Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gunpowder, Treason And Plot.

By Jay Stringer

I've admitted this before, I think, but I wrote my first book by accident. I'd always intended to write a novel some day, but Hadn't intended to write one then. The way I stumbled onto the first full draft taught me what kind of writer I am.

I was a film student and a failed comedian. From telling jokes, writing scripts and editing short films, I'd picked up a grasp of structure. I was confident -too confident- that I knew how to tell a story. And I had a few bold and silly ideas about writing a crime film. What would it be like, I thought, to have a P.I. film set in Wolverhampton. Where the character was walking the mean streets of a post-industrial midlands town, rather than a black and white American soundstage. Where the script was full of fast, hardbitten dialogue, but it was spoken with my local dialect. Where there were slightly crooked cops, but they were crooked in the same way as any other civil servant, bored and looking to fiddle their expenses in some way, rather than gun toting mavericks.

So I thought, one day I'll write that script. I never did.

At some point I decided to see what that plot would be like as a short story. I started to write, and it was about a bartender who works as a PI in his spare time, who gets caught up in a murder mystery, in a town where murder mysteries are unusual. And I had fun with that for awhile, but I was running on empty. I hadn't had anything more than a jokey idea of inverting a few cliche's, and the story wasn't interesting me. But there was another guy at the bar, in that first scene. He had an interesting background, and didn't want to give much away about himself. He was slightly more criminal than he wanted to let on, and wasn't the most reliable of narrators. He interested me. So I kicked the bartender to the curb and let the new guy tell his story, and before I knew it, I had a messy, broody and wordy 80,000 word first draft. That first draft bore little relation to my original idea, and the final draft bore little relation to the first draft. But when I read through it, I can see the signs, I can see the books DNA.

I learned that, if I sit down with a plot in my head, I'll struggle to write. But if I can use an idea of a theme to discover a character, then that character will lead me to a plot.

I relearn this every time I sit down. Last year McFet and I were collaborating on a project. He'd created a bunch of characters and was writing the first part of a story, and I was writing the next part. In theory. I sat and thrashed out a plot. I had a scene by scene break down of what needed to happen -the only time I've tried that- so I knew what needed to happen, to whom, and in what order. If I had the story already, surely It would be a breeze?

Nope. Nothing happened for a long time. I probably drove McFet crazy with random emails about how much I didn't 'get' certain characters, and if he could tell me what music they liked, or what they talked like. I learned again that if I didn't know the characters, at least a little bit, I couldn't write. At some point the penny dropped. I don't remember what it was, it was probably a comment from McFet, I don't know. Something happened, and I knew the characters I was writing. And then the story happened. And the characters all did pretty much what I'd planned for them to do, and the story ended with the same final scene I'd intended, but I couldn't have done it without having the characters voices in my head.

What Dave said on Tuesday is true. Each time is different. I've written two crime novels, I'm halfway through an adventure story, and I'll be writing a third crime novel next year. Each one has been different. Each one is a wrestling match. So much of the work that many writers put into preparing the plot, such as the structure, the themes, the character arcs- these are all things I do in rewrites.

I find my plot by finding my characters. How to find a character? Well, that's for another time.

I want to give a few practical tips this month, so for the sake of plotting, let's just assume you've already got your character. Now get a pen and paper. Or a laptop, I'm not fussy.

-What does your character want, more than anything else in the world? Write that down
-What is the quickest way for that character to get to what they want? Write that down.
-What aspect of themselves is your character most ashamed of? Write that down.
-Who, or what, would be the biggest obstacle to your character getting what they want?
(you guessed it, right that down.)

So you have a list. It's not a big list, but you'll find you've already got more ideas spinning around in your head than when you were staring at a blank page. The next step is also pretty simple. Write a paragraph about each item on your list. By the time you've finished, you've got enough of a plot to get started writing your story.



1 comment:

Sue H said...

Great practical advice - I willbe trying out this strategy!
;-)