The Evolution Of A Story: A Character Takeover

It is time for an update, regarding the latest project: This morning I finished draft one of the new novel. I have never had such a blast writing something. What’s more, something happened – kept happening throughout the story – while I was doing this one that I thought made it worthy of sharing.

So many times we have heard authors, as they write, speak of characters taking on a life of their own, telling their own story, which I have often experienced. But never in the way that this bunch did. Quite simply: At every turn the characters wanted to do their own thing.

Pre-writing and the Evolution of a Plot

As I am planning and researching a story, I jot thoughts, dialogue, plots, characters, ideas in different books, pads, dictated to later transcribe, wherever – it depends on where I am when the idea pops up. It’s what I’ve always done, preferring to refer to a stack of scribbles, rather than flicking between documents on a computer.  When I’m ready to roll, I’ll cut up the jottings and put them back together to form the outline of the plot.  (There are a couple of interesting videos of David Bowie using this cut up technique, in part inspired by the way that William Burroughs formed his novels. My way of doing it is not quite so randomised.)

Bundles of scruffy scraps of paper, semi-arranged into useful stacks, for later reference.               When organised, they then go into envelopes. Simple arts and crafts fun . . . 

Starting each morning is so easy when there are piles of ideas to pull from, the movements already structured. These characters are a very chatty bunch, pretty headstrong, so, to my surprise, most of these notes became all-but redundant. (All of those pictured above ended up on the scrap heap.) I’m not too shabby a typist, but trying to keep up with the story as it unfolded was the strangest thing, literally a case of putting these people in an environment and then see how it works out. They were out of control, unable to predict who they might meet next.

I have a theory about all of this . . .

Back to the Beginning

Once upon a time, I remember reading about how Somerset Maugham preferred to use a first person narrator, particularly in his short stories. He stressed that this point of view created a greater impact and urgency upon a story, a more believable and vivid realism as the reader looks through the eyes of the protagonist. Having done this in a few of my short stories, it’s also a great experience from the author’s point of view, driving with a steering wheel that turns itself; wanting to carry on along the road ahead but taking sharp turns through unpredictable streets and lanes off to the side. Third person perspective is a birds eye view of the car from above; first person we can feel the car bouncing along, the smells within and the breeze through the open window. With the protagonist seeing, feeling, touching, and reacting to what is in front of them, we’re all involved, straight away.  (I think that you can also get away with more, a kind of childlike,  “It wasn’t me, Miss. The character made me do it,” attitude. Should you meet a foul-mouthed pillock, it is, of course, nothing to do with me.)

There is a greater challenge in using this technique, especially as I paired it with setting the novel in the present, the story unfolding with each move that the character makes. The relationships that he has with other people are (obviously) already established, so great care has to be taken with each different perspective, how being their company makes him feel and what their reaction to him will be; how their past relationship impacts their meeting.

Once I got my head around all of that, that’s when the story started to really fly.

What It’s About

This folder of notes first started back in (I think) about 2010, after I had completed a first draft of another novel. Over the years, I’ve added bits – or stolen them as leftovers from other stories I have written – and stuffed them all into a folder. The working title – that which has been the header on the notes over the years – is Drunk Dad. (Which I won’t be using.) The original concept was of a failed local musician in a small town, caught in the booze trap, who is estranged from his teenage daughter and separated from the mother. What has developed is that John Slade (a combination of names from the notes) finds out at the beginning that his ex-wife, Kirsty, and daughter, Ella, are about to move from the UK to Canada, following the new husband, Dan, and his job. John suddenly realises that all he has taken for granted over the years will soon be gone. He decides that he doesn’t want for his daughter to leave until he has managed to create a bond with her, which he has just one month to achieve. So he plans a trip for them . . .

John’s band isn’t going well. Out of control, his drinking has become a real problem. He is on his second third warning at work, only getting away with it because Brian – the drummer in the band, Spanky Macaca – is his manager. At times it feels as though the only sane and grounded people in his life are his dad, and his dad’s flamboyant boyfriend Julian – a wealthy neckerchief designer. Life would be so simple, if John only stopped screwing it up at every turn . . .

(Really, when I do a proper synopsis I’ll post it somewhere here. That’s just the gist. A couple more sneak peeks: elsewhere in the story there is a lollipop lady, a sex tape, and a fat man in a Winnie the Pooh onesie. That’s all for now.)

What Comes Next

The word count of the story ended up as 82,000 – pretty much bang on target. I’m cracking straight on with the first edit, and then an incredibly talented friend is going to do an edit (very lucky me). After another run through, tracking changes, we’ll see how we’re looking. I love this story. It is more like one of my short stories, and I’m really happy with how it has shaped up.

From those stacks of redundant notes, seeing as they didn’t fit this story how the characters wanted, another story began to rise out from them, which I envisage as being another novel. For the meanwhile I’ll just build some more notes and ideas around that, assembling a new ensemble of characters to hang out with for a while, see around which blocks I follow them. I know the ending already, but there is every possibility, with this new free-form style of writing, that they’ll be in a different place entirely.

Somewhere in all of that I am trying to plan a research trip to Wales (I wish that John had arranged a trip for him and Ella to The Caribbean, I really do.) Also, at some point very soon there will be a soundtrack for this novel, curated by John and his band: Songs that they cover, songs that John loves, some that he sings while he’s wandering through his life – all of those that are featured in the story. I’ll post that on here when it’s ready. Here is a lead song from that, to whet the appetite:

This is all being dovetailed with some other projects that I’m working on. Being so busy is feeling good, spending time with this crowd, particularly. They’re looking forward to being unleashed on the world.

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