Plot, character and setting: which comes first?

When I’m talking about writing, explaining the balance between plot, character, point of view and setting is a helpful starting point for people who haven’t yet thought about how a novel is developed. downloadIn my West Cumbrian trilogy, the first novels I wrote, setting was the central ingredient. From my research about this amazing place and its history, I began to think about a key character who could carry the story. Having found her, I then had her interact with various other characters. There was some consideration of the plot in the first one, but mostly that developed as I went along, with a fairly quiet conclusion that I felt was an authentic way for the story to end. I didn’t really think about ‘the arc of the narrative’, or how my protagonist might have a ‘journey’.

At some point in those early years of writing I went to a workshop run by Matthew Hall and William Ryan, who had both come to novel writing from careers as barristers. Part of that workshop, introduced briefly but not fully pursued because of shortage of time, was the idea of the ‘Three Act Structure’ commonly used in films. Hall had spent some time doing film scripts and this was the structure he brought to the novel. I’ve included here a relatively simple representation of this notion: check it on Google and you’ll find various more sophisticated models.download

I was intrigued by the relative complexity of the ‘formula’ he presented to us, and read more about it after the workshop, but it always felt to me to be too ‘formulaic’, putting too much emphasis on plot structure, leaving character and setting as servants to the story. Or possibly I just didn’t have the patience to think the idea all the way through. My first interest was always in ‘where’ and ‘who’ rather than ‘how’.

When I moved into crime writing for the fourth book ‘Cruel Tide’, I revisited the thinking about the structure as ‘acts’ that build towards a climax, but still didn’t really reflect the formula in what I produced. Two more crime books followed, and the latest one, as yet untitled, is in production. Reflection on ‘structure’ as the first planning tool had faded almost completely over the intervening years. My books are well-received, within the limitations of that self-publishing brings with it. Many of my readers are Cumbrian, who are as interested as I am in the authenticity of the Cumbrian settings. Because I’m self-published I rarely get any professional reviews, or feedback from other professional writers. I rarely meet professional writers as I live in a remote place, a long way from the normal arteries of the publishing world.

Maybe that was why I suggested to the Kirkgate Arts centre in Cockermouth, an hour north of here in West Cumbria, that we should try to bring some Cumbrian writers together to talk about their work, and I would ‘host’ the event, interviewing the authors and sparking discussion among them. Long story short, the event happened last week was great success: three very different crime writers, all successful, with all sorts of exciting projects in the pipeline.

One of them was Paula Daly, from Windermere. 71LyA5zks6L._UX250_She writes what she calls ‘domestic noir’, and with such success that two of her novels have been adapted to a 6 part TV drama called ‘Deep Water’, which will air on TV here, starting in August. When the question came up of ‘where do a novelist’s characters come from?’, her answer was very interesting. She starts with structure – just as Matthew Hall had suggested in that workshop years ago. The ‘hero/protagonist’ is the centre of the action and the story tells her story, through various trials and tribulations to a final denouement. The characters all have a function, to support or to impede the hero’s progress, and their roles are planned early on. They are ciphers initially, created to serve the story. Only when the structure is clear are the characters then developed into three-dimensions, with their habits and mannerisms suggested by their preordained function.

Paula was really clear about this, and I was fascinated by her certainty about the importance of this way of working. Her plotting and planning is done in great detail, she said, and the writing itself is the least enjoyable part of the whole process. It sounded as if the actual writing was almost a chore, an anti-climax after the excitement of developing the narrative. She sees the story in a series of filmic episodes, and it could be written as a screen play rather than continuous prose.

Could I do this. Do I want to? The upside is that stories written this way are almost tailor-made for adaptation into films or TV. The setting is almost immaterial: you use whatever setting is most accessible and attractive to the film-maker.

I’m still thinking, wondering whether this approach is possible for me. Do I have the patience do achieve it, or sufficient ambition to follow the rules? Maybe it’s the idea of ‘rules’ that I have trouble with. I have always been a contrarian and maybe too old, or stubborn, to change my ways.

 

 

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Why am I always in a hurry?

The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’ unnamed

I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.

Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’

I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, unnamedauthor of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?

Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.

The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.

Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’

Opening paragraph: it has to be good!

hardback bookAlmost at the end of the writing and editing process on the new book now, and the last thing on the list of issues to deal with is the opening paragraph. The current version has been written and rewritten countless times over the past few months and before I’m done it’ll be started all over again. Not many lines, maybe half a dozen sentences, but I want to get it as good as I can.

It’s always a challenge. In a short space you have to give the reader a sense of place, time, character and the impending story, and every word counts, like poetry. It’ll be the first thing the curious potential reader will look at, and probably the first thing I read aloud when I’m presenting the book. I’ve read the first paragraph of ‘A Good Liar’ many times over the years since it was published and I’m still pleased with it, and I want to feel the same about the first paragraph of this book too. It’s almost there, but it’s still too clumsy. I’ve tinkered with it until the words start to blur. Now’s the time to start it all over again.

The other crucial section of course is the ending, the final few sentences. All the major plot points are sorted out by then, no more twists, just a ‘human interest’ scene and a shred of dialogue to leave the reader interested in what might come next. I think I’ve got that. So the first paragraph will keep calling to me until the deadline for sending it to the designer is upon me, or I just can’t bear to look at it any more. In either case, by the end of next week it’ll be done. Thank heaven.

Character, setting and story: the perpetual balancing act

When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.

GoodLiar_COVER.inddReaders love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.

Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. CRUEL_TIDE COVER FRONT reduced jpg‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.fatal_reck-front-cover-1

In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?

My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.

A child’s Point of View: unreliable or devastatingly honest?

I’ve written before about the challenge of writing from a child’s point of view. To some extent, the child is an unreliable narrator as their view of the world is coloured by youth and inexperience and possible misconceptions. But there’s always the possibility that the child will see things as they truly are, uncluttered by notions of what ‘ought’ to be visible. the Emperor's new clothesThe ‘Emperor’s clothes’ is the classic example: whereas adult viewers see the Emperor  luxuriously clad as befits his/her status, the child sees that the Emperor is in fact naked. The child may say so, but will not be paid attention to because he/she is ‘just a child’.

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings shall come forth wisdom.” That’s a biblical quote, in which ‘wisdom’ is equated with ‘truth’.

There are two children in my new novel. One of them is central to the action, first encountered on page 1 and staying centre stage for much of the story. Writing from her POV meant getting into the mind and reactions of a fairly unsophisticated young person, biologically but not personally mature. Reaching back into my own memory of being that age was quite a shock. Had I really noticed what happened around me and analysed it in that way, so intense, so sceptical? To double check, I recalled my own child at that age, and the hundreds I’d encountered at school during my teaching years. It seemed to me that some perceptions were sharp and accurate, and some others were missing altogether. Adults may see something that the child misses completely – hence the ‘unreliability’.

from_a_child__s_point_of_view_by_nxxosThe other child in my latest story is younger, further back in my memory and beyond my teaching experience. This voice was harder to capture. One thing I was sure of however: this child is more ‘wise’ than those around him give him credit for. He may not say much but he misses very little of what’s going on, even though he may not understand all of it. He will offer what he knows only if asked directly, and demonstrate his knowledge in unconventional ways. Interesting. It creates tension that is subtle and quiet, but still intriguing to any reader whose senses have not been dulled by too much ‘action.’ I hope it works.

 

Do villains need likeable traits?

Maybe it’s the optimist or the humanist in me, or just naïveté, but I have trouble reading or writing about a character who is unquestionably and irredeemably wicked to the core.

I recognise that such characters are can be useful to a simple story.

baddy imageFrom pantomime onwards, everyone enjoys booing the villain and seeing her/his downfall, and the same is true of some modern psychological thrillers so that the fear can be cranked up as the ‘goodie’ (or ‘less baddie’) is faced with an implacable foe. Sometimes it’s their very badness that makes the character entertaining: the Devil in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the most interesting being in the work. But I still prefer to introduce some nuances. Weakness in the villain may produce a lower level of fright, but it can add to the tension in more subtle ways.

 

My villain in my current ‘work in progress’ is a formidable person, brave, resourceful, risk-taking, committed to his vision of a family, even if that’s delusional. He is also violent, self-centred and unable or unwilling to consider the long-term outcomes of his behaviour.

boy in prison

Apparently this last is the fundamental flaw in many young men who find themselves incarcerated: a colleague of mine who worked with young offenders was struck by the high proportion who seemed not to understand the steps along the road that had led them to conviction and imprisonment.’How did this happen?’ was their cry, and the answer was found not in their own behaviour but in ‘bad luck’, conspiracies and the actions of others, not themselves. I think in ‘eduspeak’ it’s called ‘external attribution’ and is a factor in many negative outcomes for students.

If a villain is likeable at all, I can find the emotional and moral ambivalence which I’m after in both my reading and writing. My interest in seeing both sides of people and situations is not universal: it doesn’t, for example, encompass the current President of the United States for whom I cannot find anything but contempt. But almost everyone else has some traits that might be deemed likeable, or at least understandable.

I suspect that some of my readers like things to be more straight-forward, and are shocked to discover some of the frailties of characters they want to like. such as Jessie Whelan in my first novel ‘A Good Liar’. The title of that book was chosen deliberately as a play on ‘good’ in relation to lying: Jessie has to be an effective liar, but is still a good person. I expect those readers may be similarly anxious about feeling just a tiny bit sorry for a person who does bad things. Never mind. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

 

First audiobook!

At last, it’s done!

Audiobook covers

I started on this project months ago, thought about it, blogged about it, struggled with the abridging, rehearsed, found a recording studio, got help and did it. Then the master discs sat and looked at me for a while: what was the point of all that work if I didn’t know what to do next?

Thanks God for a competent and supportive partner with experience of packaging. ‘I can do that’, he said, and he did. He researched the best deal for duplication and packaging, worked on the design, and the first batch was delivered last week. You can buy it with Paypal for £10 – you can’t get much for £10 these days – and this would make a great gift. Just go to ruthsutton.co.uk and it’s the first item in the Bookshop.

It looks really good, but I still daren’t listen to it. I know it’s OK, and my commitment to the book and the characters comes out in the reading, but it’s almost too personal. At one critical moment I was close to tears reading it and had to stop. There’s something about the voice that brings the words alive.