Writing fiction is not always hard.
It’s not always easy, either.
Oh, I know some people would love us all to believe the image of the tortured artist agonising for years over the right word – something between Proust and Joyce – whilst others would see all writers (but particularly those of genre fiction) as Hacks hammering out the same sub-standard guff for a gullible readership.
To be honest, neither of those approaches is entirely true.
I write Genre Fiction, most notably crime, and I am a firm believer that genre fiction rests or fails on the strength of the plot.
But I don’t believe that a great plot will make up for cardboard characters. You need both: the engaging, challenging plot that keeps the reader guessing and rooting for your hero, and a hero, secondary characters and a milieu that are rock solid believable, entertaining (yes, even the villains: True Evil, as has been said, is banal, but if a reader wants Banality, they can read the Chilcott report. If it ever comes out) and complex.
Plot, it’s been said, comes from Character, and I sort of get that: If you create “real” characters and then challenge them (The old “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this person?” question) then – by making the worst happen, and following on from that start – you can get an interesting story going.
My book “Death of a Diva” is a crime novel which focuses on a genial everyman. The fact that Danny Bird is gay is, largely incidental. He comes from a big London family, mixed by marriage as well as inclinations. He has friends from all the social strata, and a long standing relationship with a high-powered city lawyer.
So what’s the worst thing that could happen to him?
Well, in order to make this genial sorted young man a character worth reading about, I had to destroy his world.
So: he goes to work one morning. It’s a job that requires very little of him, and – because he’s not particularly career driven (partly by nature, and partly because the earning power of the City Lawyer makes it unnecessary from a financial perspective) – one which hasn’t really given him much in the way of transferrable skills.
So, we start by firing him. I literally kicked him out on the street.
On going home, he discovers the one solid thing in his life – his relationship – is a lie.
Then, to complete his destruction, I had him – on the sort of impulse that people only react on when they’ve reached rock bottom and don’t really have any fear about things getting worse – apply for the job as Landlord of a grim bar in South London. This, despite the fact that his entire experience of bars has been standing on the other side of them ordering drinks…
And thus, the stage was set.
But what to do now? Where to take him? How to make this, frankly, cruel set of circumstances into a story that actually went somewhere?
How, in other words, to take this character and make him impact the plot.
Almost all writers come about this in different ways. Minette Walters, for example, has said that she never uses a plot scheme, begins writing with little more than an idea of the themes she wants to write about, and that she often has no idea ‘whodunit’ until half-way through a story.
Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, two brilliant writers of historical mystery series’ set in Ancient Rome, both rely on research to trigger the plot, with Saylor often using famous historical events as backdrops, and forging their plots to both touch on certain major events and ‘explain’ long-standing mysteries or gaps in the historical records, while Davis has, to date, avoided openly focussing on major historical events in favour of simply plotting stories around everyday life in Ancient Rome (and highlighting how little human nature has changed in the intervening millenia).
My personal thoughts are that Walters’ approach may work for literary or experimental fiction, where the medium is often of more import than the message per se, but, for something where plot is of primary importance, it feels, to me, the writing equivalent of getting in the car, turning on the engine, getting to the end of the drive and then going “Hmmmm…. Now, where shall we go?”
I write fairly freely to begin with: I scribble ideas for dialogue, character sketches, victims, plot, clues, red herrings, subplots. I keep all of these things on an ever expanding document that usually starts with the opening of the novel, has several blank page breaks inserted, and then will have the ending – or at least the identity of the killer – detailed.
As time goes on, I’ll populate the steps between so that, by the time I sit to write, I’ve usually got an idea – a vague roadmap, if you like – of where I’m going, and of the route I expect to take to get there.
The route isn’t always straight – at least two of my novels have massively changed during the writing just because a minor ‘irrelevant’ character suddenly came to life and took over.
I wasn’t rigidly sticking to the roadmap; I’m building a story, after all, not a sideboard from IKEA.
In each case, I was happy for this to happen; I could take a look at the roadmap, adjust the upcoming route, and still end up with a satisfactory beginning, middle and end structure to the story, but only because I had a structure to begin with.
In the book I’m currently working on, I have 4 characters who are lightly sketched out in my Plot, but who – on paper (ah, alright, on the VDU) – have just come out with some brilliant dialogue, and unique characteristics and because none of this means that the whole story is compromised, I can let them wander and waffle – it’s only a first draft after all – and know that I won’t end up painted into a corner, or, worse, hopelessly lost and off track, at the end of it.
For the novice novelist, I think this approach is well worth considering. You know where you are, where you’re going, and how far off track you are at any given point.
But for the writer of crime, I would suggest it’s invaluable: your chances of getting to the end and realising that the parlour maid you sent out to fetch the police in chapter 6 hasn’t come back yet – despite the howling gale outside – is reduced, somewhat…
How do you write? Tightly plotted? Loosely plotted? Or do you simply pick up the pen / switch on the computer and start going?