What’s the Plan, Stan?

Sometimes when writing one backs oneself into a corner and it’s incredibly difficult to find the way out. I’ve just done that with Path of the Warrior… It’s just entered a vague area between an important character development and the rip-roaring finale, and is in danger of meandering around for its own sake without going anywhere meaningful.

The reason? Well, clearly I’ve gone ‘off mission’. That is, events glibly tossed away in one or two sentences in the synopsis have taken on far more significance, but I’m not sure what that significance is yet. Arse.

The solution? Well, clearly it’s not what I’ve been doing for the last day and a half – distracting myself pimping Space Hulk: The Novel and generally faffing about writing on forums and, well, this post… I need a plan, and I need it pretty quick!

So, I shall explain a bit of my mental process at this stage (in order that writing about it may help me resolve the issues at hand and also mean that this blatant displacement activity ends up with some useful outcome).

The sequence in question is about character relationships, and how they have changed following a fundamental shift in the protagonist’s life. All well and good so far. The problem is, I don’t want this part of the novel to become a simple whistle-stop tour of the other characters, a series of unrelated encounters and conversations that update the reader on the changes wrought but without anything actually happening.

Hmm, what I need is a framework. An excuse, to put it another way, for the protagonist to have the encounters necessary to move his story along and get to the point.

There are a few ways this can be done. Firstly, the protagonist can seek out certain individuals. Secondly, certain individuals can seek him out. Thirdly, there’s always chance encounter (but you can’t really use that more than once in any particular sequence without risking Deus Ex Machina).

Right, so that’s a bit more to be going on with.

I need to outline all of the involved parties: their relevance to a) the protagonist, and b) the plot or sub-plots of the novel.

That’s where the problem might lie, thinking about it. As is my wont, I’ve thought quite a lot about the psychology and character dynamics of the story. What I haven’t quite concluded, and is now becoming apparent, is what relevance those dynamics have beyond themselves. They exist beside the plot, not a part of it.

You can get away with some parts of a story being little side-trips and meanderings, but you don’t want to spend a whole chapter detailing events that don’t actually mean anything to the overall story. And that’s the danger here.

I’ve been going about this the wrong way, trying to tackle the problem head-on. What I need to do is get away from the keyboard, back to the pen-and-paper to come up with something that makes these changing dynamics not only character development points, but also plot factors (or more likely sub-plots).

I’ve avoided doing this because I really want to crack on, time is ticking. As is usually the case, it’s probably cost me more time and distraction trying to come up with a solution through writing than it would have done if I’d stepped back earlier on. I don’t think any of the writing time has been an actual waste – it’s good stuff on the page – but by trying to think and write at the same time, my pace has slowed to a crawl, which really doesn’t suit me and gets very frustrating.

I’ve just realised, this is probably the same sort of problem I discussed in my Converting the Catalyst post, only viewed from the opposite end of the rainbow. That is, my issue at that time was transferring from the opening sequences into the bulk of the story, now I am coming down the other side, getting from the bulk of the story to the ending… Maybe I’ll learn for next time!

Okay, that’s the plan – come up with a plan!

Thanks for listening, you’ve been a great help 🙂

Published in: on August 18, 2009 at 3:13 pm  Comments (6)  

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  1. The following writers solved these “little” problems by walking: Carlyle, James, Nietzsche, Wordsworth. I am sure there are others. I highly recommend it at these crucial junctures. A walking stick and a good cigar also help. Best regards, Keith


    • Does pacing count as walking? A few laps around the lounge, pen in hand, seems to have done the trick. Lots of scribbles on the flipchart ensued and I’m ready to get going first thing tomorrow! Relieved and pleased in equal measure.


  2. Some of this, I think, is to do with the ill-disciplined way in which most synopses are written. That’s not a criticm of particular writers (well, it can be if you want), but rather just I think a sign of the competing aims with which in mind synopses are written. Invariably they describe the story, not the book or the text. They’ll be written in largely the same order as the book is intended to follow, and divided into chapters or whatnot, but very seldom will they encapsulate the perspective and mode by which the story is told, the means by which information is delivered. It’s very easy to use a synopsis to get the whole story down; it’s very much harder to plot the exact means by which that story will be revealed. Most synopses will tell you what to write, but few are much help in telling you how to write it – it sounds like that’s the barrier you’ve run into, and giving thought to that kind of stuff so far into actually writing the book is, as you say, not really very easy.

    As a rule of thumb, I’ve found that every sentence in a well-disciplined synopsis should centre around a verb, specifically, a verb indicative of the narration that will be used: ‘John tells Jane that he was adopted’, ‘John wonders to himself why his parents never told him he was adopted’, ‘John goes to the hall of records to look for his birth certificate’. The last one, because it’s an action, is actually pretty typical of the kind of sentences that crop up in synopses; most people remember to put the means of delivery (so to speak) into the synopsis when there’s an action involved, but when it’s through speech or thought, it’s rarely taken into consideration and that’s where long sections of nothing come in. There shouldn’t be anything in the synopsis which isn’t accompanied by a note on how it’s to be delivered to the page – something that says how it’s to be related to the reader, what perspective it’s told from, how it’s framed, segues, transitions from prior scenes, etc. I’ve actually started breaking my synopses up into scenes within chapters, corresponding to the points at which I would use a full line return, with each scene starting with a stock list of ‘technical’ headers like: transition, mode, narrator, frame device, motifs (scenes elsewhere it may be similar to, or recurring use of style) and so on. I certainly don’t write something for each and every one in each and every instance, but I at least remind myself to consider them. Once I’ve got used to doing this I hope to formalise it a bit and come up with a format for synopses so that they’re virtually scripts for writing from, rather than just precis of the story, which can lead you astray through its vagueness as much it can guide you through its apparent completeness.

    Some people probably don’t need all that, but any time I’ve run into parts where I find myself meandering it’s not because the story wanders, it’s because the narrative wanders, and because the exact means of storytelling as described in the synopsis is often too vague to rely upon, and I find myself guessing at how to actually write it, hence meandering – having a conversation over pages and pages to relate something that, in hindsight, could simply have been one paragraph of narration, etc, etc. Writing’s as much composition as it is storytelling – certainly, writing a novel is – and I think good synopses really need to describe the composition and narrative means as much as they describe the story. Sure, many of those things are going to change during writing anyway, and that’s fair enough if a better way occurs later on, but they should at least be in the synopsis so that, lacking that superior alternative, they can at least be set down on the page in first place.


    • Glad to hear you’ve solved things, Gav.

      Trying to battle on through and solve things on the fly rather than stepping back, re-evaluating, and working out exactly what it is your are doing is a trap I’ve fallen into at times too, and its a horrible place to get into, especially if you continue on down that path for too long. There is always the temptation to do that, especially on a deadline (and even more especially when you are trying to hit daily targets), but stepping back always ends up being beneficial – I just find I have to remind myself of that at times. Its very simple and sensible, really, but sometimes the urge to get stuff done, to get words down on paper, to see progress and get those 3,000 words done blinds me to it, and what is actually sensible goes out the window. Always nice to nip that in the bud and catch it early.

      Interesting thoughts regarding synopseseses, Matt. I might try something similar.



    • The fault in preparation (on my part) was missing the fact that certain characters would inevitably become more prominent due to their proximity to the main character, and therefore I treated them as part of the setting rather than as characters in their own right. It really was an oversight that I should have seen coming. As this novel is entirely single character perspective, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ which I’ve avoided in recent novels by having multiple perspectives (even if some characters only get a paragraph or two).


      • Since the book deals with the eventual entrapment upon the Path of the Warrior, the quality of the interactions with other characters can be shown to change throughout rather than a sudden “falling off the precipice” or “1 year later” flash forward tactic. As the main character slides down the slippery slope, the nature of his interactions can become more martially focused, more distant or superifical with everything else, and more formal as that Aspect of himself hardens…much as an insect’s new exoskeleton hardens after molting.


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