After my last post, Pam wrote this comment: “These all seem like things that you need to plan ahead. How do you organize your stories and plots to make sure these stay consistent?”
Most of my consistency comes from revision. For example, in the mystery I’m working on, I gave the ogre a cat as a pet. Later, the plot demanded that the cat – poof! – become a dog. If you make a change like this, you can stop where you are and go back to the beginning to transform the cat everywhere it appears, not only changing the word, but also the animal’s behavior. Or you can wait until the end and then fix. The advantage of waiting until the end, I’ve recently discovered, is that the dog could later turn into an aardvark or three aardvarks or no pet at all.
As for planning and organizing, I don’t do a lot of either one before I begin writing. I have an idea. I write a few pages of notes and develop an impression, no more than that, of the way I want the story to go. If I’m working from a fairy tale, the fairy tale itself gives me a rough outline. But most fairy tales are only a few pages long and I’m writing a novel, so I have a great deal of improvising ahead.
Let’s revisit the suspense builders of the previous post. If you are coming to my blog for the first time, this new post will make more sense if you read the one before, from October 1st. You don’t need to go further back than that.
1. Time pressure. This could be something I know before I start writing. For example, in Ever I knew from the start that Kezi would believe she had a short life span ahead of her. I took care to remind the reader now and then of her days remaining, but I didn’t have to drop the reminders in very often, because a literal drop-dead-line is potent.
If I were going to title chapters in time intervals, I might start this at the beginning, but I could also do it in revision to give the book a more visible structure.
2. Distance. Ditto.
3. Thoughts. Revealing a character’s thoughts serves many purposes, not simply raising suspense. This does not require planning. You should get in the habit of including your main character’s thoughts – and feelings – as you go along. Not at every turn, but at many turns. Otherwise your character will be a puzzlement to your readers and may even seem flat and robotic.
4. Nonstop action. If I were writing this kind of book I would know it from the start, but I wouldn’t plan each twist and turn. I would look for opportunities as they were presented by setting, dialogue, the nature of the characters – by every story element.
5. Separation from the problem. As you’ve probably discovered, many – maybe most – of the best parts of a story are the result of happy accident. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I didn’t plan Addie’s separation from her sister as a suspense creator. My story had a sick sister and a healthy sister, who needed to save the sick one. She couldn’t do it by staying at home, and Meryl, the sick sister, was too ill to travel. Voila! Separation, which I made do double duty to raise the suspense.
6. A flaw in your main character. This might have to be planned from the get-go if it’s the engine that drives the story. But, in general, you want your main character to be at least a little flawed, so she can grow in the course of the story and so that the reader can love her. A paragon is hard to warm up to. A small flaw may still give you opportunities for suspenseful moments.
7. A flaw in a secondary character. Again, if this is the thrust of your story, it will help if you know it from the start. However, even if it is the most important thing, it may not begin that way. You may have something entirely different in mind when you stumble across this character, who passes himself off as the brother of the main character’s long-dead father, and – screech, skid around a corner – you discover what you really want to write about. The story continues from there. Don’t let planning get in the way of something wondrous. Serendipity is a writer’s good friend.
Let’s skip the others. I have nothing new to say about them. The degree of planning and organization varies from writer to writer. Some writers work everything out ahead. The wonderful young-adult author Walter Dean Myers once told me that by the time he starts writing he knows how many chapters he will have, the length of each one, and exactly how many sheets of paper to put in his printer.
My jaw hung open.
I’m not capable of this. If you’re not either, you have tools to help you: Jog your memory in your notes or in a separate document of the suspense elements that you want to return to again and again. Be open to the opportunities for suspense that pop up along the way. Take advantage of the accidents that your subconscious tosses you. Even allow your whole plot to be blown apart by some surprise that happens along. Remember to include your character’s or characters’ thoughts. For consistency, revise, revise, revise.
Here’s a fresh prompt on suspense. After I wrote my list of suspense producers last week, I started thinking that just about every situation can cause tension. Here I am, typing at my computer. Suppose the words that are appearing on my screen aren’t the words I’m typing. I would freak out, and a reader probably would too. So the prompt is: As you do whatever you’re doing today, think about how each action (putting on your socks, answering your teacher’s or boss’s questions, passing a store window), or each place (your bedroom, classroom or conference room, a city street) could be suspenseful. At the end of the day or whenever you can, write down the ideas that came to you. Have fun, and save what you write!
Before I go, thanks to everyone who’s posted comments and questions. I love knowing you’re out there, and the questions help me with new posts.