Monday, 18 June 2018

Does every crime author need to think like a criminal?

There’s a great rift dividing writers’ circles. No, not Brexit, but whether you’re a plotter or a pantser – do you outline the plot in advance, or let it unfurl as you type (writing by the seat of your pants)?

The latter certainly sounds more glamorous and it’s probably what most non-writers have in mind when (if) they ever imagine the writing process: perhaps a eureka! moment at some picturesquely ink-spattered desk, or even while the author's musing in a bubble bath.

In fact, no less than Stephen King announces: “I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible... I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. (Then again, he also recommends: “The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” Tell that to some writers and watch them slowly turn white with horror...)

Still, when you’ve been writing as much – and as well – as Stephen King has, the mechanics of story and plot will surely have become second nature. Perhaps he doesn’t need to outline, because it has all become so ingrained in the workings of his mind.

The reality is, I suspect, that many of writers are meticulous plotters, outlining their novels in detail, particularly in the crime and thriller genre. For instance, John Grisham’s as passionate in his defence of outlining as King is against it. “Most writers will tell you... they create a great character and that character takes over the action and they follow that character wherever he or she wants to go,” says Grisham, adding bluntly: “That's total BS.”

And yet, at the same time, I wonder if it’s a false dichotomy - if all writers sit on some sort of continuum between plotting and pantsing, at least.

Take Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, famed for her intricate plots. She scatted fledgling ideas for her meticulously constructed novels across dozens of notebooks (73 of which are deciphered by a self-confessed arch fan John Curran, who taught himself to unlock what he calls her "bloody awful handwriting” for his book Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks).

One note to herself reads: “West Indian book – Miss M? Poirot ... B&E apparently devoted - actually B and G had affair for years ... old 'frog' Major knows,” pointing to the way that stories can start as fragments then coalesce into a whole that ticks along like clockwork. (That became A Caribbean Mystery, published in 1964.)

But, crucially, as Christie said, “Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.”

Which is just what I found out, after I outlined my psychological thriller, about a mother’s desperate search for her missing daughter. On a practical level, if I didn’t know whodunit when I started, how could I seed my clues and misdirections with any precision?

More specifically, I had beats I wanted to hit: I knew I wanted to give the reader short, sharp electric shocks throughout the book, to keep her or him intrigued. I even re-watched Hollywood movies that had left me hanging white-knuckled off my seat and puzzled over screenplays to work out how to create a fast-paced narrative, with that same urgent sense of building to a climax.

And so, I busily planned and I plotted, setting out the basic shape of my story as an outline, before I ever started to type a word. And yet, as I wrote, I found that this synopsis – which I was using like a map to find my way through my story – was still growing by the page (not to mention the index cards which supplemented it, which seemed to be breeding in my living room).

The story was taking on its own life, I realised. What’s more, having an outline still left room for inspiration – a final twist that struck me as I wrote really did come to me in a flash, just as I’d been promised. 

So perhaps it’s time to end the debate and admit that writers are all plotters and pantsers to some extent, sliding about somewhere in between those two poles.

After all, much like the characters we write about, crime and thriller authors can scheme and plot as much as we like, but we all know what they say about the best-laid plans. And in the same way, those innocent-seeming souls who don’t seem to have a calculating thought in their brains? Something tells me they might be worth keeping an eye on...
Emma Rowley’s Where The Missing Go is out in paperback from Orion on June 14.

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