Friday, November 4, 2011

Beat It

By Russel D McLean

Here’s the thing to remember:

You might want to do as I say, not as I do. Like any other human being I am given to whimsy, and find that I approach something different. Let’s look at like this:
THE GOOD SON was written one line at a time, barely knowing what was going to happen from one sentence to the next. I mean, I knew my character’s motivations and more or less what the backstory was, but I didn’t know what was happening from one line to the next. This resulted in multiple drafts and cutting and a real effort to pull the story into shape. There are several different versions of the book, but the one we wound up was the one I was happiest with.

When it came to THE LOST SISTER, however, I didn’t have time to mess about. I had to supply a plot synopsis and the first 10k words in lickety-split time. Depending on how my memory is working, “lickety split” as a unit of time can vary but let’s say that it was far less time than I was used to after THE GOOD SON. I mean, this one had to be written fast.

I was at an advantage of course. I knew – as I always do – the basic motivations for the central cast. I knew my opening scene. I knew (with minor variations) my final scene. But getting there was the trick. Especially as I had to submit a plot before the novel. Something I hate doing, for fear that I’ll run off the rails at some point in the writing.

But what I realised was that I knew how to plot. It was just something I hadn’t done in long form. Yet without thinking about it, I pretty much religiously plotted all my short stories.

See, when I was a would-be author, my dad and I both subscribed to Writer’s Digest. And back in those days a young chap name J Michael Straczynski wrote the screenwriting column (with occasional assists from another fella called Larry Ditillio). And of course I wanted to be a screenwriter, then, I really did. So I hung on these guy’s every word.

And I’m sure it was Stracsynski used to talk about story beats.

Beats saved my bacon (and still do - - I wrote the third McNee novel, which will be available in the UK late next year, using beats). Now my method may or may be the same as Straczynski’s. After all, writing is a bit like cooking. You may use the same ingredients as someone else but ten to one you’ll wind up putting your own individual spin on things.

So here’s how it works (at least for me):

you divide your story into five acts or beats. Real simple. Real clear. Something like this:

1. Introduce characters and situation.

2. First inciting incident and/or complications

3. Stick characters up at the very top of the tree.*

4. Throw those damn rocks.

5. Get them the hell down.

Then you start to flesh out those beats. One sentence and idea at a time. You write beats within beats. You answer questions about how or why things happen. You flesh out and out and out until you have something that you can then turn into a prose outline. But what you ensure at every point is that working within those beats gives your story a structure. And yes, when you start writing your story with those fascinating and stubborn characters you may have to sacrifice some beats, but at least you have a rough idea of what you’re doing and most of the time you’ll find that working to plot beats forces you to account for your characters actions in ways you never expected. Often I’ve had to swap character’s fates and destiny’s for the sake of a beat and every time its worked out better than I’ve ever expected.
If I’m working for myself, I mostly work with those five beats and sub-beats taped over the desk or open in a separate window on the computer that I can click back to. But like I say, I’m not s slave to them. If it feels right to sacrifice a beat I’ll do it. But I’ll usually make new beats to work out where this change takes the stories. And I’ll keep my beat list as a reminder, as a map, as a light in the dark world where you must balance plot and character.

But what is plot, I hear you ask? Oh, that’s simple. Plot is essential. As essential as character. Because without plot – with conflict, resolution and action – character is useless. The best characters in the world cannot come to life without something to do. And by planning out those beats, by working out the rough outline of a novel, you’ll ensure that you’re always giving those gorgeous, wonderful, flesh out creations something to do. And more than that, you’ll be able to keep track of what has gone before and what has to happen next saving you embarrassing conversations with your editor about why action later in the novel contradicts completely what happened at the start.

*For those who don’t know, one of the clichés of talking about writing is to say the essence of drama is sticking your charcaters up a tree and throwing rocks at them. Yes, to be a writer you basically have to be a complete bastard.

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