Writing My Seventh Novel – Part Seven

Plotting. When it comes to writing there is no question of whether to plot or not to plot, it is an integral part of the story building process. Events have to happen for the story to move forward. This is true even where the tale is character driven. How successful a writer is at spinning their yarn is reflected, at least in part, in how the plot helps develop the story.

With historical fiction the facts of the particular event can act as good signposts in the plotting process. For example, with The War Wolf the invasion of north England by King Hardrada of Norway and his ally, Tostig Godwinson, is a historical fact, so I knew that I had to work it into my story. The same was true for the eorls Edwin and Morcar arriving in York and choosing to fight the Vikings at Fulford Gate. Of course, the outcome of the battle was also recorded. The only thing missing was the actual story, which is what made the project attractive to me. The established points were my markers for guiding the story.

In Mesozoic I had no such pre-established points of reference for my plot; I had to make them up myself. This was not a chore, it was actually a lot of fun. I knew the basics of what I wanted from the first draft. I developed the plot to get the characters from Point A to Point C via Point B. The plot is a kind of roadmap for the story. It is the main thread that pulls all the other elements together and ultimately makes sense of the story itself. Having a good plot allows the writer to pace the story, introduce new characters, have exciting events happen, and make revelations; all the things that keep a reader reading. The book develops a logic of its own so that no matter how fantastical the tale might be it remains believable to the reader. So, how do you write a plot?

This is just how I do it, other writers may have an entirely different approach. I use the first draft of the story as  the basis of the plot. I mentioned previously about the style-sheet that I create using an Excel Spreadsheet. Just to recap briefly, the style-sheet lists all the characters that appear in the novel and is useful for editing the manuscript. I also tend to include my research in the in it and refer to the spreadsheet as a workbook. Kind of like a jotter I suppose. However, one of the useful things about Excel is that I can put hyperlinks in to webpages of interest. I have found that creating a page for the plot is also very helpful. Using the workbook I get quick access to lots of important information that I have collected and collated during the writing process.

When I started developing he plot for Mephistopheles I knew that I wanted the book to begin with a violent and exciting raid on a mad villain’s mountain lair, but I also knew that the story did not start there. I had established a timeline that began many years previous to the opening of the book. It included key events, both historical and fictional, for example, the date the Wall Street crash and when a key character was born. I find it very useful to be able to refer to actual historical events, it helps weave a thread of credibility into what might be a very speculative tale. Also, such events can also influence the plot itself.

This book is something of a mystery thriller. Thrillers are, by their very nature, exciting. They have to be paced properly, which is usually faster than most other forms of fiction. The mystery also has to be explored properly. If the truth is revealed too quickly then the mystery is dispelled and that will change the nature of the story, which could be a good thing if you are aiming for it, but a bad thing if it happens simply because you got the plot wrong.

Having reached 30,000 words with the second draft I paused to reflect on the plot so far. The story seems to have progressed very quickly and I was concerned that I had revealed too much too soon. A review supported this notion; I need to work on the plot more. The information being released by characters and events is fine, the rate of disclosure is the problem. I use the word ‘problem’ here in a descriptive rather than critical sense. The timeline that I have created in my workbook illustrates the fact that events are moving slower than the information is being disclosed to the reader, which means that I am in danger of running out of the mystery element before I get to the planned end of the book. I should point out here that at this stage of the writing there are no chapters as yet. This is a conscious decision on my part. I have not found creating chapters as part of the writing  process useful in the past. They are very useful in the reading of the book, I agree, but for me they seem somewhat artificial in the creative process itself. I leave the chapters until the editing stage.

Using the timeline I can see where inserting a particular event might benefit the story. How I get to the event and the rational for it occurring are things that I have to work out in my own mind. A clumsy plot is one where the author creates situations without consideration for the logic or need or even the viability of the events that are happening. This can lead to the reader either predicting the event, therefore losing the element of surprise, or, even worse to my mind, questioning it. I have read more than one book where the plot has apparently gone off on a tangent for what appears to be a very spurious reason and this has had a negative impact on the whole credibility of the story.

Reviewing the 30,000 words that I have so far written lead me to spotting opportunities for further development in the main characters and the story itself. I realised that I need to include more elements of mystery and drip-feed the facts a little more slowly. In consideration of this I did research on where I want to the story to ultimately end in a geographical sense. I think that I have found a location for it, which is actually going to prove very useful for helping the plot develop. To get to the location the protagonists are going to have to use that staple of adventure stories, the long journey. Having recognised a logical need for the journey I can now pace the story accordingly and create a series of events that will, hopefully, maintain the excitement and the suspense and allow for the release of vital information to the reader in a timely manner.

Recording all of this in my workbook gives me an objective view of the plot itself as it develops. The links between major events can be forged so that the narrative progresses in as natural a style as possible. Nothing that occurs should make the reader take a step backwards and say; ‘hey, hang on a minute, why did that happen?’ Instead, they should be captured by the story-telling and become further immersed in the book. Developing the plot is essential to achieving this. It can sometime feel like an abstract or even artificial thing to do in respect of the actual writing of the book but I believe that it also very important. A writer who lacks a conscious awareness of the plot and how it is being followed is not really going to produce an enjoyable tale.

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