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.