Monday, 14 March 2016

In search of the story

There are writers, good and bad, who are inveterate plotters, laying out their story-lines brick by brick before they cement them together with words. Agatha Christie, for example, famously plotted every element of her novels before she wrote a word of the manuscript. William Faulkner, the Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote story plans on his office wall. I've seen J K Rowling's complicated plot charts (hand-written grids aligning time, plot and prophecies in numbered scenes like a director’s shot list) and other writers' examples of mind maps and story boards.


I have to confess I've never done any of that in preparation for writing a novel. Although I might write copious notes during my research for a book, they tend to be about the world of the story; they are hardly ever about the story itself, the plot. The one highly structured thing I do as I'm going along is to write a time line just to ensure I don't bump the victim off on Friday only to have the body discovered the previous Wednesday.


I used to worry about my lack of a story plan, especially on the rare occasion I'd browse books or websites that offer advice and claim to improve our chances of being published. They always seem to emphasise how important it is to have a clear plot summary from start to finish before we get down to the serious business of writing, not to mention detailed profiles of all our important characters.


Oh, but it's all so tedious, and a large part of my reason for writing is to entertain myself. And the truth is I don't want to know from the start how the story ends or even much about what happens along the way. If I already know, where's the thrill in writing about it? I'm both the author and the first reader of my book. My drive to write the next chapter comes from wanting to find out what happens next. I hope my future readers will feel the same.


I stopped worrying when I noticed other writers whom I respect make do without detailed story plans. E L Doctorow, the author of Ragtime, said: 'Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' The best-selling author Stephen King wrote a whole book On Writing that resonates with me on every page. He says, 'I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted, any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.'


King talks about his preference for putting his characters in some sort of predicament, then watching to see how they work themselves free. His job isn't to help them work their way free or to manipulate them to safety but to watch what happens and write it down. That's how I set about my work too. In my fictional worlds my principal character will typically be involved in some form of escape or some form of search, often both. Escape and search can offer a multitude of possibilities. They lead me and my characters on ventures that are neither pre-planned nor random but unfold before us with varying degrees of difficulty, a network of tracks that is somehow already present but hidden by foliage that has, in metaphorical terms, to be hewn and navigated. Slowly we pick our way through. I've heard this called creative pattern recognition.


To reference Stephen King again, he likens writing to an archaeological dig. We come across something - Hmm, that looks interesting - and start to dig around it. Yes, there is something interesting there, let's find out more. Only with very careful graft using our writing tools can we get the whole thing out from somewhere deep beneath the surface. It's a delicate, often slow process because we want to keep our discovery as intact as possible. As in palaeontology some of the pieces may need to be rearranged, others restored, but eventually our find will be revealed in its entirety.


The process reminds me of something I read about the artist Michelangelo. When he was about to start a new sculpture he would stand in front of the shapeless stone staring into the rock until he felt he could see an image of the statue inside. All he then had to do was to chip away, chip away until the statue revealed itself. 'I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,' he wrote in his notebook.


For myself the chipping away at my text is directed by trying to answer a series of What if questions that emerge. What if? A very useful question for writers in search of story. The first What if, of course, kick-starts the action - people who write about creative writing call this the inciting event.


The writer’s What if moment can be sparked randomly from real life. I recently heard the crime writer Val McDermid describing just such a moment that sparked off the idea for her best-seller The Distant Echo. She was having coffee with a friend who told how her son, a medical student, was walking back with his friends from a night out when they came across another bunch of lads giving a good kicking to a youth on the ground. Being good middle class lads, they chased the bad guys away and, being medical students, they turned back to give the bloodied lad on the ground some assistance. Just then the police turned up. Luckily the victim was conscious and was able to explain to the police that these young guys had saved him.


When Val McDermid heard the story, immediately it became for her a What if moment. What if the youth on the ground was not conscious when the police turned up to find a bunch of drunken lads around him with blood on their hands? What if he were dead? Right there, Val had her inciting incident and the idea for her next novel.


Once the inciting event occurs much of one’s novel or story is devoted to the search the event impels. Or is it escape? Along the way a sub-plot slowly develops, seemingly separate at first, but eventually there is a kind of merging so that all become parts of the whole. There must be no manipulation about this on the part of the writer - it has to be done step by step because for the reader every step must seem inevitable.


We are in effect on a journey in company with our characters, just as our readers will eventually be. We may think we know your characters at the outset, but we don't. They will let us know more fully who they are as we move along together, just as real friends do on a long trip. Often they will take us to places we didn't know we were going, including a brothel in my novel 11:59 which is somewhere I'd like to assure you I've never been.


Some characters whom we might imagine are just incidental, with just a walk-on part, turn out to be fundamental to the course of the story. One of the great story-tellers JRR Tolkien confessed that he was in despair for a while during the writing of The Lord of the Rings. About a third of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring some ruffian named Strider confronts the hobbits in an inn. Tolkien had no idea who he was, where the book was going at this point, or what to write next. Turns out Strider is actually Aragorn, the uncrowned king of all the forces of good, who emerges as one of the principal characters in the book and whose restoration to rule is one of the main engines of the plot.


In my psychological mystery As Close As You Are To Me I found myself writing about a Big Issue seller with a stubble and a cowboy hat who calls himself Cody. He muscles his way into becoming a key character without as much as a by-your-leave. In 11:59 the anti-hero DJ Marc Niven has a sort of super-fan, Oliver, a lad with learning difficulties who lives with his mother. I had no thought, when I introduced him, of making Ollie perhaps the most important character aside from Marc and one that readers always tell me is their favourite. He just turned out that way.


The story in a novel is all-important - it's what keeps the reader engaged - but I believe an over-emphasis on plot when composing can lead writers to neglect their characters or make them simply one-dimensional conduits for the plot. If instead we allow the characters to lead the action, or rather allow both to develop in tandem, we should end up with more rounded characters and a fuller, more credible story. After all, that's how life is: we are not divided neatly into the bad guys and the good guys; we all think of ourselves as principal characters; we are not puppets in someone else's script.


Indeed there is, at least in my creed, no over-arching story in life, only those stories that we make through our own complexities, emotions, muddles, errors of judgement, insights and occasional acts of courage and selfless heroism. Whether in real life or in fiction, you could say that the stories are already there inside of us. We all have our ways of getting them out.
A shorter version of this article by David Williams appeared under the title 'The Angel in the Marble' in the magazine of The Society of Authors 'The Author' Spring 2016.

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