The Human Condition:

Plot Like a River – September 13, 2015

River rapids

Writing a novel is unlike any other kind of writing. In writing a short story, you can sit down with a great idea, nearly fully formed in your head, and in a blaze of inspiration hope to establish it in ordered prose from beginning to end in one session. Maybe the process will take you two or three writing sessions, but the idea will stay fresh and active in your mind, fixed and ready to write down, over those two or three days.

Working in nonfiction, as I have found from my jobs as both technical writer and employee communicator, is usually a simple matter of focusing your mind. Once you have finished interviewing your subject matter experts and witnesses, along with researching background material, the task is just to describe the known facts, actions, or events and put them in their best order. You may order them chronologically, or from specific events to general principles, or from general to specific, or from cause to effect, or any other method in the rhetorical toolbox. Then all you have to do is find the opening insight, phrase, or quote—and you’re off to the races against time and deadline.1

But a novel is a much bigger undertaking. If the short story is a street scene, the novel is a county-wide country landscape. You can hold the general theme, story arc, and aspects of your main characters in your mind for the time it takes to write, which is usually some months or a year. But all the weight of action and detail that make up the twists and turns of the plot, the intentions, incidents, and ideas moving the characters forward, and the content of their dialogue—this has to accumulate relatively slowly over time and be accrued separately from the actual “production” writing.2

And so we come to the dreaded “O-word,” the outline.

Some writers are allergic to outlining and prefer the seat of the pants—or “pantser”—approach. These writers can take an initial idea, sit down at the keyboard or with a notebook, and start writing whatever each day’s inspiration and imagination brings them. It may be an exciting way to write, not knowing ahead of time where the story will take you. It’s like putting your kayak in at the head of the river without studying the map ahead of time. You never know what rapids or waterfalls might lie just around the next bend, or what long dull stretches of quiet water await you in marshy swamps. And in those swamps you can lose your way and end up paddling in circles.

I usually—and that’s a key word here, “usually,” because I don’t always follow this process—need a folder full of imagined details, plot twists, dialogue fragments, and partial action scenes before I can sit down to write even the first words in production. I will have pulled these pieces together over something like eighteen months to three years from the time the idea of the new novel occurs to me.3

The process of assembling a novel’s outline is, for me, like building the cradle that will frame the hull of a ship or the scaffolding within which the walls of a building will rise. This is “falsework” in the sense that it’s not complete, not meant to be finished, and is infinitely subject to change, both while it’s being assembled and sometimes in the middle of constructing the actual story. After all, it’s easier to rip out a framework of loosely tacked wood or bamboo and realign it than to tear out the solid ribs and plating of the actual ship or knock down and rebuild walls in the nearly finished building.4

Another image I use for writing is that of planning a road trip. If you are driving out of the San Francisco Bay Area, it helps to know whether you’re going straight east toward Reno, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and eventually the East Coast, or south to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, through Arizona and Texas, and ultimately to Florida. Choice of destination determines your initial route over the East Bay Hills. To plan this trip, you then look at maps, space out your overnight stays at motels and resorts, and check the mileage between fuel stops. You mentally traverse the route at the “10,000-foot level.” And that’s roughly the scale of your outline. It covers the big arcs of the trip, often with bits of action and dialogue woven in as signposts. The actual writing then becomes walking the ground and experiencing the level of event and detail that the reader will encounter in the actual story.

When I prepare an outline ahead of production writing, it is usually accurate to the level of chapter and scene, will show the character’s point of view in each scene, and describe the necessary action and dialogue to be covered. All that’s left is to do the actual writing. And the bet with myself is at the very least to unfold and explicate the action described in the outline. If I can do better—coming up with a richer version, more detail, and a new plot twist—then I’m ahead for the day. Sometimes, though, I find that an outlined passage which took two sentences to describe actually needs to break the action down with three or four scenes and extended dialogue. Sometimes, also, I find that those two sentences in the outline are all the action is worth, and then I have to improvise. This is all good, because I’m a pretty fair improviser, and that’s what creativity is all about. It makes the story richer.

But the book I’m working on now, which is the sequel to Me: A Novel of Self-Discovery, has taken a different path. I knew from the beginning—that is, from the decision to write this sequel as my next project—the general shape that the story would take and where it would end. I could describe that shape for myself in about fifty words. And so, thinking that I knew everything about the book, I started with an outline covering only the first two or three chapters. I had solid ideas about the one new human character and how she would interact with the computer program known as “Multiple Entity.” And the rest, I thought, would be easy because the setting and other characters were already established.

So I “pantsed” it. And I’m still working from an outline that advances only one or two chapters at a time, with much sketchier scene creation, barely ahead of the actual production writing. It probably would have taken longer for me to “noodle” the book over two or three years, collecting ideas and details slowly, then write the outline over three to six months, and finally write the whole book over another six to nine months. But the way this book is going—fits and starts while I grope toward the next chapter—only seems longer.

So I’ve discovered a new way to write a book, other than the ship’s cradle, building scaffold, or road trip. I call it experiencing a plot like a river, and I am following the river as it organically develops. When you plan an outline, this organic process takes place in miniature, with many chances to intervene and change the dynamics, but now I’m living with the book at the water-level view of the paddler in a kayak—and I can only hope not to become mired in the swamps.

A river has many tributaries—these are the story lines of the main characters and the subplots that support, echo, and relieve the main action. Each has its own headwater or starting place. The choice of character and starting point is easy and flexible. The writer with a single goal in mind for all of them is advised to place those starting points generally on the same continent and in the same watershed as the main river, but otherwise all the choices are open.

As the flow in each stream moves downhill, it acquires a mass of detail, like adjoining streams and runoff from the surrounding countryside. In the early flow, it’s relatively easy to guide the tributary down, say, the left side of the valley rather than the right, and to move west around a hill or other obstacle rather than east. Choices are still open and the storyline can be bent at will.

But as the stories of the individual characters start to link up and the subplots interweave, the arc of the novel becomes more established. The riverbed becomes deeper, carries a greater weight of water—expressed as detail, the outcomes of actions, and necessary consequences—with more inertia behind the flow. The story becomes harder to change and more insistent on taking a particular course.

When the story arrives in sight of the sea, it has become almost unstoppable, a force of nature, like the Mississippi or the Colorado. It has only one way to go, and the author is hard pressed to resist it. The author’s imagination finds it impossible to change that course without retreating far upstream and taking entirely different paths from the headwaters. You would have to rip up whole chapters and go back to earlier and earlier in the book in order to effect a change.4

And then—or so I suppose, because I haven’t gotten that far yet with the ME sequel—the story line finally reaches the sea. It spreads out again, dropping plot lines like silt in a delta. Individual character arcs and subplots resolve in different places, but always along the shore of that same sea, until finally the main characters end up absorbed in the nameless deep.

When you work from an outline, you always know something about where you’re going, because you’ve been there before, at least at the 10,000-foot level or from the perspective of a loose scaffold. When you set yourself upon the river, you are letting the raw force of your imagination steer your boat from day to day. You don’t always know exactly how it will end. And that’s scary.

1. I once discussed my writing process with my supervisor in Employee Communications supervisor, who was marveling at how fast and easily I could turn out newsletter and magazine articles. I said that, in an article, all the facts were known, and it was just a matter of getting them down on paper. This surely beat staring at the wall above a typewriter at five o’clock in the morning, wondering what the characters in my novel were going to do or say next.

2. At least in my case it does. There may be writers who can make up all the events, settings, details, and dialogue as they go along, rather than gather them in a file or document over months and years as they think about and expand on the storyline and its meaning. I often will invent a bit of action or description on the spot, in the heat of writing, but most of it has to come in off hours, while I’m doing something else and just “noodling” the book. (Some of my best ideas come in the shower with hot water hitting my right shoulder.) Then I must collect the action or bit of dialogue in a note on a yellow sticky or three-by-five pad and enter it in the correct place in the novel’s Notes folder or its Outline document.

3. Sometimes, this process of building up notions, details, and fragments has gone on almost my whole life. The basic idea for The Professor’s Mistress occurred to me while I was still in college. I spent forty years considering and refining the details, then blended the underlying story back into the universe, story line, and characters of my much later novel The Judge’s Daughter. Some wine takes a lifetime to mature.
       Another aspect of my process is this joining of two or more book streams. Often my story ideas are inadequate on their own, or their development reaches a logical dead zone, a swamp. Then the notion will come to me for blending two of them together—say, use this character in that setting—and the creative energy starts up again.

4. This reticence of mine about tearing up writing in production probably comes from the way I visualize and execute a story. Once I’ve put the story into a detailed form, with weighed and acceptable words in order, that becomes, in my mind, the story’s history, the “what happened.” It becomes something I’ve witnessed and now believe to be true and actual fact. Knocking that down and trying something else feels like ripping up railroad tracks that are already laid on ties in a graded roadbed and seated with gravel ballast. I would have to clear my head of the actual story before that can happen.