What is the difference between a series of related events and a plot? I have been mulling this question for a few days now, since completing Turnskin by Nicole Kimberling. The book has plenty of events, and some of them lead to other events to provide a narrative, and there are even a couple of problems the main character faces, but did this story have a plot?
In the end I’m forced to say, “not so much.” So what is missing?
The beginning was promising. We are introduced to a character who is different, living in a rural town where he is the only one of his kind. He is a half-breed human and shape-shifter, and in this world the human majority has placed severe limits on the rights of the shapeshifter minority. Not only is he a shapeshifter in a community of humans, but he’s also a Sensitive Artist in a hick agricultural town. On top of that, he’s gay.
That’s a lot of potential from a thematic perspective — bigotry, the struggle of the creative spirit, forbidden love — but those don’t qualify as plot. Not on their own, anyway.
Our hero falls in love with a Bad Boy. A killer, in fact. Bad Boy has to skip town when a body is discovered, and when it looks like suspicion might fall on our hero, he runs off to the city. “A bit of a reach, but perhaps the start of an actual plot,” I thought at the time.
Our fish-out-of-water story, meanwhile, has turned into naïve-country-bumpkin-in-the-big-city story, losing focus on some of the potential themes but gaining others. Before he even gets to town he’s warned three times about the bad people who live there. Fortunately he has family in the city who are in just the right position to give his Artist career the exact boost it needs.
I could go on, but let’s just leave it at this: almost every event in this story is something that happens to the main character. The guy never comes up with a plan or even articulates a goal, beyond “stay with my boyfriend and write plays.” He bumbles into trouble and is bailed out by others.
This book would have been way more interesting if it was told from the point of view of the Bad Boy. As it was, take away the homosexuality and this relationship would fit well in a crappy romance novel. Bad Boy is only ever bad offstage; he’s never frightening or threatening toward our hero, and in the end the Bad Boy’s Artistic Soul is liberated and they live happily ever after. Ho hum.
At least the Bad Boy undergoes some sort of change. I can’t say the same for any of the other characters. In the end our hero gets what he wants simply by being talented and being in the right place at the right time – more than once. Exactly once he puts his foot down and makes something happen on his own, although I only give him partial credit because he’s cornered first and has no other way out. How can you cheer for someone who doesn’t do anything?
I wonder if Kimberling set out specifically to write an urban fantasy with a homosexual romantic angle, and accomplishing that goal blinded her to the need to still put a real story in place behind it. Good romances have flawed people fighting themselves as much as any external battle, and those flaws threaten to ruin everything. The characters make plans and work for what they want (or think they want). In Turnskin, even the potentially powerful themes she begins to develop go neglected.
What’s the difference between a sequence of events and a plot? Volition has something to do with it. People who face a central problem and act to make things go their way. Characters who learn and adapt even as the stakes get higher. It’s the difference between Rocky and Rambo. It’s the difference between this book and a story.
It’s also the difference between many things I’ve written and a story. Something for me to pay attention to as I lay the keel for Immortal Flesh.
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