Through the Labyrinth: Plotting the Story
Plotting. Plotting, plotting, plotting. Plotting. Plotting. Plotting, plotting! It’s the one aspect of novel writing that scares me the most. The thing that makes me wake in the middle of the night, saying to myself, “Of course! This is what happens next!” The miracle idea that by morning’s sad light seems inane, or cheesy, or worst of all, utterly nonsensical. Plotting. Now what happens? How does this present event connect back to that other event, four chapters in the past? Why on earth is this person taking this particular action now, for what reason? What do I have to do to make this event actually make sense in the narrative? Where the hell is this story going to? Where will it end? And oh my god, do I even have an ending?! In fact, when writers moan to their friends that they’re “stuck”, invariably they’re referring to a problem with the plot: the damn thing just won’t work!
And in the crime mystery or the thriller, plotting can seem like the most important element of them all. Characters are often caught up in the narrative’s grasp; they struggle against it. A single punch or bullet can smash the plot to pieces, or hopefully swing it into a new and startling direction. And then there’s the clues. Those little details that only make sense at the very end of the book: how do you scatter them throughout, so that they both reveal and hide a secret? It seems like an impossible task. Surely, it can’t be done. And yet thousands of writers do it, and even more readers enjoy the ride. And a plot is a ride, either slow or fast, smooth or bumpy. Just please, please, please, don’t let me run out of petrol along the way.
So we join Theseus in the labyrinth seeking to kill the monster at its centre, the minotaur. The endless twisting pathways, the false turnings, the dead ends. It’s so easy to get lost. But let’s remember that Theseus wasn’t quite alone in his wanderings: he had with him a ball of thread, given him by Ariadne, the daughter of the labyrinth’s builder. Our hero lays this thread out as he moves along, as a guide to which pathways he’s already taken, and a way back to the exit. And the old word for a ball of yarn or thread: a clew. Oh language, when will you ever lose your beauty? Never, I hope. So the clues are not just a set of mysteries, but also a guide. Let us follow them...
In many ways, the plot of A Man of Shadows came last, following the creation of the city of light and dark, and then the characters of a troubled private eye and a runway teenage girl. I had a pathway for my hero Nyquist to follow, from Day to Night, to Dusk, but the twists and turns eluded me for quite a while. I actually wrote an entire draft, story finished, with a plot of sorts in place, one that never satisfied my longing for a good tale well told. I think it’s enough to get the first draft of a book finished in one form or other, however rough, and then sit back, let it rest for a while, and see what further secrets unfold. First drafts are to be written, not to be studied over; the second and third drafts are where we craft the corners and joints. So a while later I came up with a new plot idea, an idea that really excited me. It made me retrieve the first draft from its folder and look at it in a fresh light. I started to write again, from the very beginning, feeding this new plot into the underlying structure that I’d already created. And that, after a lot of work, became the novel as it stands.
I think plotting is especially intriguing and difficult in a crime novel, because the writer is looking for a simple, but surprising core idea: why somebody did something nasty to somebody else. And from that central idea a complexity of other plot points and character arcs arise, essentially designed to hide the central truth. Only at the end of the story, when the complexity falls away, is the truth revealed. So the mystery writer’s job is to wrap complexity around a hidden simplicity. A tricky business: two opposing strands, working together to make one story. I found myself doing a lot of planning on paper, a lot of note-taking, a lot of revising to make it all work. And every time a plot point is changed, or a new thing added, it’s never an isolated incident. A novel is a network, and all changes lead to other changes, in the past and the future, and they all have to be attended to. It’s like unpicking and re-stitching a spider’s web. As the hungry spider (self-doubt) sits in wait.
Some authors plan out every narrative detail in advance on wall charts and index cards; others just start writing with a vague idea and follow it where it may. I tend to use both approaches, having a fairly strong concept in mind for future events, but open at all times to improvisation. I liken it to a chess game. The writer makes a move, the book replies with its own move. The writers responds, the book sacrifices a bishop, and throws the writer askew. But the game, the plot, continues, until the draft is finished. So a plot is a labyrinth, a spider’s web, and a chess game. We are well into the realm of mixed metaphors now, so let us imagine Theseus playing chess with the minotaur, at the very centre of the web’s labyrinth. Knight’s pawn to bishop five. Rook takes pawn. Queen to King four. Anyone can win the game, but Theseus has one hidden advantage; the fingers of one hand are holding tightly onto the end of a very long piece of silken thread. In his mind, the pathways glow with light.
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