We completely missed the TV series 24 first time round but when I spotted it on the charity shop bargain DVD shelf I thought it might while away the dark evenings (that’s dark as in a wet August rather than ‘deep and dark December’) And so for the last couple of weeks we’ve been reliving Jack Baur’s Difficult Day as I think of it - which has also provided some food for thought on the matter of plotting. (No apologies for plot spoilers – I assume you all saw it yonks ago!)
First of all, there’s the conflict at work in every situation: Jack’s job is to save the presidential candidate but his heart is telling him to find his daughter – tension right from the start. Then when his wife and daughter are kidnapped and the only way he can save them is to shoot his closest colleague and ex-lover – how’s that for raising the stakes! Okay this is a thriller, but even in mainstream fiction we have to give our characters not only choices but difficult choices, preferably impossible choices, matters of life and death or whatever the equivalent might be in another genre – that’s what will get our readers turning the pages.
And it’s not just Jack who’s in a spot of bother. The candidate Palmer finds his selection is about to be compromised by family secrets. Again, what matters most, career or family? But this isn’t the only sub-plot. All of the main characters (Baur’s daughter, the candidate’s wife, most of the people who work in Jack’s intelligence unit and even some of the conspirators) have decisions and dilemmas of his or her own. For a while I was reminded (in a way!) of Love Actually – who can get bored with so many people to keep tabs on? And these sub-plots are orchestrated to provide cliff-hangers at the end of each episode which by the use of split screens are shown simultaneously.
The writer is also a master of surprise, the kind of twist that makes you say ‘I didn’t see that coming’ while realising the clues have been there all along. The best of these (so far) is when the obviously (!) dependable father of Kim Baur’s friend is suddenly revealed as part of the evil hit-squad. As someone once explained, a twist involves leading the reader one way then changing direction. Some baddies exude evil from page 1, but how much better if you’ve been thinking all along that they’re on the side of the righteous?
Half-way through the series I am suspecting everyone but also a bit disconcerted to find we seem to be having a plot pause (is this really two stories stuck together, or does Jack just need some shut-eye?) But generally it has been impressive.
Conflict, sub-plots, cliff-hangers and plot-twists. I know that none of this is new. But seeing something work on the screen sometimes brings home what needs to happen on the page.
Can you tell a joke? I find it’s not that easy.
You heard this particular joke a while back. It’s a good joke and you think you remember how it goes and so off you go. ‘Listen to this one,’ you say. But half way through you realise it’s not going to work because you’ve somehow given away part of the punch-line. Or you get all the way to the end and discover the punch-line won’t work because you’ve missed some vital detail along the way. Either way there’s a fair chance that for the joke to work you’re going to have to start telling it all over again, from the beginning.
Well a novel is a tad longer than the average joke, and not necessarily comical, but in terms of the plot it works in much the same way. The information has to be revealed in just the right order and at just the right pace or it won’t work. And if when you get to the end, or even half way through, you find your joke is falling flat, it’s a very long way back to the start.
Stand-up comedy, anyone?
I’ve only ever read one title from Snowbooks (it could have been two but a gargantuan tome on Schuman defeated me)and that’s the admirable Needle in the Blood, but I do think their blog is excellent. There’s something added every day (including weekends!) and it’s always worth a look. Tuesday was no exception with Emma providing a fascinating insight into the life of a small publisher. As I guess is the case in most small businesses, the productivity of individual staff is prodigious – also the enthusiasm. I left a comment but didn’t dare ask if they have got around to viewing my own submission, entered last July (oops- January!)
I’m sure they are doing all they can and as, unlike some, they do send out rejections, I guess it’s just a question of time!
Meanwhile blogging is very much in the background as I wrestle (some more) with Ailsa’s story. I’ve had a stab at a new opening and feel I am beginning to successfully reimagine (great word, Jane!) the whole thing. But next week I’m off for a one-to-one tutorial at Bristol Uni where my plot will be subjected to the scrutiny of Our Course Leader, so until then it’s at least one double maths session each day. Since I’ve never got the hang of plotting on index cards, I’m currently grappling with a Word table which looks like going 3D or at least full colour any minute now. I even found myself considering using Excel.
What kind of madness is this?
How I regret that in my life as a reader I’ve paid so little attention to plot. Ask me about any novel that’s stuck in my mind and I’m likely to tell you about the characters the settings or the general situation, and when I sat down to write New History that’s all I thought I needed: characters and the situation that brings them together. How wrong could I be? However crucial the characters are (and they are) none of it will work without a plot, or rather a whole set of plots that will keep those people together (or apart) for as long as it takes to resolve their difficulties, and all the while respecting the characters we started with in the first place. Then there’s the whole information thing. Having decided the actual train of events, we have to work who knows what and when, into which we must also factor in the reader, i.e. how much does the writer reveal or conceal to keep him/her turning the pages. In this respect every novel, I have decided, is a detective novel.
If only I read more detective fiction!