Scaffolds, jelly moulds and the architecture of plot


After the stimulus, the quiet of post-publication.

And after the Christmas break, the return to work.  The start of the year has sent me scurrying back to my desk in the piggery, digging out old notes, diagrams and plot plans and picking up the thread of what feels like a long-abandoned next novel.

The truth is, I’ve been craving quiet time to get back to the real writing (much as I loved the stimulus of launching Sisterwives).  But part of me was also afraid of it.  Afraid in case, really, it proved to be a Pandora’s box; that if I scratched too hard to find what was beneath the surface of what I’d produced there wouldn’t be anything of real substance.

But here’s what I discovered: the long break away from the writing has permitted some far-sighted objectivity.  The truth about what was gnawing at me, the thing that wasn’t quite right with my novel-in-progress, clicked into place today.  At least for now.

What this means, though, is a whole new structural plan.

Much has already been written about plotting vs pantsing and the merits and implications of both (see Emma Darwin’s take on both methods here, for example).  This early in the process of a new novel, it seems important to get the balance right.  Plot too much and there’s no room for the story to breathe.  Plot too little and I risk dealing with a shapeless mass, fraught with potential blind alleys and wrong turns.  Writing Sisterwives, I experienced plenty of those.

It was my former mentor Sara Maitland who encouraged me to think of plot as a kind of jelly mould, something with definite shape and yet malleable and forgiving, something that allows for the flexibility of movement.  So as I redraw the diagrams and draw up more lists of new scenes and sketch out a different shape for the story I can remain open to the possibility of change.  As things are tested, characters act and events occur, the narrative will harden into something more precise.  Then what is required is scaffolding: a structure to support and surround and permit construction of the actual thing – the plot.  Still, this needs to be loose, and flexible, allowing pieces to be unscrewed, taken out, moved around, slotted in elsewhere.  And when the thing is finished (which still, let me tell you, feels a long way off) the scaffolding can be dismantled.  Leaving something solid and lasting and beautiful to behold.




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