When an author comes from a 9-to-5 career of any sort, the dictum to write what you know can have pitfalls. Experiences that either you have had or that happened within your profession can stand out in your mind like shiny baubles. Who wouldn’t want to read, for instance, about that gas explosion that rocked the manholes down on 14th Street? Or that really crazy one on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago? 

The characters in such planning may seem vivid to you, but already I’m thinking: how is a fireman in New York connected to an explosion in Chicago? In other words, are the characters following the action or orchestrating it? The answer better be the latter, or they’ll be pawns in your game of fictionalized real life.

At the same time, I like excitement of any sort, like most readers. So how can you fold disparate incidents into a cohesive evolving whole? The first step is to write down all of the ones floating in your mind. Let’s say you want to include 10 of them. Rank them in a list that roughly places when you’d like to feature them in the book. If you’re smart, you’ll put the less exciting ones early and the catastrophic ones later. That way they will help build the drama.

Next, write down a list of your main characters—no more than five. Rank them by number, 1-5. Now return to your list of incidents and think to which character you’d like to assign them. Write their number down with that entry on the list. When you’re done, how many incidents do you have for how many characters? Your protagonist had better be associated with more of them than anyone else. How about the #2 character? Maybe three of them? Could you work out a way that #1 and 2 appear together at some of them?

Third, consider the before and after. If an explosion comes out of the blue at the reader, it will seem random. Sometimes that’s okay, but most of the time you want to set up a plot logic prior to the incident—to make it believable, if nothing else. So draw up a list of beforehand scenes that are attached to each incident. Which characters are appearing in that scene? In some cases, you’ll want the villains planning the incident. In others, you might have the good guys worrying about the next explosion. Try to assign all beforehand scenes to a main character.

You can do the same with the after scenes. What are the repercussions of the incident? The more you have your main characters react, the more the reader will feel included in the story. That’s because your main characters should be the threads connecting the incidents. Then you’ll have a novel that hangs together.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”  —Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.