A couple of weeks ago I gave a workshop at the Winnipeg Writer’s Festival about characters in a continuing series and I started with these quotes:
“We start with a theme, or a situation and then come up with the best characters to tell it.” David Simon, creator of THE WIRE.
“I start with a character and think about the kind of situations he can be in.” Elmore Leonard.
I like those quotes because they are pretty much opposite approaches and they both work so they lead nicely into the discussion about there being no rules, just whatever works for you.
This week we’re going to have a little discussion here on DSD about plot and structure and it’s probably going to come down to agreeing that there are no rules and you have to find whatever works for you. I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me.
My last novel, Black Rock, and my next one, A Little More Free, are set in 1970s Montreal and are pretty much police procedurals with the same main character. And they both have a lot of real events in them that follow the chronological order in which they happened.
There isn’t really any reason for the correct chronological order other than I decided to do that so I did it. I don’t think there’s any obligation when dealing with facts in a novel to be true to them, the only obligation is to be true to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Whatever works for you.
But once I decided to do this I went from being a pantser to a plotter. And once I did that I decided to go all in and I made a timeline of the historical events I thought would be in the book (they didn’t all make it in). For each novel I knew the historical event I wanted to start with and end with.
I don’t imagine it makes any difference when writing the novel if these events on the timeline are historical or completely made up. I didn’t use every event on my timeline and I made things up when I needed to.
But I never thought about any of the things that Kristi mentioned in her excellent post on Sunday. I didn’t divide the book into acts, I never considered FIRST PLOT POINT or THE ATTACK or the MIDPOINT or any of that so maybe I’m using some hybrid pantser-plotter abomination. Whatever works.
I think a few things have come with the experience of writing 8 or 9 novels (and getting a few of them published) and maybe the most important is the understanding that at the three-quarter point everything will feel like an unholy mess with so many loose ends that it will be impossible to bring it all together in any coherent way. And that maybe if it isn’t like that at the three-quarter mark you’ve taken too direct a route to the end and it might not be involving enough for the reader.
Because not involving the reader is the only thing that doesn’t work.
I think that as readers to a certain extent we intuitively know how a novel should play out without using any type of plotting or outlining device and you've obviously know how a novel should read and write that way. I know that my reliance on plotting comes from insecurity - as a writer coming from a newspaper background who doesn't have an MFA and never studied creative writing. Sort of like how I cook - I am not confident enough to deviate from the recipe and experiment. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate I suppose! : )
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