8.03.2017

One Step Ahead

When you are plotting your novel, use the concept of veils. A certain array of plot events lie on one veil, but if you whisk it away, what occurs on the veil beneath it? Can you also rip that one away to uncover another one? You may be thinking that to create such a construct, you must be diabolically clever, but that’s not true. You just haven’t spent enough time planning.

Every plot event contains a hidden potential. That’s because the reader only knows what you permit her to know about the event. Let’s take an example. To impress a gangbanger, a young man steals a car. At a stoplight about to change, he brazenly opens someone’s car door, yanks the driver out and, jumping in, roars off. Nice scene, you say to yourself. But if the follow-up is merely the gangland guy saying, “Good job,” you’re not thinking ahead.

Key aspects of that scene have possible contingencies. Which gang does the impressed one belong to? How high up on the food chain is he? What about the car: does it have unique features that would permit tracking it? How about that driver? What if his mother is the mayor (and it’s her prized vehicle)? And I haven’t even talked about the injuries the driver suffered after being thrown out of the car.

Those aspects lie on the veil beneath the veil containing the carjacking. By now you may be shrugging: okay, I could have done that. But the what-ifs aren’t the crucial part of the exercise. Even as you’re devising the next veil, you should be thinking about the veil below that.

You should be scheming on multiple screens. At the top of one file you place the heading: gangster. In a series of short paragraphs, you run out where the links to the gangster could go. How many scenes could you write on him, and how many could contain new revelations that the carjacker doesn’t know? At the top of another file you write: mayor. What type of relationship does she have with her son? How about her hold on the police chief, in charge of tracking down the car? In a series of scenes, you explore the interesting twists along that skein.

Once you have devised different trails, you can braid them. You literally can mix and match paragraph summaries from different files in creating the plot outline. That’s not so awesomely clever, is it?

Exercise: Try to get in the habit of stopping at each plot juncture to think of interesting possibilities. If you lay out potential arcs based on the characters involved and the clues left behind, you’ll keep providing yourself with future options. You may decide, after thinking through how the skein would affect other plot elements, that it throws the book out of whack, but that’s hardly a problem. Nothing’s been committed to paper yet.

“It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.”
—John Keats

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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