Tense again

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.

  1. Hi Miss Levine,
    It was such a pleasant surprise when I discovered your blog. I am aa huge fan of Ella Enchanted, once bordering obsession, and your tips in Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly is just magic. I tried out some of them, and now I can actually write a few pages without giving up or thinking its too boring.
    Thanks for all the wonderful advice you're sharing with us.

  2. I was thinking some more about this. It is interesting that you don't do a lot of planning and organizing before you write, because I have found that if I don't do at least some, I can't write *anything* that isn't extremely boring (if I can write anything at all.)

    I am beginning to think that what some writers call first drafts and some call outlines look nothing like what I think and rough draft or an outline would look like. I learned a lot once from a conference where an editor showed the steps a manuscript took between submission and the final picture book. I wonder if you would consider showing us the rough draft of a scene and how it developed in the final book?

  3. What I mean by a rough draft or an outline is what is the first thing you write down about a scene?

    Then do you build directly on that? Or just take those ideas and start writing something new on a clean page?

    Does that make more sense?

  4. Miss Levine,
    You're one of my favorite authors!(The Princess Test and Two Princesses are my fav.) I am so ecxited that you have a blog. I am a young writer and my gifted teacher is helping me meet with some other authors. I am going to take a look at your Writing Magic book. I will keep your suspense tips in mind. One question,when will your ogre with a cat/dog/aardvark book come out? It sounds exciting! Thanks so much.

  5. I am so glad I discovered your blog! Recently I decided I wanted to start writing down some of the stories that have been sloshing around in my head, so I started working on my first novel. The biggest hurdle for me has been trying to map out my plot. I've been working on a detailed plot treatment, but now I am stuck and can't figure out where I want things to go. After reading this post, I've decided I'm going to try winging it for a while–I'll just start writing and see where it takes me. Maybe it'll be just the thing I need to get everything moving in a good direction. Thank you!

  6. Thank you so much for all you shared at the OASL conference this past weekend in Salem, Oregon. I'm excited to follow your blog and learn more about becoming a better writer.

    I just have to share a quick story with you. Today I read your picture book, Betsy Who Cried Wolf, to our first and second graders. Not only was it a BLAST to read aloud, but the students LOVED it! They quickly picked up on helping me howl for the wolf, and "Looking to the right," then "Looking to the left." Great interactive story for elementary read aloud! The students were very excited when I told them I had met you and talked with you this past weekend. Very fun time in our library today, thanks to your great book! Can't wait for the next one!

  7. Hiya!
    I don't do much planning either. In fact, when I start a book all I see is a scene in my head. I'll think about that scene for days until I come up with a way to put it in a story. Even then all I really know is how the story will begin and how it will end. I just come up with scenes along and along as I write, and do other things. The only thing about this is, I'm usually influenced by music, books, and movies I'm exposed to.
    Are you influenced by other things as you write? Do you think this is a good or bad thing?

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