Hidden Hinges, and the Messy Death of a Metaphor

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
My brain is oatmeal today, because yesterday I finished the first draft of the third Strange Angels book. So if I occasionally sound like a babbling idiot, that’s why. There’s a snapback involved in finishing any huge project. This one is all the more intense because I don’t get a break–I go right into last-minute Weasel Boy revisions and short-story reworking. Come August, when everything is turned in, I am going to be so, so useless.

Last week I talked about how writing is not a bloodless art. Several of you have asked me about the “hidden hinges” I mentioned at the very beginning of that piece. (Warning: I am about to beat a metaphor to death in this post. I AM NOT KIDDING.)

Now, this is purely personal terminology, YMMV and all that. I do structure my books vary carefully and put things in certain places for a reason. I tend to visualize a book like a tapestry or a fall of cloth hanging in a certain configuration, and the external and internal hinges are the places where I’ve inserted a hook or something to get the fabric to make the shape I want. It requires both fine close work (trees) as well as stepping back to take a look at how the whole damn thing is hanging (forest.)

What I call “external” hinges are big plot points, major parts of the plot. Smaller plot points are the folds of the fabric itself. Internal, “hidden” hinges are smaller, pretty much invisible underpinnings, and they come in two types: the personal and the reader’s hinges.

This won’t make a lot of sense without an example, so here goes.

In Working For The Devil, the sex scene with Dante and Japhrimel is an external hinge. It moves the story forward and introduces the basic tension in the second half of the book, the tension that was foreshadowed both by Japh’s treatment of Dante and by Dante’s own feelings of being an alien in her own world. The reader’s hidden hinge in that scene is where Dante talks about Japhrimel telling her things she had always wanted to hear. That feeling–that you’re waiting for the lover who will whisper the right thing in your ear–is amazingly human, and it is the reader’s entry into the scene, for all it occurs near the end of it. It’s not quite a payoff, but it is a hidden hinge and part of the reason why that scene works.

The personal hinge is just that–personal. It’s the part of the scene that makes it work for the writer, and no, I’m not going to tell you what my personal hinge in that scene is. It’s not what you think.

The personal hinge is the writer’s entry into the scene–it gives the writer what the scene is “about,” it emotionally invests the writer so that the writer can make it possible for the reader to be emotionally invested. It happens in the oddest places, and most times the reader’s eyes skip right over it. I have yet to identify a hidden hinge in a fellow writer’s book, and I have yet to have anyone guess any of mine correctly–or even mention them.

This is why reading is so important for writers. You have to read widely, in a few different genres, before you start being able to identify where the outer and the reader’s hidden hinges are. Sometimes the hidden hinges are missing–try as I might, I cannot find them in a lot of big “blockbuster” books. (Clancy and Dan Brown come to mind here.) This could be because there is no emotional point of entry for me in those books personally, or it could be because they’re not there. (I will leave that question where it lies.) I can read them for other reasons, but the satisfying emotional gestalt of story is missing.

Hinges are different than worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is how you dye that fall of fabric, but without the hinges it’s just a shapeless mass. Hoisting it properly and making it hang to make the finished shape you want requires structure–both the bigger structure of external hinges and the smaller detail-oriented structure of reader’s hidden hinges.

If the external and the reader’s hidden hinges are at variance or improperly balanced, the work isn’t going to “hang” right and will feel lopsided or misshapen. External hinges without internal hinges make for a choppy mess of events with very little internal logic and no reason to care about why these characters are doing those things. Internal hinges without external hinges are very hard to do, because a story without something happening, even if that something is purely internal, is not quite a story. Sometimes the reader’s hidden hinges can double as external hinges in a story with not much “going on” on the surface, but that’s a hat trick for other writers, not me. Purely internal stories are okay, but I prefer a little more bang and flash. Again, that’s a personal taste.

I didn’t find out about internal hinges until after my sixth novel or so. Before I had a fuzzy idea why some things worked, because I’d read so much and had caught the rhythm of storytelling. But around my sixth finished book I started being able to see the structure of a whole book inside my head like a 3-D model, and I was pretty much useless and excited for a week thinking about it and applying that sight to stuff I’d already written. Which held up okay, I guess, for someone who couldn’t see what they were doing while they were building it. I’d been working blind up to that point, just doing things instinctively, and now I could finally see what I was doing.

It was awesome.

This is part of why I am so adamant that writers cannot stop at their first finished piece and just flog that one, endlessly. I may be a dolt because it took me six effing books to get the structure model inside my head, but I would never have gotten there if I was still flogging smoke and being That Writer. There are two things about novel writing that new writers largely don’t get: that it takes a phenomenal amount of sheer bloodyminded practice/hard work, and that it’s different each time. Each novel’s process is different–the shape under the cloth is unique. Understanding how to get the cloth to fall the way you want requires that you practice enough to understand how cloth behaves, to get it to do what you want.

I warned you I would beat that metaphor to death, but I think I’ll stop now while it’s on the floor begging for mercy. I don’t have the heart to finish it off today. I must be getting soft in my old age. Either that or I’m exhausted from finishing that most recent book and looking at dyeing a whole new batch of cloth…

Oh, crud. The metaphor just died. Guess I killed it after all.

Keep writing!