As modern Doctor Who fans will know, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly … timey-wimey … stuff”. (From “Blink”, by Steven Moffat, first broadcast 9th June 2007.) (If you’ve got five minutes you can watch the whole scene here; it’s a masterclass in combining humour, explanation and tension.)
He could also have been describing the plotting of a novel.
Not the plot itself, you understand. That should definitely not be wibbly-wobbly; it should be linear, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story might not be told in quite that order; flashbacks and cutaways are established literary devices, and the narrative can be carefully ordered in any way the author likes for maximum effect. But the story itself, if you wrote a summary of it down afterwards, should proceed in a nice, straight line.
But the process of plotting … Well, that can be all over the place.
Plotting a novel is usually my least favourite part of the process, but it really is a pain barrier that has to be got through. My second least favourite thing is staring at a blank screen when I want to be writing something. Doing the blank screen staring-at during the plotting saves valuable time and effort later.
And even then …
Robert Louis Stevenson came up with a fairly straightforward adventure story in Treasure Island, but even then he found he was getting bogged down. That is why, on the island, the story abruptly skips from Jim’s first person narration to extracts from Dr Livesey’s diary, then back again. The change helped Stevenson pick up the impetus again and also, once he had written it down, gave him the opportunity to introduce a little non-linearity that kept the readers engaged.
I wrote my novel The Teen, the Witch and the Thief by expanding a short story I had previously written, forwards and backwards and sideways from the couple of days that the original story took up. That was quite easy. Unfortunately, after finishing the first draft, it became clear that the elements I had imported from the story didn’t actually work at novel length. So, I deleted them all, leaving me with a manuscript full of gaping holes that needed to be filled with injections of New Added Plot. The new plot introduced new elements that had to be worked back in, and which also opened up new possibilities leading to a sequel. (And though I say it myself, the book was much better as a result.)
It’s generally good to have an ending to aim towards; from that you can work back to a preferred beginning, and there might be some key scenes along the way. But joining those dots can be easier said than done.
“How does the character escape from that locked room?”
“Well, um, they know the trick about how to open a locked door from the other side.”
“And they just happen to know it?”
“No, it was … um … when they were waiting in the station! They read it in a magazine in the waiting room! Ooh, that’s much better, because it can be mentioned as a throwaway line in between their doing the crossword and reading that article on the royal family, and the reader won’t realise it was significant until later.”
“Better go back and put it in, then …”
If you hire one of us to write a novel with you, this is the kind of thinking that will be going on. You might be exasperated by the way we can’t just start writing based on your simple idea, or the way we suddenly come back to you with yet another question (“Exactly why is she walking down that particular road at that particular time?”) but it will be worth it. We’re not losing sight of the fact that this is your novel, based on your idea and your inspiration – so really, it should as much as possible be your cunning plot twists giving it the edge. Though your friendly ghost is of course here to help out – and the readers will never guess the wibbly-wobbly route we took to get there.