Saturday, 24 April 2010


My ‘How to Book’ on keeping chickens poses the question…‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Quick as you like comes the pithy reply… ‘Neither. It was the dinosaur.’

You might ask the same question about fiction. ‘What comes first, character or plot?’ And the answer might be…that old dinosaur…whichever turns you on, of course.’

I’m not entirely joking (which must be a relief, for those that appreciate good jokes). I think the personality of the writer has a lot to do with how they approach this subject.

Some people can’t help being ideas dudes. Writers from Agatha Christie to Philip Pullman come in this category. Their thoughts revolve around subject and concept, and the characters simply have to accept their slightly secondary role in their creators’ minds.

Others see new people in their mind’s eye and immediately begin the story of their lives…which slowly evolves into plot. My friend Gail is of this bent. It seems to me that her entire life has been accompanied by imaginary people who feel as real to her as her own family, and whose stories she know more intimately than the lives of her friends. But she will admit that creating satisfying novels that sell, is not easy for her. The characters go their cavalier way about things and refused to be straight-jacketed into plots.

The secret is…well, it isn’t a secret,'s that old middle way. Compromise. Fusion. Knowing your own failings and working with them. Not a secret…more a  dinosaur.

As you write – or rather as you read – your first draft, ask yourself; is this story plot-led? Is this story character-based? Chicken? Or Egg? Whichever is the answer to the question, look to the other side of things. Give extra time and energy to the weakest half of the story dilemma.

In character-led stories, put time aside to work on the plot, using whatever methods you find most useful – try some or all of the following:
• Index cards
• ‘Timelines’, that prove your story works in space and time
 • Web diagrams
 • Meditations – ‘day dream’ your way to a better plot
• Redrafting techniques
• ‘Brainstorming’ – use your friends to help you get it right
• Whiteboards or pinboards linking your freshest ideas
 • Freewriting techniques
If what you love is character, you might be of the opinion that plotting is dull and stifles the life out of your writing. Try to think of it as a challenging puzzle that will allow your characters to live on the page. Quality plotting can bring out their hidden flaws, create complexities and make them one hundred percent convincing.

In subject-driven stories, the writer should put aside their passion for careful plotting and give equal time to get to know their characters. This is best done ‘off page’:
• Candidate characters should first fill out a ‘personality CV’ in the shape of a questionnaire.
• Then, find an appropriate photo or make a sketch on the character
• Note down all the physical characteristics- from moles and tattoos to weak hips and a tendency to nibble a thumb nail. Not down accent, mannerisms, dress sense, body language and any other characteristic you can think of.
• Having noted physical and personality details, write a ‘character portfolio’
• List the things found in their pockets or handbag
• Enter the room this character thinks of as their own and poke around.
• Interview the character – they may surprise you.
• Finally, use the Health Spa Exercise for this week to see how your character responds when they find themselves sharing a table with another character.

Cause and Effect is thought of as part of the plotting mechanism, but in fact it is a technique that can be used to ‘fuse’ plot and character successfully. It can have a riveting effect on the plotting of your stories. Readers love to see the ‘story build up’, through events, thoughts, character traits etc., that are set up in the early moment then link and develop the story towards the end.

A way of utilizing ‘cause and effect’ is to build up tension. An excellent ‘aide memoir’ for this is the ‘5 C’s…Characters Conquering Conflict Create Conclusion. Explore, as you’re working on a story, how you might represent the conflicts that characters – especially the main character – have to struggle against…and how or if they will overcome them. This works whether you choose to summon up your characters first and let them build up the plot by the conflict they create, or have a model in mind which needs characters to fulfil its potential. Either way, you must know why they are in this story, and make them grow on the page, so let the characters show how the action works by keeping them under constant stress.

Be a Dinosaur!
Don’t be ruled by the chicken and egg dilemma; in your first draft, it’s better to be a bit of a dinosaur and take the middle way.