Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Writing as chess

Barbara here. I was entertained by Aline's post about the French award for Page 112.  In truth, I think all of us should receive an award for getting to, and past, Page 112. There is a point in the saggy middle of every book when all the brilliant plot ideas that propelled us into the story have been used up, but the end looms nowhere in sight. We still need to dream up material to fill at least 100 more pages before we can bring the wretched thing to its much deserved end. And I don't mean just flabby, meandering prose that limps down one blind alley after another, nor an endless series of contrived crises that pass for tension and suspense in some circles. When I read "action-packed" books like that, I think "Oh for Pete's sake, not another explosion!"

I've often heard story telling, especially mystery story telling, being described as throwing a bunch of balls up in the air, juggling them, and then miraculously catching them all and bringing them safely back to earth by the end. There is a certain truth to this analogy, especially when you are at the page 200 mark, with dozens of balls in the air, and you're terrified of forgetting some ball that will drop on your head at the end, or remain suspended in the ether until some astute reader points it out, long after the book's release.

However, I actually think the closer analogy, at least for my writing style, is more like a peculiar chess game in which the pieces are introduced one at a time until there is a full board, and then they move strategically, each move being dependent on the one made before, until the final checkmate. I use a variant of the "pantster" method of writing with some "plotter" mixed in. I don't outline or plot ahead of time; rather, the next scene grows out of the one that came before. Thus I can't anticipate the end, nor even very far ahead. In the beginning, perhaps the first 112 pages, I am introducing elements of the story, developing the complexity of the situation and unfolding the conflicts of the characters. This is pure fun and creativity. After that, in the saggy middle, the challenge of working with those elements begins. Characters make moves and counter-moves. Each character's moves are determined by what they would do next. I am always asking myself "At this point, with this development, what would be this character's next step?"

I'm actually a very poor chess player, so perhaps this analogy is quite wrong for the master chess player who envisages his whole sequence of moves ahead of time and knows exactly how he will win. But the analogy works for me. When I play chess, I try to think several moves ahead, or at least line up my possible moves in my head. But I can't see how the game will end until it's very nearly upon me. So I am with advancing the plot, by seeing only a few scenes ahead at any time.

I am aware of two storytelling devices as I move my story forward. First, that each step has to move the story forward towards uncovering the solution, even if I don't know what that is. The second is that things must never get boring. Plod work is skipped over, back-to-back scenes of similar content–such as inner monologues, interviews, phone conversations, etc.–are avoided. And every now and then, I ask myself what would really shake things up? What would be the most unexpected thing to happen to a character? I like surprises that slam the character, and the reader, off course.

In practice, what this style means is that I write for awhile, hit a wall, brainstorm the next few scenes, write them, hit another wall, etc. In this fashion, I inch towards that magical checkmate. Often the brainstorming occurs on long drives or walks, when I have lots of uninterrupted thinking time and no distractions. Yesterday I was driving home from a research trip and used to time to brainstorm my way through the next section of my current novel. The problem with brainstorming while going 120 kph is that I can't write down the brilliant ideas as they come to me, but have to rely on my sometimes capricious memory instead. Fearing the ideas might completely vanish by the time I arrive home, I have on occasion pulled off the road (once into a liquor store parking lot) and jotted the whole sequence down on the back of whatever paper was at hand. Yesterday I pulled off the highway and sat at the stop sign to record my ideas on my iPhone. Hurray for technology!

Now I am all set to write the next small section of the book. I am curious to know what other writers do to get from Page 112 to the end of the book. What tricks do you have up your sleeve?


Kristina Stanley said...

I wish I could brainstorm while walking or driving.I have to be writing with a pen or at my keyboard for ideas to actually arrive in my brain.

Sybil Johnson said...

Love the post. I'm sort of a combination of plotter and pantser, also, although I do know the end. I have a digital recorder that I use while I'm in my car. You can set it to voice activation mode and you can talk your ideas into it. That way nothing gets forgotten!