The unravelled plotline

      Comments Off on The unravelled plotline

Since I have now admitted to writing the world’s slowest novel (glaciers zip past and continents crash together and bounce apart with gay abandon as I gradually grind my way towards the end… well, technically towards the middle at the moment), I thought I’d better think about publicity.

There’s this blog, of course, but the fact that some people quite like me wittering away on whatever topic passes through my mind today (or are just bizarrely fascinated), while awfully flattering and encouraging, doesn’t quite equate to finding out whether people like what I write creatively.

OK, blogging is kind of creative, but I haven’t really been making stuff up. So I thought, a thing to do, before I finish the everlasting novel, is to maybe do a couple of short stories. Test the waters, so to speak. See if everyone then gets out of the pool as if they’ve just seen an approaching shark fin.

So I thought about this, and a plot sort of drifted into my mind. As I turned it around, I decided it looked quite good from all angles, so it was worth writing. Then thought, but what happens after that?

Not in a real world sense (obviously what happens is that I am catapulted to instant fame and fortune), but in a story sense.

You see, that little short story plot idea made me think about my main plotline in a slightly different way. Or rather, it made me realise that I had failed to consider quite an important point. What do they do when…?

So I had to go back to my original plot and figure out whether it still worked at all (it does, thank goodness), and what I would have to do to fix the problem I had identified.

Now, I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only person this has happened to. You have a first book in a series (yes, it’s a series; looking at the length of time it’s taken me to get as far as I have with the first book, the second book ought to be written by about the year 2070), and everything in the garden is looking pretty rosy. Then you write the second book. And then the third book… and then you realise you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Your main characters now have to do something you really don’t want in order to get out of the predicament you’ve happily led them into, or your long-term series direction has to take a swift left-turn in order to avoid driving over a cliff.

Either way, as an author, you end up with egg on your face.

The key thing seems to be, if you are planning to write a series, you need to plan ahead.

As a reader, it’s pretty obvious which authors have planned ahead and which have not. Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files has got it all planned out. He’s actually said so, but you can tell by reading his books. They don’t just come one after the other like buses; they’re linked together, like the carriages of a train. Sort of. Not only do you get forwards-linkage, where characters who were important in previous books get a mention in later books, showing that Harry’s life moves on – people don’t just drop out of his life never to be seen again – but it works the other way around too. To me, as a reader, this is even more clever. This is when a minor character or occurrence in an earlier book proves to be important in a later book – best of all when you hardly notice the incident in the earlier book, but its significance suddenly hits you when you figure out – much later – where Butcher is going with it. Then you think, wow. This is a guy who knows where his series is going. He’s thought about it; he’s not just jogging along, mind in neutral.

It’s equally obvious when a writer hasn’t planned ahead, or possibly even that his book has been much more successful than he thought so he’s hurried decided to not make it one book, but a trilogy. Or a more-ogy.

Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series is like this for me. Several times in the series, it appears that the hero, Richard, has vanquished (or nearly vanquished) his enemy. Only – suddenly! – up pops another, even worse, enemy, that we never heard of until now! Sometimes entire empires appear like mushrooms in the morning, when no hint of them had been there before. To me, the reader, that says “I’m flying by the seat of my pants here, guys; don’t ask me where we’re going. I’ll just keep cranking out books for as long as I can get you guys to shell out for them.”

For me, this spoils the series. It’s not realistic; even if the latest Evil Empire isn’t an imminent threat, at least we should know that it exists, so that when it does become a threat, we’re prepared. Besides, it’s more realistic. Neighbouring countries are important: you trade with them, you visit, they visit you, or you have to be careful not to offend them, or you have to diplomatically protest that they are perilously close to offending you… No nation lives in a vacuum. You have to pay attention to the neighbours even when you are not actively at war with them. And wars do not suddenly blow up out of nowhere. In the Sword of Truth series, Richard should have known about some of the threats that suddenly appeared, and should have been thinking about them beforehand. The fact that they seemed to come out of nowhere makes the series less realistic.

So where does that leave us?

Firstly, if you are going to write a series, I think it pays to think hard about where your series is going, and what problems and challenges your protagonist is going to face along the way – that way, you can make sure that there is enough foreshadowing to make the story development realistic, and you can also ensure your protagonist is appropriately equipped in advance for what he’s going to have to do. So no need to have exactly the right ability or equipment just ‘suddenly pop up’ just at the right time.

Secondly, think about the implications of your plot. If your protagonist routinely carries a sword around in a modern city, why doesn’t he get arrested? If saving the world isn’t his main job, how does he earn money to, you know, buy food and pay the rent? If he has a day job, what does his boss think about him taking off and saving the world instead of putting in office time?

These may be little things, but to me, they can make a difference between a book being a pleasant diversion if there’s nothing else to do, and a really good bookthat I will ignore allegedly more important things in favour of reading.

What do you think?

If you liked this, you can leave a comment or subscribe to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.