By Alex Segura
“How do you plot?”
The question has bounced around my head since I got an email from Jay Stringer asking me to play nice and join the DSD crew in talking about our craft.
I’m not completely sold on the “to plot or pants” debate, which suggests that either you plot heavily before diving into the writing or you just wing it - i.e., start writing and see where it goes and then edit until you have a book. I don’t think it’s so black and white. I know my plotting, for example, is very gray.
My experience writing Silent City was one of trial and error - most first novels are like that. I started with a blank page and wrote a scene where we meet our protagonist, Pete Fernandez, as he awakens - hungover and regretting his misbehavior from the night before. This scene is still in the final book, but later, and it’s changed from the initial first person to third.
But when I put down those first few words, I had no idea where the book was going. I knew who Pete was - sort of. I also knew that he would stumble upon some kind of case while working at the paper and that it might involve a missing woman.
Pretty loose, right?
I wasn’t ready to handle that. I floundered. I spent time over-thinking the details and less time moving the plot along (or “writing”). I got a few chapters in and Silent City took a nap on my computer. Months passed. Finally, I started jotting down ideas for chapters (including a new Chapter 1). The descriptions became longer and the character mentions evolved into mini-bios. By the end of it, I had a fairly robust outline that incorporated my initial chapters and gave the book direction.
The rest is easy, right? So I thought. While having a detailed outline helped, it didn’t do wonders for spontaneity. I knew exactly what was going to happen - and I felt a little bored by it. So, over a few months, I went to what I see as the two extremes of plot vs. pants: the completely liberating blank page and the cluttered, somewhat recipe-like “detailed outline.”
But then the characters started doing things. One of them ran off with a bag of money. Another turned out to be a bad guy. Most shockingly, one of them died in an unexpected car explosion. None of that stuff - the cool, surprising things people who liked Silent City seem to bring up when I meet them - was in the outline. Thankfully, the outline - detailed as it was - still left just enough room for the characters to breathe. To get up and move around and determine that maybe the roadmap Alex created for them wasn’t that set in stone.
I remember trying to rest in bed, staring at the ceiling, after writing for a few hours and realizing the end was in sight in terms of a first draft. All the pieces were in play and I was going to roll into the epic, final battle that would reveal to the reader who the big bad was.
I couldn’t sleep.
The outline, as it was written, had it all mapped out. But something was missing. There was no twist-before-the-twist, no sucker punch to add weight to the final reveal. Nothing out of left field that still made perfect sense. Then it hit me.
I jumped out of bed and typed out a sentence. I’d would go on to write the actual scene the next day, but that line was enough. I slept soundly.
The sentence was brief, and changed the entire direction of a character’s arc in a way that made perfect sense but I hadn’t considered before. It also made the book more interesting and didn’t disrupt what was already in the outline.
So, the lesson learned from writing Silent City that I implemented most in the writing of my second novel was that while outlines are helpful, they should not be treated like scripture. Tweak as you go. Change. Delete. Let the characters do stuff. If the characters are pushing against the outline, maybe there’s something wrong with your outline. Don’t be beholden to an outline.
I read a great quote from comic writer Brian Michael Bendis this week that supports this. I won’t repost the whole thing, but it basically said that writers worry so much about plot, they forget about character and why they’re writing a story.
Don’t do that. Find the happy medium that allows you to feel like you have a complete story to tell, but don’t prevent yourself from being able to improvise and vamp a bit. Your characters will be stronger for it, and your readers will be surprised more often. If you’ve choreographed something, chances are your readers will be smart enough to figure it out, too.