revelation

purple and blue columbine flower

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Before you get incensed, this comment is directed mostly at myself. It sums up a lot of my plot-related problems.

You know how sometimes you’re working on a book – maybe in your head still, and not even on paper – and you know there’s something magical there but the plot as a whole just won’t hang together? What do you do about it? How do you make this ‘not-quite-magical-but-could-be, I-just-know-it-could-be’ thing and make that leap?

For me, the answer is either (a) have the right idea, or (b) stop trying to make things so complicated. Basically, (b) translates into common English as ‘Keep it simple, Stupid.’

Quite often I’m sitting there trying to figure out Something Exciting That Can Happen Next when what I really need to do is ask myself ‘What makes this idea magical and how can I push that as far along the storyline as it can go?’

This is where (a) and (b) start to meld. Sometimes the right idea just won’t come. And it’s there: somewhere, there really is an amazing answer to your plot dilemna that’s as close to being The Right Answer as anything ever is in fiction… Quite often The Right Answer just refuses to present itself to me for months, if not years. This is why some ideas languish for years and years in my imagination, periodically resurfacing but then sinking again, before I start shaping them into anything that could be a book.

Usually, the main reason The Right Answer doesn’t stroll over and wave at me is because I’m looking in the wrong direction: I’m trying to make things complicated then fretting over how to make them believeable. Often The Right Answer is so simple you smack yourself in the face once you find it. But part of the reason it is The Right Answer is that it seems obvious (once you’ve captured it): it seems inevitable. Anything that seems both obvious and inevitable is probably right. Especially if we’re talking about your ending: the climax of your story.

So if you’re going in circles wondering how A can believeably lead to B and how on earth that could logically connect to C, maybe the problem is that you’re creating a long chain of unbelieveableness because you’re working on the wrong idea to begin with. The right idea is generally surprisingly simple.

Even if you’re writing a complicated mystery or thriller, often you’ll find that each element is simple within itself. The more complicated it gets, the harder it is to deliver it to the reader in a form anyone will enjoy. If it’s too complicated, not only will it be really hard to reveal it in a step-by-step way so that the reader eventually goes ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that all along?’ rather than ‘Urgh. So obvious!’ or ‘How could anyone possibly guess that?’ but the reader may have such a headache by that point that there’ll be little emotional satisfaction. Simplicity offers a more effective route to emotional satisfaction in about 90% of cases. And while some stories are fun just for the pure intellectual puzzle, a book that doesn’t also make me feel something falls short as fiction in my books (horrible pun thoroughly intended).

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it has to be basic or boring. What makes a simple idea clever is the ways you find of revealing the idea (i.e. the truth of the story) to the reader without telling them outright. That’s not always simple at all. But it will probably consist of a chain of individually simple steps. The minute any one step gets convoluted, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

Just keep asking yourself ‘What is the truth of the story?’ – or, in other words, ‘What is this book really about?’ Then ask yourself ‘If the book is really about X, what would be the strongest expression of X I can offer the reader?’ That will give you the big ideas. For the little ones, just ask yourself ‘What is the truth about what’s happen here? What am I trying to get at with this element?’

So, in The Bone Dragon the early drafts had Phee and Lynne turning up intermittantly and not doing very much. I wasn’t worried about this because they worked as characters: each had a strong, individual voice and was believeable and interesting… But only while they were on the page. In between, I forgot about them. Eventually, I asked myself if readers would want to read about them on that basis. And the answer was ‘No’. So I started to ask myself why they were there. Not just ‘What are they doing in each scene to make the scene work because people are needed?’ but ‘What is the purpose of each of these people in the book? What does Phee DO in this story? What does her part in it SAY?’

I didn’t have an answer. So I thought about the book as a whole and what the main themes are. And then I thought about my main character and how her life reveals those themes. And all of a sudden it was obvious what Lynne and Phee, individually and together, COULD add to the book as whole. All of a sudden it was obvious what the book offered each of them as a reason for being. Ultimately, the answers were fairly simple – as was how to deliver new scenes to reveal those answers to the reader. But more about that once the book is published. I don’t want to go giving things away.

At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between leaving things foggy and vague and too simple, and making sure you don’t make them unnecessarily complicated. In other words, be focused, but keep it simple, and chances are no one will accuse you of being stupid at all.

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Autumn leaves

From idea to plan: creating an effective climax

The Bone Dragon is my debut novel, but it’s far from being the first novel I wrote. First, I wrote a whole series of ‘practice’ novels. Then I wrote several novels I hoped to publish. Then I wrote the novel that no one seemed interested in but me (and my wonderful Aunty Pat, whose encouragement helped to save the day)… and now it’s getting published.

At the moment, I’m working on MANY books, but two particularly. The first (HoW) is one of the books I hoped to publish: I’m completely re-writing it now that I finally understand what is wrong with it. The other (MoB) is a new book. A very, very new book. Usually I live with book ideas for years before I do more than write the first chapter or so. But back in April, when I’d just signed with RCW and Faber, my amazing agent, Claire Wilson, got me thinking about what might be a good second book in terms of building a brand for myself as a writer. I write across a wide range of genres and that’s fine – when you’ve got a readership that is willing to travel across genres with you. But, to begin with, it’s good to show what you can do in a genre those first readers know they like.

So I sat down and rifled through the cluttered drawer of ideas that’s off somewhere in the far reaches of the leftside of my brain. And MoB clawed it way out of the mess and sat itself down on top and said ‘Me!’ I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, but, at the same time, I felt that this was the book that Claire would want to represent after The Bone Dragon and that readers would be most tempted to move on to. I waffle about it all in my Next Big Thing meme post.

So, decision made, I started to chip away at the idea: started to ask it questions about what happens in teh story. About who the people are and what they are like. About why real people would want to read the book. About how the story worked and what tugged on my heartstrings about it.

MoB isn’t a sequel to The Bone Dragon, but there’s a natural progression between the two so I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the books should be similar while ensuring that they weren’t too similar.

Usually my books develop from one or more mini-ideas about scenes that represent emotional highpoints. The first set of vague idea starts to turn into a book when I know what the key three emotional moments are going to be – from my perspective, though not always the readers. I found I already had the emotional drama needed for the climax and the emotional charge for the hook. But it took months and months and months to progress beyond that. The sticking point, as it so often is, was the climax. I thought I knew what it was. But I wasn’t quite right. I knew what propelled the story into the climax, but I hadn’t yet come up with a good enough Part II: The True Climax. That’s been the case for a lot of my books.

Quite often I have an idea for the climax but when I write it out (sometimes just in my head) it falls a bit flat. There’s plenty of action but not enough emotion, or vice versa. It’s just not quite satisfying. Most of all, these climaxes turn out to be a little too obvious: they’re inevitable to the point where there’s no real surprise. And I’m not talking about twists that come out of nowhere: those are generally a bad thing anyway. What I’m talking about is that little extra thing – that one final step – that takes the climax beyond the thing that is obvious and inevitable to the deeper truth. For me, a really great climax always has an element of revelation, as if the author is saying ‘Here! Here’s the real heart of the story.’ And the moment you read it you go, ‘Of course! Of course that’s it really. Why didn’t I think that little step further?’ So it’s not a twist, it’s just pushing the idea to the end of the line: past the bit where the reader has already thought up to.

The tricky thing about these types of climax is that it’s all about having the right idea. And there’s no formula or technique that’ll deliver it to you. After all, if the idea doesn’t surprise you when you first hit upon it, you’ll probably find it won’t surprise the reader either. Or not quite enough to be truly satisfying. For that reason, these ideas often require some major lateral thinking – not necessarily thinking outside the box, because you don’t want to end up with a twist that’s just a ‘twist for the sake of it’.

Take The Bone Dragon. I think the climax does all of these things, but it also does a whole bunch of things that pretty much every writing book tells you to absolutely never, ever do. There’s one incredibly important rule about writing a good climax that it ignores entirely. A rule most writers – even those that aren’t particularly bound by rules – would think it’s a no-brainer to follow. But breaking that rule is exactly what The Bone Dragon needed because it cuts to the heart of the story: the way the climax is delivered *is* the story.

MoB takes a different tack: a much more straightforward one in structural terms – and in terms of the big rules about creating effective climaxes. But because I wasn’t using structure to push the book to a unique climax, it was much harder to figure out what the climax should be. 

Although technique won’t give you the answers to the thorny questions about what ideas should lie behind your climax, there are things you can do to help coax the right idea out into the light and these things are all about good technique. First and foremost, ask yourself what the book is about… and keep asking. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much about themes. Think about your Controlling Idea (to use Robert McKee’s terminology). Think about the ‘Character does Action to achieve Goal with Result’ equation. What are your characters after? What do their attempts to achieve this goal actually result in? Then think beyond that: what does your version of the equation say?

I don’t believe in ‘message’ books but that’s not to say that I don’t think books can’t have a message. It just shouldn’t be didactic. Generally my message is ‘Look at this complex human problem and how it’s turned out in this case. Is the conclusion right and fair or wrong? How do you feel about it and is that feeling comfortable?’

So ask yourself ‘What does my book say about people and the world?’ That is what should drive your climax. Chipping away at my bag of ideas for MoB with that question firmly at the front of my mind finally showed me where I was going wrong. In my attempts to put in lots of action, I was thinking down obvious paths. ‘Let’s have a bit of this. Oooo and a pinch of that. And then they can do this and it’ll be REALLY dramatic.’ Only generally it isn’t, because that sort of thinking generally results in plodding action, even if it’s plodding involving gun battles and car chases. Above all, when you start focusong on what actions should go in and not what the truth behind the story is, you stop thinking about what the relevation is: what are you going to show readers at the climax that they haven’t realised is the truth behind the story all along? And I don’t mean truth as in a fact. I mean truth as in ‘this is how people work sometimes, and this is how the world works’.

It was only when I figured out what I was trying to say with MoB that I realised how the climax had to work. I have a good feeling about it, even though I’m a little nervous about whether or not it’ll work on paper. Sometimes things that seem great in my head don’t, but this feels like it’s one that will. It just feels right: for me, it’s a truly satisfying end that couldn’t push the truth behind the story any further.

Once I had the climax worked out, the rest of the book fell into place, as is so often the case. But more about that in my next post.

For now, the floor is open. So… How do you go about figuring out how your climax will work? When do you do it: at the idea-stage or the panning-stage or the writing-stage?