I had the following question today from fellow Cloudster, Eli d’Elbée:
‘I was wondering if I could pick your brain regarding outlining and plotting. I suspect my biggest problem is not having a clear idea of the whole thing before I start. I know my characters and I know the start and finish (both are already written), but there are holes in the middle.
How do you approach each book? Do you outline and then start writing? If so, are there particular techniques one can use? Are there any books/website on this stuff?’
Ah, a difficult question but one that we all face at times (although I can’t imagine writing the beginning and the ending before the middle). These are my views, for what they’re worth:
My own method is to produce a draft plot but I am always be prepared to change it as I go on. The characters do this for me as I write. I even split it into chapters with some idea of a hook at the end of each chapter, but these always change. So, I produce a kind-of synopsis which also includes a character list with some brief details of each player. Then a paragraph or two for each chapter from beginning to end. I also include links to various websites that I found useful in the research phase. I then refer to this ‘synopsis’ as I write to remind myself who did what to whom and when.
As for the middle of the story, try one or all of the following:
1. A major misunderstanding or conflict between the MCs that creates confusion and distress. The reader knows it’s a misunderstanding but your characters don’t. Then surprise your reader at the end but a resolution that they hadn’t expected.
2. An outside event that affects everything and changes the context for a while. This can be terrorist outrage, earthquake, tsunami, etc or simply crap weather, car crash or illness.
3. A red herring or two but be cautious as the reader doesn’t like to have his/her time wasted!
Remember character development and that the MCs have to have learnt and grown during the story so that they are different at the end. The reader must feel an emotional attachment with the experiences of the MC, although they don’t necessarily have to like them! Think James Bond; he’s a conceited arrogant killing machine but you still want to know what happens next.
As for references, there are plenty but I have used ‘The Plot Thickens’ by Noah Lukeman (http://www.lukeman.com/theplotthickens/) which is an interesting read and may give you lots of ideas. Actually, the free advice from the Writer’s Workshop is probably as good as anything. In the end, however, everyone works in their own way and the important thing is to write. If it’s rubbish, then cut or modify it, but write!
So much for the process. Back to me. Me, me, me. It’s part of the writer’s lot to have self-doubts and I am right there at the moment with The Collector. When I read it, it comes across to me as trite, unconvincing, a bit boring with not enough depth. I mentioned earlier that I’m reading Night Train to Lisbon and this is a book that has depth in bucketfuls.; maybe too much as nothing much happens in the story but you have to keep reading it. I guess that’s what makes literary fiction. Frankly, I like to mix intellectual content with action because it maintains my interest. I did this with The Zarathustra Principle which I still think is my best book. Frankly, with my latest WIP, I don’t feel that level of interest and wonder whether I shouldn’t put it to one side and try some other idea. If I’m not interested in it, then the writing is bound to reflect it. Ho hum. The alternative is to revise it to add depth.
What is depth? A child’s fairey tale has no depth, it’s a straight-forward narrative with two-dimensional characters and a predictable ending. A literary novel puts you right into the head of the main character and the writing has to be very, very good to achieve that – better than I can do, I fear, but then, literary novels don’t sell well. I looked for an illustration of depth and opened Mercier’s novel at a random page. The main character is learning Portuguese from a record course:
But now everything was different. Gregorius wanted to imitate the impetuous pace of the man and the woman’s dancing lightness like a piccolo, and repeated the same sentences again and again to narrow the distance between his stolid enunciation and the twinkling voice on the record. After a while, he understood that he was experiencing a great liberation; the liberation from his self-imposed limitation, from a slowness and heaviness expressed in his name and the slow, measured steps of his father walking ponderously from one room to another…..‘
That’s depth. You’re right in the author’s head. Another way he does it is in descriptive passages. We all know that the sky is blue and the grass is green and try to find original ways to say it but Mercier has a way of describing what the sky and grasss are doing, rather than what they are. ‘A gusty wind drove low-lying clouds over him…’ There are exampes on every page and that’s depth.
I think I’ll just read some more…..