ADVANCING YOUR NOVEL’S STORYLINE
Unlike my literary hero, the great Ken Follett, I do not find that meticulously plotting every twist and turn in a series of outlines works for me. That’s not to say that I don’t have a finishing point for the story firmly fixed in my mind at the outset, and usually how the final big scene will play out too. But what happens on the journey between the two can be entirely flexible. As the story progresses I get to know my characters far better, and ideas for their development frequently just pop into my head out of nowhere. To quote the old cliché, it all becomes ‘character driven’.
Questions – questions – questions
I’ve always found that the easiest way to build a plot is by asking myself a series of relevant questions. To simplify this, let’s take a random example – a story about Karen, a sensitive and insecure young girl of 16 who is drawn into taking part in a challenge to sit alone at midnight and watch what is publicised as ‘The most ghoulish and horrifying movie ever to be released’.
I actually remember an event very similar to this being staged at a local cinema back in the 1960s, so let’s place the story in that era, a time when people were far more likely to be shocked by such graphic savagery. Except that the young girl who actually took part back then was far from being shy and sensitive. As I remember, she collected her variety of prizes with no trouble at all. However, back to our fictional girl Karen and those questions.
Q. Given her sensitive nature, why would Karen take part in such a stunt?
A. Possibly because she is in desperate need of the prize money on offer.
Q. Okay, but what is that desperate need?
A. Could it be someone is blackmailing her?
Q. Maybe. But who is blackmailing her? And over what?
A. Perhaps Karen has run away from home because of a stepfather she is terrified of. The blackmailer is a youth from her home village who is on holiday. He threatens to reveal Karen’s whereabouts to her step-parent.
Q. Does Karen manage to pay him off?
A. No. Given her sensitivity, she cannot stomach to sit through the film to the end. She is humiliated and has no prize money to collect.
Q. So, does the blackmailer carry through his threat?
A. No. Before he can do so he is mysteriously murdered.
Q. By whom?
A. For several weeks Karen is living on her nerves as she agonises over the answer to this question. But then a hard looking girl the same age as herself called Jo comes knocking on her bedsit door. Karen sees Jo as someone strong – someone who can help her through this difficult time. Before long, they are sharing a flat together.
Jo’s influence over Karen’s thinking and behaviour continues to grow. Karen believes she is becoming a stronger person, but in reality Jo is manipulating her. Eventually Jo confides in Karen that she was the one responsible for the blackmailer’s murder.
Q. Where does Jo come from? What is her true motive in befriending Karen? How does Karen react to Jo’s latest revelation? Is there anyone who can help her to escape the girl’s Svengali-like influence before something terrible happens?
And so on …………
Okay, maybe this isn’t the greatest of plots. But the system works. The same process of Q and A can apply to almost any starting point you have in mind.