Storytelling is about two things; it's about character and plot.
“Character is plot, plot is character.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“But my philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes.”
George R.R. Martin
“Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.”
Actually, if you are writing a story, of course it’s not the question. You have got to plot. The question is how. Some authors tend to plot in great detail before writing a line of the real story. Others start off with a rough outline—maybe only a few points—and then let the story “grow as they write”—which is another way of saying they make it up as they go along.
I’m a great believer in creative spontaneity—letting the story grow on the page—but I do think it helps to have an outline—even if minimal—before you start. In particular, I like to have a beginning, an end, and a title. Without a title I find it impossible to write. A title is extraordinarily important. It provides focus—and on a practical level, it helps you organize your notes and supporting files in some logical way. Given my penchant for forgetting the names of files I have opened—I suffer from a form of dyslexia which makes for administrative chaos—I need some routines to anchor me. Also, you can change the title once the book is written. Don’t change it in the middle or confusion will be rife. Your supporting material will be all over the place.
My first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, was, in fact, written under the title of THE IRISH SAMURAI—a title I still like. I can’t recall why we changed it except that it was at the initiation of the publisher. They did it very nicely in that I was asked to come up with alternatives. I recall making a long list—with GAMES OF THE HANGMAN being towards the end. Nonetheless, that’s the one we settled on—and it has served me well.
I initially picked THE IRISH SAMURAI because I saw my main protagonist—the hero, if you will—as having the nature, military skills, and traditions of a samurai—albeit an Irish version. Though I changed a lot of the details, that core concept drove the creation of the character. Of course, a samurai is really someone who serves a high master—so, since my protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, serves no one—he is, if anything, either the master or a ronin (masterless samurai) . But let’s not get technical.
I would still rather like to write a story under that name—and may do so.
Where plotting a thriller is concerned, I now have a simple technique I use which divides the setting-up of a story into the following. I then assemble lists under these headings. I don’t need lots of detail in most cases. My memory works pretty well—if prompted—but it does need prompting.
- CHARACTERS (People). I think about my characters a great deal and really get to know them. From character comes motivation.
- LOCATIONS (Places). I find visiting places inspires plot ideas.
- EVENTS (Situations). Someone once told me that a story consists of getting someone into trouble—getting them into even more trouble—and then getting them out it. There is some truth to that. I like to start a story off with a pivotal event which then drives the story to its conclusion.
- WEAPONS & TECHNOLOGIES (Gadgets). I like introducing unusual weapons and technologies
- TIMELINE. This varies in importance depending on the story. I keep a very close eye on it, but don’t emphasize it in the writing unless it is relevant.
It is quite hard to find a balance between writing with clarity—which I like to do—while keeping the plot complex enough to be interesting.
When writing the story, I try and adhere to the following principles
- GIVE THE BACKGROUND TO ALL MAIN CHARACTERS
- INTRODUCE HUMOR AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE WITHIN REASON
- AVOID PREDICTABILITY.
- INTRODUCE SURPRISES FREQUENTLY
- END EACH CHAPTER WITH A HOOK
- KEEP SCENES SHORT
- KEEP THE WRITING TIGHT
Except when writing a piece like this, I don’t try and analyze how I write. I don’t want to become self-conscious about it. Mostly, I just write.
The secrets of writing—mostly—are reading, writing, time, talent, and endurance. So simple. So hard.
What role does talent play? Ten percent? I don’t really know. What I do know is that raw talent is not enough. It takes a great deal of work before raw talent becomes fruitful. Conversely, given enough application, I have the feeling that minimal talent can be substantially enhanced.
Developed talent is another thing entirely. In the writing world, someone with developed talent is generally known as an author.
That said, no author ever writes quite as well as he or she wants. We writers live with with failure. It’s quite a paradox that such failures are so pleasurable.