Week 84

You only have to take a look at a writer's book shelves to know their weak spot: some will have brightly coloured paperbacks on how to bring characters to life, some will be stacked with grey, austere spines promising the lowdown on grammar and sentence construction, and some (mine) are full of books on plot. 84

Over the past few weeks I've been working hard on plot, trying different methods to come up with ideas, laying them out in spreadsheets, picking up my favourite books and looking at how plot develops.

All this planning makes me worry I'm avoiding the matter in hand - writing - and inventing new forms of procrastination for myself, ones that require Excel so must be doing something. I sometimes think an amnesty and display of abandoned spreadsheets would provide such pathos - so many plans, so many budgets, half-thought, then left. (Hey, maybe I should write a novel using spreadsheets.)

Anyway. In actual fact these last few weeks of planning have been surprisingly generative: writing almost seeps out at the seams, little ideas, scenes, confrontations, lines of dialogue.

My job now is to bring structure to it all. My first draft was too associative, all over the place and directionless. I'm as big a fan of Virginia Woolf as anyone, but I knew my writing could do with a bit of cause and effect, or causality as E.M. Forster put it:

Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died, and then the queen died” is a story.  “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.  The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.

Supposedly there are two types of writers: planners, and the so-tweely-named-it-actually-pains-me-to-use-it 'pantsers'. They write by the seat of their pants, you see? Plot and causality comes to them more easily, as they move from scene to scene asking, what next? What would happen after that?

I fall somewhere in between: I can see the wider picture of my story, but not the detail, or, more specifically, not the detail that matters. I can write a hundred details that indicate a particular feeling, or a frustration, but nothing that transforms those feelings into action and provides motivation. Motivation I thought would come from character. But characters that seemed strong and archetypal were fuzzy and out-of-focus up close. I realised they would only come into focus when given a particular situation, and those only arise when you think of why they're in that situation and what they're going to do... or, plot.

I remember reading Aristotle's maxim that "character is action" - probably about the time I read Hamlet and saw how the thought skewered him - and finding it rather glib. Turns out that an ancient philosopher whose thought and influence echoes through the centuries knows a little bit more about it than me. He was right. Character needs the nudge of external events, and external events have to be carefully chosen to produce the required effect in a character. You can't do one then the other - they have to be thought about at the same time.

Bringing character in line with action seems to me where good writing really lies, not in the construction of a well-turned sentence or a vivid description of a tree, but in the blending of form with motivation. It's hard. My main character has changed so much. The entire plot has changed - it's about something else now. When someone asks me what's it about, I can answer.

Linda Aronson makes a distinction in her book the Twenty-First Century Screenplay between the "spark" and the "heat". The spark is the hook, what's interesting about a story, and I have always known what mine is. The heat, on the other hand, is what drives it, makes it boil and simmer.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661