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.

Endings are really difficult, aren’t they?

I came to crime fiction really late. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 64, and then spent three years on a character driven trilogy before I decided to try crime writing. I read crime stories and I have some idea how they’re constructed and what makes them work. So why not have a go? How hard can it be?

Oh, the misplaced confidence of the (relatively) old!The-Three-Act-Structure

Online crime writing course: tick. Found and studied my notes on the ‘Three Act Structure’: tick, although I worried that genre protocols might make the writing formulaic. Then I plunged into ‘Cruel Tide’, a story about institutional child abuse, and ignored most of the genre protocols I’d identified. I refused to make it too graphic and violent; I  avoided the expected romance between my two main characters, and – mercy! – I left the ending ambivalent, with the goodies thwarted and the baddies apparently getting away with murder, literally.

I thought it was a good first attempt, but some of my readers were fretful. They wanted a ‘cosier’ theme, more romance, and the wicked to be punished. When I wrote the sequel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I bent towards these expectations a little more, but that’s the end of the plot spoilers. My ebook and Print on Demand publisher, Fahrenheit Press, dubbed the two crime novels ‘Cumbrian noir’ and I was actually quite chuffed about that. ‘Noir’ has great resonance: it conjures up unresolved wickedness, dark landscapes, claustrophobic interiors, moral ambivalence. Double IndemnityIf you love ‘Double Indemnity’ you’re a noir fan, and I do. So if I have a crime fiction sub-genre it’s definitely not cosy crime, nor classic police procedural, and there’s no ‘great detective’ who reveals all in the penultimate chapter.

So Cumbrian noir it is, and I decided to have another go, setting the story in one of the darkest times in recent Cumbrian history, the catastrophic foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. I’ve reached the point where I’m reasonably happy with Act 1, and Act 3 looked clear, important and achievable. But here’s the hard part, Act 2. Tension has to mount, complications are necessary, a few blind allies and red herrings come in handy. If it all sounds a bit meandering, that’s the problem. You have to pull the reader along into the breathless tension and twists of Act 3 and then leave things feeling reasonably well resolved by the end. Trouble with Act 2 is a common problem, apparently.

When Act 2 isn’t working, you’ve got some choices. A new character? A new sub-plot? An unexpected twist that raises the danger level? Or there’s something more radical, that might take more time to sort out: you can change the ending you’d planned.

Many writers recommend starting with the denouement and planning backwards from there, and it’s tempting. But sometimes as the characters develop they just don’t fit into the dramatic ending that seemed so attractive in your earlier plans. Or you realise that the underpinning theme that’s emerging from the story doesn’t chime with the original ending. You need to take a deep breath, go back to your outline, and start again, at least from the half way point to the end. It feels drastic, and you need to think hard about the next outline before continuing with the first draft, or you could be wasting even more time than you’ve lost already.

That’s my way out: my ending has to change, and I can see Act 2 taking a better shape already. Phew. Hope it works!

Planning a novel – I do it my way!

Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.

The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.

Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.

My first novel was a planning disaster, with failedpyper1 (1) attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.

When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people,  twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.

This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. planning-a-novel-index-cardsIf you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.

I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’

The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.

So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.

When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.

Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.

If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.

 

Do you plan your novel in detail, or not at all?

‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)creataive-brain1

If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’

Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.

Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.

I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, plan_novelconfusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.

The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.

So, are you a planner or a pantser?

In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!