Sunday, 14 September 2008

What drives the narrative?


A simple question: where to begin? I'll narrow it down. I'm thinking about plot and character. Which leads the writing?
In my own writing, I need a starting point which is generally an action - usually a body, in my case! That leads me to dart (or shamble?) off in different directions: the identity of the corpse, the killer, his/her motive and then the unravelling. How is the murderer discovered? The answers take some thought and planning in order to devise a coherent plot.
But - (always listen out for the "but" - one of the most significant words in the English language) - my characters take on a life of their own and pull my ideas in directions of their own. That can lead to mayhem. The characters don't care if the plot is too obvious or completely obscure, if it's logical or blatantly absurd. They just want to be fleshed out. This is where the whole narrative can degenerate into chaos.
On the other hand, to use a character to carry out an action that he or she would never do blows the whole illusion out of the water. So there's a constant tension between where the story needs to go, and what the characters would credibly do.
When I think about it, the whole thing sounds so complicated, I wonder why I ever embarked on this writing lark at all. Like so much in life. Do we overcomplicate the straightforward? That's a question for another post.
Is crime fiction more restricting than other types of fiction, in the sense that there has to be a crime which must be resolved?
Does character or plot drive our writing? How do fellow writers approach the task? Are readers more interested in what happens or who it is happening to? Or is this an impossible distinction to make? What do you think?

38 comments:

BernardL said...

Crime fiction is very restrictive, considering what publishing minions demand. It used to be crime fiction enveloped everything from plain rousing pulp fiction to literary masterpieces of subtlety and mystery. Now, the parameters have become so restrictive, if the reader won't be left gasping, shocked, and amazed at novel's end, somehow the work is considered lacking.

Monique said...

Plot ... Definitely plot first and always minute details.

Characters can be worked into the plot. They should continually develop and surprise the reader. Done well this can be much more fun than the rigid character who never changes.

This was what surprised everyone in an episode of Morse, when relative uneducated and rough Northener lewis knew much, much more about computers than Oxford educated, always perfectly worded, Morse. It was fun and well thought out.

I have seen too many drab plays where the plot just doesn't work and too much empathy is put on the characters.

To me the writing of anything has to be fun too. Without, it can become dull. And that will never do.

The Wisdom of Wislon said...

Good luck with the task in hand :>)

Leigh Russell said...

bernardl - literary masterpieces of subtlety and mystery, eh? Not sure I'm quite there yet. I feel as though I am sometimes, but then I reread what I've written and reality bites. I agree, the genre is by definition restrictive. Publishers, not unreasonably, want books that are likely to sell. Lacking crystal balls - in fact balls of any kind in some cases (I speak metaphorically) - they stick to the tried and tested, like police procedural narratives. In my first MS I was much more interested in the criminal than the detective. My publisher didn't like that. It's logical to try and interest the reader in the character who will continue through a series, but writing the bad guys is far more interesting!

monique - Yes, plot has to come first, you're right. I suppose. My plots certainly take some working out (for me at least) which is fun. I enjoy the 'problem solving' element. (How did the body get there?) Characters are a lot easier to play with, but they have their own limitations as to what they can believably do.

wisdom of winlon - with characteristic wisdom, you have neatly sidestepped answering the question.

fizzycat said...

Writing a novel of crime fiction, a story that needs a crime to be solved, I guess the answer would be yes. Avidly reading such a novel there is a strange need for the person who comitted a crime to be found out, by the reader. It is in the skill of the author, who shows one why the crime was commited. Also if we want the criminal to get away with it or not, whether we identify ( wrong word) and emphasise , or feel repulsed . Without the finding out, there would little tension, suspense and a need for conclusion.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi fizzy - I know what you mean about identify being the wrong word, but the criminal's mind is interesting, in fiction at least. Why would anyone want to kill another person? I think I'll be working my way through a variety of speculative motives in my books, it's such a fascinating question. But identify is wrong. (I'm a very safe person who abhors any form of physical violence in real life. I don't even like watching violent films. I just like writing about crime...)

Leigh Russell said...

Although, fizzy, when you've read my first book (due out in March!)you'll have to make up your own mind about whether or not you, as the reader, are being invited to identify with the killer. It would be interesting to know your response. Plenty of thoughts for a future post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Every genre has it's restrictions but crimes and mysteries seem pretty restrictive to me, which is maybe one of the reasons I haven't done much in that field. Whether I read for plot or character depends. I prefer if both are good, but I will read a book that just has one. Probably in much of my reading outside fantasy, SF, and Horror, the plot is more important to me.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Charles - In my summer of writing short stories, I wrote a couple of sci fi stories. I can't say they were fun, because they posited a rather gloomy future for the human race, but it was liberating to escape into worlds where I could to whatever I wanted. I'm not sure if it improved my writing, removing any limiting perameters, but I'll doubtless be going back there.

liz fenwick said...

Interesting question but I don't think crime is any more or less restrictive than other genres - each has its limits.

I would have to say that crime in my mind is definately plot driven but.........I think it could be character driven. My own work is a mix of both - the previous two books were drawn from plot first but htis current work is character driven. Saying that it is a work of commercial fiction and therefore it is designed I hope to be a page turner....

Alcluith said...

Yes, books are definitely the thing! Good luck with the novel - I'll definitely look out for it in the shops next year.

Leigh Russell said...

Liz fenwick - definitely one but could be the other... that's exactly what I think... or I think I think that... commercial fiction sounds lucrative. Good for you!

Thanks alcluith. I'd love to hear what you think of it. (A good review I hope... !)

Elizabeth Platt said...

I guess it depends on if what you're writing is a series that will follow a set of the same characters throughout several books. If that's the case then each new mystery thrown at them develops them further. The way I always think of it is that the mystery / crime throws characters into chaos and it's their job and the job of the plot to glean a little order out of that.

Good luck though :D It will all come together!

Leigh Russell said...

Thanks, elizabeth. Here's hoping the chaos doesn't prove too obviously inadvertant...

Vwriter said...

Hi Leigh. Do you know how Kathy Reichs or Jeffrey Deaver plot their work? They have all the same problems, of course, but wildly different approaches.

So here's what I'm wondering- how do other writers plot out their work? You have me thinking, as usual. Great questions.

Myself, I create a portfolio of characters not for any specific work. Then, when they're safely tucked away, on another day I'll create a portfolio of interesting plot ideas, then put that away.

When I'm ready to write, months later, I mix and match the two to stimulate whatever little creativity is available to me.

Kind of like Ray Bradbury continually creating a list of words to draw from on any given day (in his work, "The Zen of Writing.")

Thanks for bringin this whole topic up!

Leigh Russell said...

Hi vwriter - this is so interesting. I'm afraid I have a long way to go before I can honestly say I've worked out how to plot my stories. They tend to evolve. I know where I want to end up, but the details need constant revision. Hopefully I'll improve with practice... I seem to have entered the writing world backwards (see previous posts)...

My editor also edits Jeffery Deaver!!! Jeffery Deaver must work his plots out in meticulous detail, they're so clever. Mine just bumble along... like me...

Leigh Russell said...

I see my blog has 5 "followers". That's very encouraging, although I'm still not quite sure how it works. Anyway, thank you to my followers. I'll try to initiate interesting discussions. My posts offer a starting point. The comments are the heart of the blog.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

I think writing crime is a very difficult task and I wish you luck in your venture.

CJ xx

Leigh Russell said...

I'm beginning to think I need some luck, Crystal! It's not as easy as I first thought. I daren't reread my first posts on this blog. Perhaps I should delete them, but then that would negate the purpose of the blog, to track my experience of becoming a published author. At the moment, it seems to be involve more waiting than anything else...

Eryl Shields said...

I'm definitely a character sort. Whether I'm writing or reading, I'm interested in why someone does what they do. Even if all they do is pick up a jam jar and put it down somewhere else.

I have to confess that I'm not entirely sure what's meant by 'plot.' Is it just what happens?

Leigh Russell said...

There's a question. E M Forster offered this explanation of plot. I paraphrase.

The king died and then the queen died = story
The king died and then the queen died of grief = plot

A plot is a story with characters and motivation?

Vwriter said...

I have to figure out that "blog followers" thing, too, Leigh so that I can follow your valuable blog without having to track down the address every time!

Leigh Russell said...

It's all a mystery to me, vwriter!

Monique said...

Isn't it cute to know how many followers you have?

It's quite easy Leigh. My followers (four so far) are now visible on my blog.

You just sign in and add widget.

Please do and I become one of your followers.

On other blogs just click on widget, click on photograph and click on save and you're on that blog.

Monique said...

Sorry had it wrong. On other blogs (if they have them) click on 'follow this blog, click on pic, save and hey presto you follow that blog.

Leigh Russell said...

"widget"? You've lost me already... I will get the hang of it, one day... just not today.

Adventure Mother said...

For me it would be plot and the characters would fit around it. It must be incredibly difficult to even start writing when so many ideas are floating through your head.

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, Adventure Mother, I'm learning to restrict the number of ideas in a book so the readers can follow the plot... It's been a steep learning curve. I was hopelessly self indulgent to begin with (but, to be fair, I never really expected to be published. I was just writing for fun.)If you read through my posts, you'll see I've probably made every mistake in the book (sorry about the pun!) in my journey to becoming a "real" writer.

Annie Bright said...

Thank you for visiting my blog :-) I really love your blog and could easily procrastinate here for some time.

To get the followers thingy-me-jig on your blog you go to -

customise-gadget-add the followers gadget - save - and hey presto!

Debs said...

I think that it has to be a bit of both. Readers aren't going to keep reading a book that doesn't have characters they can relate to, or at least like in some way, and the plot has to play it's part in keeping them with the book too.

I love vwriter's approach to characters, must try that.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Annie - by "hey presto" you imply it's easy... not to the technologically challenged...

I have a plan - 2 boxes of different coloured cards one for plots and one for characters. Maybe different colours in each to denote gender, age, villain or victim etc. I wonder, if I selected plot and characters at random, would my books turn out any worse? Or is this just another way of procrastinating???...

Leigh Russell said...

Who was it who followed the 'forgetability' rule? He didn't make any notes as ideas struck him, on the theory that if an idea was worth writing, he'd remember it. If he forgot, it wasn't much good in the first place. It sounds good, but then again, with my memory, I'd probably end up with a lot of blank pages. I'm an inveterate scribbler of busy little notes. Sometimes I can read them afterwards. How many ideas are abandonned through illegibility?

Vwriter said...

Hello Leigh. I love Monique's comment:

"To me the writing of anything has to be fun too. Without, it can become dull. And that will never do."

Agatha Christie could not have said it better.

Leigh Russell said...

I think that's the same with most things in life. If you enjoy what you do, other people will share that enjoyment. (I exclude sadists, megalomaniacs, psychopaths and other deranged persons from this generalisation about the human race!!)

Monique said...

Leigh, thank you for those encouraging and spiritual words.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think character comes first, because the character is the essential for the tale. Without the character to act, there is no ability for the story to unfold.

I find it far more difficult to bend the character to the plot than it is to frame the plot elements so that the character reacts to them naturally.

But they are still interdependent and you have to braid the elements together so carefully! I am in awe of those who can successfully craft a multi-layered crime story with characters who grow and interact in ways that enliven the world, make it seamless with the real world for me.

Leigh Russell said...

multi-layered crime story with characters who grow and interact in ways that enliven the world, make it seamless with the real world for me That's a tall order! Of course, there are fantastic crime writers who do just that, but I hope readers aren't too critical of my first attempt... Is there a way of vetting reviews, I wonder, so only the good ones arrive? As publication date approaches I begin to realise, to my horror, that being published might be more painful than having a MS rejected! Nerves of steel, and a skin as thick as a rhino's are needed, I fear.

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't think I'm that picky, lol. Just observing how tricky teh writing process is.

Looking forward to reading your book!