herself as taking advantage, since she pays for the bread she gives to others for free
  • the timing coincided with her running out of money and options and having nowhere else to go — expect that quest for fame and fortune to receive quite a bit of attention, as often as its bad ending has been brought up
  • her mother’s car had crumpled like a beer can in the wreck — expect that booze + driving reference to be deliberate
  • Since I plan on avoiding him like a hornet’s nest covered in Ebola — expect that plan to not succeed, or this would be a much shorter book

Tending the sprouts

More ideas planted earlier are poking up.

  • Earlier, Ben expressed some doubt his mother would let him in the house — now we know that wouldn’t have been wildly out of character for her.
  • Earlier, Ben thought his mom would stay up washing sheets for him — now she’s washing sheets.
  • Earlier, we were advised nothing ever changes in Westard — now, if we haven’t yet seen enough evidence to convince us otherwise, Ben’s mom straight-up says, “Things have changed.”
  • Earlier, Tally’s financial difficulties were mentioned more than once — now we know the electric bill can be added to her list of worries (and since that subject also keeps coming up, expect it to get a lot of attention, too).

More planting, more watering, more watching. A farmer’s work is never done.

That seems to me like enough on Chapters 5 and 6, but if you hunger for other knowledge, comment away. Chapters 7 and 8 and the associated excerpt will be up next week.

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