Week 73

DPP_1303

DPP_1303 by Matthew Black, on Flickr.

I’ve had a sneaking suspicion the whole time I’ve been writing this draft that my plot wasn’t sufficient. That my story, like this bus, wasn’t going anywhere.

That’s right. Almost 130,000 words into the first draft, just 20,000-odd off the end, over 73 weeks in, I’m still not sure where it’s going.

I thought I knew what would happen in the final few chapters of my book (it was about all I knew when I started), but now I have that niggling feeling that your characters have to earn their ending. Have they?

Character – that mantra of storytelling bibles and how-to books – was safer ground. It wasn’t easy, but the kind of books I read were steeped in character, and I felt more at home when I was writing dialogue or the sort of detail that gives the reader a sudden insight into the sort of person a character is, or their real feelings. The way they claim something, then flick their hair. The things they notice. Their mannerisms.

I’m not really fussed what colour their hair is or what jacket they’re wearing.

Most writing guides recommend character charts, long, detailed descriptions of every character, from birth (or earlier – their parents and ancestors, maybe) to the end of the book, beyond even. These guides do not anticipate that you shall use the fact that they have stamps from Thailand and New York in their passport, or that they are registered with a GP surgery in Islington. Recording these minutiae is meant as an exercise in getting to know your characters. Authors should know everything about their characters, even if only a fraction of that is included or hinted at in the narrative they are composing.

Well, yeah. Sounds admirable.

I got very bored writing character charts. Sometimes ideas for plot came up while I was scratching away about their shoe size, but more often or not, the outcome was narrative noodling of the worst kind, paragraphs of thoughts and sensations and dimly felt emotions. Yawn.

It occurred to me that this kind of narrative onanism is exactly what some of my favourite writers – Henry James, Virginia Woolf – are accused of. Not very much happens in their novels, it’s true. But the reason I enjoy them so much is that I suspect, rather than character plans, James and Woolf had plot plans hidden away, where a myriad of possible events were scribbled down, or hidden, or written then elided, to manage the effect of development without plot that they and other writers like them seem to achieve so effortlessly. It’s not character development on its own – that’s the mistake I’m making – but the knowledge of the different turns in the road Mrs Dalloway could have taken, or the sudden realisation James’ characters undergo when they see they have been naive, deceived. They are alternative plots.

I’ve felt uncomfortable that I haven’t developed plot sufficiently, and found it difficult when I’ve tried to lift my story from its origins of personal experience (again: yawn) into something tangible, propelled by hope and foreboding.

I’ve tried the snowflake method, writing up “goals”, working out the “acts” of my story, attempting short synopses to get at the heart of my story, all the while circling that most difficult of things, and the element of storytelling character-fans and non-genre readers like me get most squeamish about: plot.

I have a card pinned to the wall in front of me with a list of five questions on it, which I ask myself at the start of every new scene (which won’t be any surprise to anyone who’s read Story by Robert McKee):

  1. What’s the lead character’s goal
  2. Why?
  3. Who or what stands in their way?
  4. What strengths will help them achieve it?
  5. What weaknesses will hinder them?

Nice, but they didn’t help me develop a plot. When I got to the stage of working out chapters, each one contained notes about hazy concepts like scenes (a word more suited to screenplays than novels), or the effects I wanted to achieve (she has reached a turning point, for instance), rather than things that actually happen to develop and frustrate the plot.

Or then there’s the three dramatic elements every scene needs according to David Mamet:

  1. Who wants want?
  2. What happens if they don’t get it?
  3. Why now?

This is better. This is getting somewhere. The second question in particular was one I hadn’t asked myself: what’s the peril in this story? Why should I keep reading? What could happen?

So I was surprised when sitting down to write this week for the first time in a while, and googling “plot outlines” and “how writers plot their novels” for some inspiration (hey, it takes me a while to settle down, okay? I can only go offline in stages, babysteps), to find one of the first results was actually quite useful.

Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps (yes, I know) is the first guide I’ve come across that suggests thinking about things in terms of plot.

First: the goal. Not character goal; story goal. More often than not it’s the same as your man protagonist’s goal, but it’s also a goal that affects your other characters as well.

The flip to the goal is consequence, ie what happens if the goal is not achieved, or what your protagonist is afraid of. It’s still thinking from the point of view of character, but in terms of outcomes and events.

The following six elements work in pairs just as the goal/consequence do, from requirements (what the character needs to do to achieve the goal) and forewarnings (the things that happen that suggest they won’t manage it), to dividend (the unexpected return to seeking this goal, or what the character learns) and cost (what they have to sacrifice in order to achieve it), and, the smallest plot elements of all, prerequisites (the things that need to be in place for requirements to happen) and preconditions (the rules that make those things difficult). Oscillating between these pairs is what keeps the suspense high – will they, won’t they – and your readers turning pages.

Taking some time out to list a few of each of these helped me see the events in my story much more clearly. It might not seem quite right to you (there are so many guides out there, it’s inevitable), but it nudged me in the right direction when I needed to bolster and clarify my plot.

I’ve said it before and been wrong, but I now have an outline that feels like a story that develops and antagonises in equal part. It’s a long way away from what I thought it would be when I started this process. It’s a lot creepier, too: my main character especially. Something tells me I would never have got to this development in her with character charts.

Word count this week: 849
First draft: 128,661