What follows is a guest post from Alan Brenik one of our recent graduates, about his current writing and the problems causes. It was originally posted here: http://www.alanbrenik.com/2016/11/something-something-plot.html
We’re delighted to say that Alan is now working at Carcanet Press, in Manchester, as a direct result of his studies at The University of Bolton!
SOMETHING, SOMETHING… PLOT
As a child I believed in luck. I’d skip over cracks in the pavement; hunt through the local streets and parks for discarded pennies; even descend into a panic if I saw one magpie instead of two. I knew that luck was real, and that it had to be appeased. Courted.
I suspect this was just my way of seeing meaning in life’s complex blend of cause and effect, my method of coping with the seemingly random chaos. After all, life’s a pretty scary place to live without luck on your side.
And I still do it today, to some extent. I imagine we all do. How easy is it to see the hand of bad luck in our daily lives? When things don’t go our way, we sit up, take notice; and when things are on the rise, how careful are we not to “jinx” it? We mistrust so-called good luck for the same reason we’re inclined to believe in bad luck: because we know that at its root, life is conflict, and at some point soon, if we keep breathing, that’s exactly what we’re going to encounter.
So what does this have to do with plot?
Coincidence in real life is fine. We note the effect, the relevance, and we chalk it up to life, or luck (good or bad). But when it comes to storytelling, no matter how much the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief, they are always aware on some level that there is an architect behind events, pulling strings and leading them on.
Coincidence in fiction is fine as well, when it’s to the detriment of the plot. We trust bad luck. But coincidence used to resolve the plot, or assist characters in doing so, immediately smacks of convenience. As a reader, I rebel against it and against the author in turn. It shatters my suspension of disbelief and mule-kicks me out of the narrative. Now perhaps that’s just me, but nothing draws my attention to the constructed nature of fiction more than a convenient plot.
Fiction, just like life, is built on conflict, and when that conflict is tritely resolved, or a character’s struggle (physical or emotional) is side-stepped or circumvented, I feel cheated. Now that’s not to say I don’t understand this pitfall from a writer’s perspective. Plot is difficult, especially when writing a novel; tying up all those threads while marrying them to one or more characters’ “inner” journeys can be headache-inducing. But in my opinion the effort is well worth it.
That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what’s this philosopher’s stone of a solution you’re skirting around?
The answer: I don’t have one. Like all things concerned with writing, there’s as many approaches as there are writers. However, here’s one method that’s worked for me: reverse engineering. Even when I don’t construct a narrative in this way, I find it can often be a useful tool to help diagnose any problems or roadblocks in a plot.
For an Urban Fantasy novel I wrote last year, I knew my protagonist from the outset. I understood the kind of person he was; I knew those benchmark moments in his past that defined him; I could list his proclivities and idiosyncrasies; but perhaps most importantly in terms of my plot, I knew the kind of person I wanted him to become. I knew the emotional journey, the inner change, that I wanted him to undergo as a result of the novel, and once I knew that the rest was relatively simple.
So the question becomes how does my character get from A to B? Once I know the ending, I find it so much easier to work backwards. And here are three questions that I use as a framework when doing this:
- What needs to happen to get to this point? If the climax of your story takes place in a hospital for example, how do all the characters involved get there and why? If the villain is defeated with a magical bedpan say, the same questions apply. It should make sense to the reader (at least in retrospect), even if the chain of events leading up to this point are complex. And this goes for every scene.
- At the same time as asking what needs to happen, you need to ask what would my character/s do, what choices would they make, at every turn? As much as the physical events need to have a logic, so do your characters’ actions – this can be a broken or flawed logic, of course, but the choices a character makes should reflect the person they are and the person you have led the reader to understand them to be. The danger here is that you end up with a boring, linear plot that reads like a checklist to explain the finale – but don’t be afraid to embrace a circuitous route; let yourself have fun getting there.
- This does lead on to the final question, though: is everything driving the storyforward? If your plot deviates for 400 pages without getting any closer to the resolution, but it follows a logical progression – change it. If, however, those 400 pages are necessary for your character/s to change and evolve emotionally to fit your ending, well that’s not a deviation at all. That’s driving the story forward. Still, my policy is one of economy… rather than force the reader to slog through sentence after sentence to explain a character’s development, I find it’s better (albeit more difficult) to find that one act, that one image that says it all. Hit that beat and move forward. Your novel will be the stronger for it.
I understand this approach won’t be for everyone, but it has worked for me. And thinking back, maybe the actual lesson (if there is one) to take away from all this is to question your story. Interrogate it. If something is on the page – a chapter, a scene, a sentence, a word – what is it doing to tell your story? Would something else work better? And if it’s doing nothing, adding nothing, then cut it. Be brutal, be honest.
I’ve been told that writing is nothing more than choosing the right words in the right order. It sounds maddeningly simple when put like that. Still, I’ve found that when it comes to constructing a narrative, luck is a poor substitute for hard work and careful thought.