Don’t cry for me, onion cleaner…


It’s all a fiendish plot, devised, needless to say, by fiends, who were just being fiendly…

Last week I got asked about how I plotted, and, particularly, how I arrived at an emotional climax at the finale.

Which, um, is a lot more difficult than it seems, and is almost certainly not something there is a universal recipe for. Trust me on this, if there was, people would use it for a lot more than writing stories. There is no ‘right way’ and writers achieve success in what seems like a different method for every person. I can only tell you what I do. That’s neither prescriptive nor ‘right’. It just works for me – and when I explain, I’m sure many of you will take a long look at my books and say: ‘That’s so obvious now. Why didn’t I see it before? (which is rather how the best mysteries work – the clues are there, throughout.)

I’m fairly well known for tight, rather Byzantine plotting, which all fits together to give an almost inescapable, but often less-than-obvious ending (until afterwards when you say: ‘that’s so obvious and natural, why didn’t I see it before?’ (and yes, I consciously imitate the technique of the great detective plotters like Agatha Christie.) To explain my process, and how that happens naturally as a result of that… the climactic end is where I START. So the answer is I don’t engineer that emotional climax… I have that.

What I do, effectively, is to work backwards, to build the elements that will give me that climax – usually both of action and emotion. For me the trick comes in making that unexpected BUT eminently logical and plausible. So I have my climax, and then work out the obvious (if they exist) ways of reaching that point and either work at it from one two angles – either making those obvious ways SEEM impossible and then building in the key factors to make them possible and plausible and preferably inevitable at the denouement, or making those impossible, and finding a more ingenious way around the problem. As I like my heroes to heroes of heart and thought, rather merely thews, well, I prefer the latter. It does however always involve subtle foreshadowing. As I’ve said before, many of my stories come out of someone saying ‘that’s impossible’. That’s one of the things about the position of the author – nothing is impossible – you can change the characters, the world and circumstances until it is not just possible but has to be that way. That is why co-incidence is for the lazy writer, or that implausible stuff, real life.

When it comes down to actual construction – I have my finale, I have how that happens, and the emotional pay-off and prices. I then need to make the structure that gets me there. For me the end is woven in, right from the beginning (which is why some so called ‘structural editors’ are a waste of breath let alone time. They edit as they go – without seeing the end – and wreck foreshadowing, and foundational build).

To get there: I tend to break the story down into scenes, each of which builds on the overall story and fills in crucial parts of that foreshadowing – both of the development of the characters and the story-line. The character would not do that later, had he or she not experienced that earlier. Thus their actions flow logically, and the pieces necessary to build the conclusion are consequences that you build in. Each scene in itself is a small finale, which I then work back.

Look, this is a complex method, which involves carrying a lot of story in your head at once. It’s not for everyone, and there are many great books written by ‘pantsers’ – who plot as the characters lead them, and have no idea where or what the end will be. Some of them produce better plots than I do. The one advantage that I have is that it is easier for me to weave meta-threads subtly into books. This is true too with little details I feel add something to the book – books literally starting in the evening (or winter) and heading into darker and darker scenes… and then emerging into dawn (or spring) is something I have consciously done.

Now it is fair to say, that the story does not always follow the prescription when I finally come to write it. Characters change and grow as I get to know them. Sometimes I need to go back to my plot. Sometimes I just let it carry me.

So: that is how I do it. What works for you? Had any of you worked it out? It’s rather obvious and logical now, isn’t it?

On another topic: Australia has a small sf/fantasy writing and publishing arena of its own. Of course it overshadowed and influenced by the bigger brother (UK – with whom Australia has always had a slightly uneasy ‘Commonwealth’ publishing commonality, where the UK expected to get a lot and not give much) and the biggest brother the US. There’s a little unhealthy (to my mind) imitation of the worse aspects of the wider traditional publishing world, and a little ‘oh Europe/the US is so much older/bigger and better’ trend following, but many Aussies still retain a welcome independence, and pride in their own. They do a ‘snapshot’ of local authors, for which I was interviewed. You can find the interview here (from my interviewer, who is a freelance editor and proof-reader – you may want to have a look to see if you’re interested) or for more of them here . As all of us depend on word of mouth for promotion, if you like anything – please share on facebook and twitter.  It’s how we grow.


Filed under DAVE FREER, plotting, Uncategorized, WRITING, WRITING: CRAFT

24 responses to “Don’t cry for me, onion cleaner…

  1. I don’t plot, but I do pace. That is, I work out an overall tempo or rhythm to the book and I try to stick to it. So I know that this chapter will be slow and introspective and the next will be action-packed. Then I work out how to bring in an emergency requiring some fast action. I am much more concerned with the structure of the prose than the content. I often think that I write more like a poet than a novelist.

    • I actually do both, as well have spreadsheet of the different plot threads, so I can ensure no character disappears for too long and is forgotten. I tend to orchestrate using this, deliberately finishing chapters at different tension points.

      Poetry – good poetry anyway, is a very refined art, harder than short-story writing, and harder by far than novel writing. Getting the the emotional and ‘story’ content condensed into a poem, with the constraints of rhyme, meter, rhythm and usually very few verses really takes more skill than I have. So I envy you.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        You know, someone once insulted me (or tried) by saying that my stories “must read like spreadsheets”. But yours actually do? 😉

      • I would advise anyone who writes in English to write sonnets–enough of them to grow comfortable with the format. In America, sadly, even poetry classes will seldom require more than one or two, and students view even that as a traumatic ordeal. More than once I’ve committed to writing a sonnet a day for a month (and it’s about time to do it again.) In my opinion there is no better way to get a feel for both the organic rhythm of the English language and to learn concision of phrasing.

        • Seconded. Part of my education before college was much like this- churning out sonnets (doggerel to begin with, getting slightly better as I went), studying structure, and getting a feel for rhythms.

          The downside for me was getting the rhythms *out* of ordinary speech after I’d done it for a while. Chalk it up to impressionable youth, perhaps. *chuckle*

        • BobtheRegisterredFool


  2. Ah – I do pretty much the same; knowing where I want the characters to be, and then working out a logical means of getting them to it, although since I write historicals and contemporary comedy, the necessity for tight plotting is not quite so stringent.

    I did share the interview on my FB page last night – so, hope it helps!

    • Thank you, yes, every share helps! 🙂 I have a weakness for an element of murder/mystery genre in my books so it is quite important to me. YMMV

  3. The last-but-one book I wrote, I thought the climax was going to be the rescue at sea. Except . . . and looking back, it’s head-shakingly obvious . . . except that was not the driver of the story. The MC’s physical courage is unquestioned. But his emotional growth and maturity, his need for a stable family and home? That was the true plot driver, and that was what the climax had to resolve. Fortunately, my hind-brain is a lot smarter than my fore-brain and knows where to kick to keep me moving to the real point of the story.

    • I’ve had my brain kick my conscious mind once or twice. It’s a literal revelation. One time was the night that precipitated my change of college major. “Why are you doing this?” “I don’t know.” (Sudden realization that I *didn’t* know, and by the end of the night, I was already not thinking of myself as that major.)

      Once or twice I’ve had that moment of revelation and then lost the reasoning behind it. That’s weird. “Well, the plot should go this way… I don’t remember why, but it has to be this way.” I think it doesn’t hurt that my mind is steeped in story (37 years of reading daily, and I’m not forty yet.) I dream in story, and that’s not hyperbole. Very annoying when I wake up before the end, though.

  4. I am reminded of E E Smith’s Lensmen series, where supposedly the climax of the last book was one of the first things written, once it had been decided to patch the stories into a novel or novels. The author knew where he was going. Or so it is said.

  5. Writing backwards. What will they think of next?

  6. Depends on the work for me.

    For my comic strip I write in a way I wouldn’t recommend for any other format; I chase and follow the joke while keeping firm to the overall story plot. This means if I need a joke and a new character that new character will be assigned in my head those sets of jokes and characteristics based on the joke in their first appearance. This seems like it wouldn’t work but it has actually managed to keep characters distinct (why add a new character who tells the same kind of jokes as another character?) while also fulfilling the primary purpose of a comic strip; getting laughs (you’d think that’d be the self evident purpose but many comics seems to rate ‘societal importance’ as more important than laughs. I assume this is because they aren’t very funny and don’t know how to tell a joke so compensate and obscure with their virtue signalling and politics).

    Doing it this way works also to keep it fresh for me; if I’d written every strip in advance (it will probably end around 1800 strips and I’m at 1400 now) I’d have been bored with drawing to a script I wrote seven years ago. Also I wouldn’t, as a writer, have been able to take advantage of my growth as an artist. Turns out after you do a lot of work on a thing you get substantially and obviously better at that thing. Who knew?

    The overall plot is set in stone, and the philosophical point I’m making is set in stone, and the ending is set in stone, but I have absolutely no idea what the strip I’m posting on Wednesday will be until later tonight when I start to draw it.

    For novels I write a long and detailed synopsis which I half remember as I write the novel fueled on a steady diet of heavy metal. Every now and again I then reread the synopsis to see if I’ve strayed too far and see if I can steer back on track, or if the new path is better than the old one, and if it is figure out what I have to do to make the new path reach a proper ending. I’d call that a combination of plotting and pantsing and it seems to work for me.

    • I did a webcomic for a couple of years back when that was a fairly new thing. Daily humor was less important to me than overall storytelling, though the humor was supposed to be evident as a low-key thing. I was a bit confused when somebody wrote me and said they liked my punchlines, as that’s not precisely what they were. (I was very heavily influenced by Bloom County as a child, so think of that style of humor more than joke—>punchline.)

      (Why did I give it up? I wasn’t getting what I needed out of it, as in a minimum level of money or recognition. One fan letter a month does not adequately compensate for something that was getting to otherwise be like work.)

  7. Is there any other way?

    I’ve never understand the ‘throw a couple of interesting people and a question into the pot – and simmer’ style of writing. It certainly isn’t me, and it sounds like a lot of work and a lot of wasted writing following paths that lead nowhere.

    But I’m an extreme plotter, and I want to tell a story about how something was utterly impossible – but happened anyway. You know, the one in a million choice? Obviously, you do know.

    There’s room for all of us in writing and reading, but I’ve never tried to write the pantsing kind (not disparaging it – just not me). I have to know where I’m going to put all that effort into the journey.

    • Just tossing a bit out there for consideration. I tend to think of my ‘first draft’ as a 30k-50k outline. I’m at the extreme end of pantser for my first drafts. That may change (especially with a set of forays into Serials). It did for my mother, but for now this works. I’m still hashing out efficient revising. But for the first draft, I have to hash out the possibilities. That means writing the scenes. Other methods of brainstorming tend not to be very effective when I’m writing on my own. I’ve noticed with my fantasy, those ‘outlines’ get much tighter and closer to a real first draft the more of them I do. They go from rambly to bare-bones but reasonably solid. I switched to my Sci-Fi ideas and I’m about 6 drafts more rambly than I am on the Fantasy. But, for me, it comes down to not being able to see the story well unless I have scenes in front of me. Other styles of outline tend to give me multiple stories, which is rather nice for volume, but rather irritating for getting one finished. Is it more or less efficient than other methods? Not sure in the grand scheme of things. Since other ways don’t work for me, It’s certainly more efficient for me, but likely isn’t for anyone but me.

      • Trying a new way of writing takes time and energy. What if it doesn’t work for you?

        So most authors are going to find something that works for them – and stop futzing around. At least for the current book(s).

        I had the extreme flip flop: my first (book) teacher was Lawrence Block (via his books on writing) – and he’s a pretty extreme pantser who says he doesn’t do much revising.

        And it was the exactly wrong thing for me – I’m an extreme plotter. It took me years to figure out I couldn’t do what he did. At least I had the advantage of trying before I decided it didn’t work. He is very persuasive: this is how you write (not this is how I write). I don’t like his result, which doesn’t surprise me any more – he relies on his Muse or inherent characteristics to tie up loose ends – and I find it disconnected.

        Don’t get me wrong! I admire the man and his success – but it is not my path.

        But because I know this about myself, I’m more secure on my end than I might have been otherwise.

  8. I think, when you’re writing a novel, there’s a method not available to the serialist, and that is panting the first round, then going back and refining a strict plot in. If you get to the end of the story and realize a character’s arc works out much better in *this* way, you can go back and change the beginning as well as foreshadowing.

    And if you’re *really* being sneaky, you can foreshadow stuff in the next book.

    • Yep. Mind you, every book is different, but I generally start writing with a general idea of where I want to end, and possibly a few bullet points. I’ll get a few chapters in and remind myself there does need to be a _problem_ and once I’ve got that settled I can start solving it, and reach a conclusion that might or might not bear the faintest resemblance to my first goal.

      Then I get out the Hero’s Journey and refer to it regularly as I start kicking the story into a proper plot shape. And as B. Durbin says, add foreshadowing for the next book, which has already grabbed control of my time . . .

    • Bibliotheca Servare

      Or -as with that wicked fiend Jim Butcher- you can foreshadow things 12+ books in the future! Or more! (Implied by the “+” I know, but I felt that emphasis was appropriate)

      I’ve bookmarked this page for review in the future because of all the great information and suggestions. (Sonnets? Brilliant! heh) Oh, and *writing the end first!* Also, the “Agatha Christie” style thing is so *obvious* now! *That’s* why something felt so strangely familiar the first time I read one of your books! 🙂

  9. Synova

    Thank you for this.

  10. Christopher M. Chupik

    After reading the pulp series The Spider, written mostly by Norvell Page, I quickly realized Page was a pantser. The reader has no idea where the story is headed because the writer didn’t either. I am firmly convinced he just sat down at his typewriter and pounded away until he reached the right number of pages and stopped.

    Mind you, it worked for him. He wrote over a hundred of those.