Fountain pens and other useless diatribes
April 24, 2009
This is a question I get asked quite a lot. How much time do I spend plotting? Where does one start? Is it harder to plot crime novels than other ones? How do plots even come into being?
It's never easy to answer these questions. For one thing, the person asking is rarely a writer themselves. It's often a family member, or casual acquaintance who's curious about how I spend my time. The person often assumes that plot is the most important thing in a novel - and in some respects, they are very right. A straight "whodunit" cosy fiction read is always going to be a lot harder to sell to a publisher than a roller coaster thrill ride with more twists than my grandpa's fishing line.
So how to explain? The problem is that the people who ask about the importance of plotting are generally people who have never done it themselves. They've never had to wrestle unwilling characters into far-out situations, or come up with a new twist to make up ten thousand words just to get the story up to novel size.
To some, having a detailed plot on hand is essential to success. Plot-lovers include Micheal Jecks, a fellow crime writer who says having a detailed plot gives the story a natural flow, "A reader must want to continue with it," he says.
"And for that to happen there must be a steadyness to the tale."
Jecks writes all his scenes on post-its (big ones - three by two feet)and tacks them up to see if any one character has too much of the book.
Other writers find plots stifling - like trying to run on a treadmill in a room with no circulation. The further you go, the harder it is to breathe. I'm one of those people. Don't mean to offend the plot-lovers out there, but I'd sooner cut my hands off and type with my tongue than try to stick to a post-it tacked up on my wall.
The main disadvantage of a plot is that it stops the book growing organically. No matter how detailed your plot outline - which you may have spent hours on and paid heaps of money on giant post-its to make it look pretty - it's only when you actually start writing the book that you have the chance to get into it.
You finally meet the characters. You may have spent days writing "character notes", but you can't really know the character until you've seen them in action. This, to me, is so much more important. A great plot is all well and good, but without a fresh, interesting character to carry it off, it will always be a second rate book. The characters are what breathe life into the book, make a dull scene interesting, and make the reader really care about the outcome.
When Stephen King first began writing Carrie, he nearly gave up after the first few pages. It's not because the book may not have a market, or that the world of girls was strange and foreign to him - although those things were weighing on his mind. It was Carrie herself that caused the problem. He didn't feel like she was real. She was scared, naked and cold, afraid she might be bleeding to death and being pelted with sanitary products, and he just didn't care! He found it in his heart to feel sympathy for his wooden character by fleshing her out with memories from his high school days. The result was a bestseller.
It's the same with me (but without the best seller part!). If my characters don't feel real to me, then I won't want to spend time with them. The result is a lacklustre attempt at a hack novel. Sometimes, the characters take matters into their own hands. They'll go off in a direction I never expected - they'll think of an angle to a crime I never even imagined. The best part about not working with a plot is it gives you a chance to see exactly what your story is capable of, rather than what you expected it to be. And let's face it - if the outcome is a surprise to me, think what a shock it will be to the reader! When writing crime, if I need to insert a red herring or some circumstantial evidence - then that's what word processors are for! Re-write, people! In the mean time, getting involved with the characters means the book has more drive. More tang, more oomph!
Let me put a question to you: which do you like best? A twisty plot or real characters? Do you prefer to feel challenged or connected? Do you want a puzzle or an escape? A heavily plotted novel is just that - heavy. A good story idea with intriguing characters will always beat a high-flying thriller with paper-thin people who fit into every situation and belong to none.
Does that answer the question?