A friend who is currently teaching script-writing asked me the other day if I use diagrams when plotting, or in any other way in my writing. It was an interesting question to be asked because I do, but not as a planner would. (Being a pure pantser, I don’t map stuff out at all before I write.)
Where I often find diagrams useful is in the process of editing a draft – particularly a scratch draft or a first draft – and I use them to examine logic. It might be that I know there’s a logic problem, or – as with PAR in recent weeks – I’ve got multiple sets of motivations feeding into movements and interactions, so I have to explore each set independently to check they hold up on their own and aren’t just serving the plot.
I also sometimes diagram to check how much time has passed over a sequence of chapters, as I lose track of how many days have gone by about as easily as my characters do!
Credit to my brain, it does a good job of getting logic and the passage of time right in the pantser chaos it prefers. I rarely find any big things wrong when I do my diagrams. They do, however, get me thinking about other things – probably because they get me looking at the story from different angles – and I find that interesting and often very valuable in itself.
Sometimes I laugh at the application of the “scene must have conflict” idea. Sometimes I weep! Particularly in TV shows where excellent writing can be ruined by someone ramping the conflict up to ridiculous levels.
Exhibit A from my recent watching was the penultimate season of a legal show, in which every scene in every episode was either a break-up or make-up. To achieve this, characters who were on the same side of the greater narrative conflict kept suddenly turning on each other. They then, of course, had to make up the breach so a few scenes later they could have another fight!
I found this absolutely exhausting. It was just such ‘shouty’ writing.
Also, you quickly realised that none of these conflicts were real conflicts and none of them would influence the narrative in any way. They were conflict for the sake of having conflict in the scene, so why was I watching them?
Possibly this would have been less annoying if I’d watched it weekly on traditional TV, instead of episodes back-to-back, but even then I can imagine the result being the same – I’m never getting to the final season.
Sometimes a scene needs to be there for a reason other than conflict.
I have had a hellish two weeks with the PAR! After being sooooo excited to start on a second draft, I hit a total go-slow in my writing brain (not sure what Mr Daemon has been imbibing!) and it’s been damn painful. What I needed was a completely new chapter to slip between existing Ch1 and Ch2. That turned out to be way more challenging than expected!
The reason? When I read the draft, I was jarred by the large time-gap between them and it needed a ‘bridging’ chapter. This was a better way to show the aftermath of Ch1 and the protag’s change through to the time where the bulk of the novel is set too, so it seemed simple. Totally not.
I discovered it was hard to:
- pick a point in time between the existing chapters that made sense
- decide what to cover in terms of aftermath/growth without completely gutting the existing Ch2
- choose events which gave the new chapter a good justification for existing, beyond the simple time-jump-bridging.
I think I may have written 7 different scenes. Some were variations of the same scenes and some were alternate scenes. The result was a new chapter that is about a thousand words too long! Sheesh.
At some point I’ll get that word count down, but for now I moved onto re-working the original Ch2. Also painful! Editing so it fits with the additional chapter has turned out to be its own hell.
For some reason that chapter just wants to be all dialogue. I don’t know why (secretly suspect a certain winged beastie has been watching too many movies) but it’s done my head in.
Maybe it’s a good thing to get the really tough stuff out of the way at the beginning? I’m pretty sure nothing else in this 2nd draft will be as tough.
You know, I wrote the title for this post and thought that’s actually a cool idea for a story! But no, I haven’t (yet) run off on another project. The black hole I’m referring to is a narrative one I fell into at the end of last week. Because there’s a gap in my story. A dark, deep hole that I’m still dangling a plumb line into to work out the depth.
It always strikes me as funny that the width of the hole can be quite small (I just need to get my character from here to there), but the depth – all the stuff you have to work out to fill in this gap – can be brain-bending!
The good thing in this case, is that I feel like I’m filling in a few further holes that were between here and the end as I go. How do I fill in holes, I hear you ask? I write out lists of questions like:
- If character z knows that the well is poisoned, then when did she find out and does she have an antidote?
- Could character p suspect z knows the well is poisoned? Could they be wrong?
Sometimes I scribble in an answer. Sometimes all the questions that follow indicate I’ve picked an answer. Sometimes they just stay as questions.
I don’t know if anyone else takes this approach, but I find it effective. It stops me from obsessing over finding answers before moving on to developing a new question and strange left-field things tend to pop up as a result. That or my brain suddenly goes “huh! that’s why we have the tame bobcat in the lake scene”.
It would be nice if my writing brain cells could put up hazard barriers or warning signs before I step into these holes, but then I guess the writing daemon and I wouldn’t be having so much fun thinking up new stuff!
Now this won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s read this blog over the years, but I am a bit of a film-fan. I’ve even mentioned before that it’s not uncommon I find books by first seeing the films based on them.
After having watched You before me a few months back and enjoyed it for a wonderful quirky protagonist and a sweet but sad romantic storyline, I thought it would be interesting to read the book. This led to my discovering they really didn’t change much between the two versions, though I liked what they pruned out for the movie.
The book though was interesting for another reason altogether.
It is a largely first person narrative with the bulk of the book in a single point of view. Where it deviates from these two things are curious. Firstly, it starts in third person. For only a bit over a thousand words of the point of view of the love interest. Then it sits in the protag’s first person for ages. Then there’s one chapter in an ancillary character’s POV, also first person. Then back to the protag for a while. Then another ancillary character. Then protag. Then another ancillary character. Finishes, finally on the protag.
Is it just me, or is that weird?
The ancillary characters are all fairly important people in the plot, but their POVs aren’t important at all. They expand on character and extend their different voices, but that’s about it. In the case of the last one – the protag’s sister – this POV change occurs at a crucial emotional and decision making moment for the protag, which I found downright jarring. The other two were harmless.
But what’s with the opening in 3rd? To me that’s really weird. Essentially it is more like a prologue without being labelled as one and, right at the start like that, you kind of forgive it.
Of course it was an interesting thing to read – a romance with an underlying social issue – after reading a literary novel that also mixed third and first. I think Hannah Kent had more justification for her choice, but it’s funny to see these kind of structures in such popular and film-convertable books.
In the past two months I’ve had a similar conversation with a couple of writers I know and the topic has been “characters who do unexpected things”. It seems a lot of people are have had to break out the whip and chair, circus lion tamer style, to get their characters back in line.
Or not. If we’re honest, we sometimes have to let them wander off and do those unexpected and frustrating things, because strangely they seem to know more about their story than we do! Just to prove that our conscious minds are not as in control of things as we’d like to pretend.
Of course this isn’t limited to characters. A friend complained recently that she’d put a ring in a story, just so a character would have something to fiddle with in a scene, and now the ring is looking for its own series! Oh yeah, it happens.
My characters have been doing a bit of this in the PAR (mostly they’ve been a bit more amorous than expected), but they had been pretty well behaved until yesterday. Then it turned out one of them had been married previously. This I did not know! But I’ve forgiven them for up-ending a subplot. Well, mostly forgiven…still harbouring a little resentment.
Once upon a time, I used to feel a bit sick about throwing out hundreds of words. Blank-page re-writes of whole chapters were nausea inducing. But times change and, as I threw out 30,000 words the other day, I realised that I actually like doing it now.
Blank-paging a story – no matter the size – is just so freeing! You get to pretend like you haven’t already written it and work back in all the good things about the first go.
These days it’s a technique I highly recommend.