Directing Notes

The notes that an author draws up before starting a novel and then adds to as the early chapters take shape tend to fall in two categories: character notes and plot notes. You keep coming up with attributes that you want characters to have, and as you pen them, you realize that a characteristic could take active form in a related plot event. By the same token, you write down a plot event and realize that affects the characters in that scene. This cross-pollination builds up a mass that anchors you more firmly in the fictional world that you want to create.

Yet too often a note—a good idea at the time—can be written down and subsequently forgotten. As you forge ahead, you recall its vague after-echo but not its content. You can plunge into writing a new scene not exactly sure what you want from it. A few writing sessions later, you emerge with a scene that feels okay but seems to waste a lot of time getting to its point, which itself might seem minor.

How do you remember your good ideas? You can make a deliberate practice of placing them where you’ll see them later: in your outline. Let’s say you are planning a murder. That entails not only the act committed but the people who might have done it and the clues they left behind. Many of those ideas you have already written down, but they’re not organized. Some are related to character, others to plot. In other words, they’re scattered all over the place.

Start a new file: notes related to the murder. Comb through each of your note files and search for any element related to the murder. Copy and paste the notes into the new file. They don’t have to be in order, just roughly when you gauge the note should occur. When you are done, you may find you have a dozen notes that all demand explication. They must happen at some time during the story. 

You can see right away how much the practice informs your outline. Now that all of the related notes are in front of you, you can select places where they go. You can decide which ones are important, necessitating an entire scene, and which are incidental, the ones that are mentioned. You’re no longer stumbling forward, but acting on the ideas you really liked.

Exercise: Many notes around a single plot event tend to coalesce during one stretch of the novel. You get the largest flurry of setup and clues and discussion shortly before and after a murder, for example. Yet from this new file you can also see which ones require follow-up later. Any further ideas can be pushed down the list. You can even determine, at a very early stage, how the plot thread will be tied up in the end.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.