Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in detail in advance or do you just sit down and fly by the seat of your pants. I tend towards the latter, but in either case, the hope is that the result will be a novel. A good one with realistic characters and a gripping plot.
Last week I was confronted by a sort of third option – plotting with a few lines of dialogue. This a really intriguing idea came from Sophie Weston, who has sold about 12 million books world-wide. That’s a very nice number. Lots of zeros involved. She was speaking at a workshop in London. This is what I took home from that workshop.
Let’s start with the traditional idea of plotting. This involves mapping out the action of the story. I know people who do it on a spreadsheet. Others do it in a document. Post it notes all over a door is another popular method, or a roll of wallpaper and a handful of coloured pens.
In this way, events are mapped out, scenes are described, characters actions and of course the all-important conflicts and resolutions. All good stuff.
At that point, if it were me, I would stop. If I know all that, there’s no reason to write the book. For me the joy of writing is the exploration: the unexpected idea that seems to just flow out of my fingertips without me really thinking about it; the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to me as I write and the times when even I start to wonder if this conflict will ever be resolved. I could never be a plotter.
But Sophie Weston suggested another idea. Dialogue. Not too much of it. Just a few lines where the characters reveal something of themselves, or react to an event. These are the key turning points of the story defined – without the detail.
Think about this moment in Star Wars….
What a moment. It’s a turning point for the film. It changes everything for Luke. And for Vader. It adds new levels to both characters and to their conflict. Four words. That’s all it took.
In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise says to Rene Zellweger – ‘You complete me.’ It’s the moment when he admits he loves her. When planning the story, you could write …. he goes to her house where she is with a group of female friends and then he tells her he loves her. Or, in the outline you could just write three words and let the rest flow naturally as you write.
‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat. ’ In Jaws, this is the sign of worse trouble ahead. You don’t have to decide in advance when and where and to whom that is said. It’s just a line that tells us here is a place where the stakes must be raised.
‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives us his whole character in just two lines of dialogue.
And let’s not forget Casablanca – with Bogie and Bergman. ‘All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ I don’t have to write a backstory. That line gives me all the backstory I need to know when I start writing. I can discover the details as I write.
All my books start with the opening scene in my head, and the closing scene. My job is to get my characters from scene one to the last page in a believable and interesting and moving way. I’m going to have a go at writing a key line of two of dialogue before I really get into writing the book. I need lines that say a lot about my story and characters. If I can come up with a great line, I can build the story to that point, without having to map it out scene by scene. I will know where I am going without writing so much detail that the story looses its freshness and spark.
It’s plotting, without plotting. And without giving away too much of the story to myself.
Thinking about the work in progress, I can see and hear my central character saying ‘I need your help.’ I know who she is saying it to, and just how hard it is for her to say it. That’s already telling me things about her back story and her character. I’m off now to write the next chapter.
Thank you Sophie Weston for the idea. I’ll let you know how I go.