I’m rubbish at plots, I really am. I simply cannot think of things to happen to people. I don’t know why this is my weak area, because I have plenty of imagination, but I just don’t have that stream of ‘then this happens, then this, then THAT could happen…’ Characters, yes. Atmosphere, pacing, rhythm – yes, I can do all of those. But plot defeats me.
Which is why I’m bad at planning. I don’t really like to plan my books. Sometimes it can work, but for me the nicest way to write is to let a book evolve as it progresses.
Yesterday, I was working on my Big Special Project, the one that my agent didn’t like and then did like and which has been through so many permutations that I practically need a new hard drive just for all its files. Anyway, I got stuck with a bit of plot.
This was the scene I was working on: The central character (a girl, let’s call her Sophie), was looking for her best friend (Cathy) who had been kidnapped. Sophie didn’t know where Cathy was, but in some way she needed to discover that the right location was a building that Cathy had visited the day before.
That’s it. Simple, you’d think. Only – not. In one previous version, Cathy had sent a coded text message that Sophie had to decipher. In the version immediately prior to this, Sophie’s mobile phone had started scrolling computer code that gave her vital clues as to Cathy’s whereabouts. (Mobile phones are kind of central to the story.) But they didn’t quite work. They felt contrived. I didn’t know how to get the right information to Sophie.
I began to write the scene again. Sophie was re-tracing the steps Cathy was supposed to have taken the day before. She ended up at the building Cathy had visited, but stared hopelessly at it, unsure it would be any help. Because the story is set in a seaside town, I added in a few other people to the scenery: a couple birdwatching, a man walking his dog and a woman on a bench.
And THEN the miracle happened. As I wrote, the man and the dog approached Sophie and the dog actually bumped into her, enthusiastic to say hello. The owner apologised for his dog’s behaviour and said she was a very friendly dog who never barked at anyone, except the day before when the owner of the building had come out. The security guards had tried to chase him and his dog away, but the kids hadn’t minded. ‘Kids?’ asked Sophie, the dialogue flowing smoothly under my fingers. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the ones who’d visited the day before.’
‘Oh,’ said Sophie, ‘they didn’t all get home. My friend is still missing.’ She describes Cathy, and the man says casually ‘well, of course, she went BACK into the building when the others left. The owner called her back in, and she didn’t come out again.’
And BINGO. Suddenly, my plot problem is solved, in a completely uncontrived way. Well, it’s contrived in that the man happened to be walking his dog at exactly the right time, but then I’m allowed coincidences because they happen all the time in real life. And I’ve paraphrased, of course, because the scene is longer than that – but basically, that’s the idea.
And so through a character I only added in at the last minute for a bit of scenic colour, my plot evolves and develops. And THAT is the magic of writing the way I do it, and why writing can be the most exciting and surprising and satisfying thing to do.