I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.
Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.
In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:
- What are the methods of killing someone?
- Why are people murdered?
- Who might the killer be?
I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.
What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.
The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.
I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. Check it out – I’d like to quote it here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it here http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml
I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.
A few posts ago I wrote of the impending disaster of arriving at my penultimate chapter with 40,000 words short on my target. Since then I’ve been back at the drawing board thinking, revisiting my plan and occasionally weeping. I also discovered that my chronology was all wrong, with weekends where there should be weekdays and vice-versa.
I decided I need to get a grip and go back to basics on my plotting, to try to look at the structure of the novel and identify where I’d fallen down in my word production target – I know that sounds a bit like Stalinist economics but it is a practical consideration, novels are an average length and that’s what I’m aiming for.
So I started by going through a printed draft with the easiest task, sorting out the chronology. By having to read every scene afresh to look for date/time stamps I spotted quite a few areas where I’d skated over issues or, perhaps more importantly, missed the opportunity to add depth and colour to the scene. These were, obviously, marked up on my paper copy.
Then I remembered reading about a program called Scrivener. I’ve tried a number of different packages to help with planning and haven’t found one that suits my particular style but thought I’d have a go with this one as it is, reportedly, the best on the market. There’s an excellent 30 day free trial, where the days are actually available, that is, they don’t all have to be used up within a month, if you can only work on Wednesdays then the trial will last 30 weeks. Although a little complicated initially, especially if you don’t bother reading the manual, it does seem an excellent tool with the ability to plot using an index card and corkboard system, add an outline and notes to each card, stamp each card/scene with a status e.g. ‘To do’, ‘Completed’, etc, and to then write the text of each scene with the cards in view.
It took me a few hours to transfer the material I’d already produced but I’m now about a third of the way through my new outline with very clear indications of where the work needs to be done. Getting it done is quite another matter but at least I now feel confident I’m back on track.
I did worry it was just another diversion but then agreed with myself that if I hadn’t done something my project would be dead in the water. Instead of wasting a day or two trying something new I’d have wasted the year it’s taken me to get this far.
Yesterday I discovered one scene I’d written was on a Friday and another on a Sunday. The second one needed to be on a weekday – people at work, college open, etc – but if I moved it to a Monday there wasn’t enough action in the intervening period. It’s a crime novel and we can’t just allow our hero to let the trail go cold whilst he takes the weekend off. I think I can fix it but am wondering how to best sort out this type of problem at the plotting stage. Thoughts welcome.
Several months ago I was extremely proud of myself. I’d finished my plan for another crime novel, with every strand of the story worked out and every scene, plot point and character woven into a whole. True, as the actual writing developed, things moved about, small holes appeared in the fabric, but nothing too serious. I was happy with the way it was going. Then, a few weeks ago, I became uneasy. Something wasn’t right. Like a truck careering through the ‘bridge closed ahead’ sign, I was running out of road and couldn’t do anything about it.
I’m now a hundred metres from that bridge and disaster looms. I’ve three scenes to write and I’m 40,000 words short of my target size. What seems to have happened is that I’d (foolishly in hindsight) imagined all the scenes I’d planned would be the roughly same length, at around 800-1000 words each. In fact, they’re not. Some are longer, much longer but others are so short they take up the slack in the average and more besides. For example, my item ‘X tells Y that the hammer is his’, only stretches to a sentence or two and has become incorporated into a longer scene.
Solution? Abandon the truck now and save myself? Or, like the plucky hero of a Saturday matinee movie, keep driving and hope something unexpected will happen?
I know what I’m going to do, but I’m not telling – it would spoil the cliffhanger. What would you do?
I’m musing over a villain I want to dispose of and can’t decide between a number of options. This bad guy isn’t the main one in the novel, though he’s caused quite a bit of trouble for our hero, a police inspector, let’s call him Henry,including kidnapping him and attempting to kill him.The options are:
- Henry chases bad guy (henceforth known as BG) in car, resulting in fatal crash for BG;
- Henry chases BG through derelict building and floor/balcony collapses and he falls to his death;
- Henry chases BG through new building and he runs into electric cable, frying him;
- Henry discovers BG setting a fire in an arson attack, chases him and BG becomes trapped and incinerated;
- BG is attacking someone and their son (or other protector) kills him.
Just typing it out helps me see my preference. What’s yours?
Funny where the inspiration comes from. I downloaded an astronomy app this weekend, Night Sky Pro, and began thinking of where I might put a telescope if I bought one, again. Then I remembered that when I had one some years ago, it was usually too cold on clear nights to go out to use it. So I considered the option of building a shed, with an opening roof. But thought this still might not be warm enough. The obvious solution would be a paraffin heater. Dangerous though, unless the roof was actually open, because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Blam! How about a story where an amateur astronomer is found dead in his shed-cum-observatory, presumed to have been overcome by fumes. But, of course, our intrepid detective discovers this isn’t the case. I’ll need to put that one in the box marked ‘ideas’.
Where do you find your inspiration?