Tag Archives: Graph

Crash, Bang Wallop—or Even Flow?

I’ve read conflicting advice about how a narrative arc should flow in a novel. I was delighted when I found a graph that showed how a story should have highs and lows, as well as longueurs when nothing much seems to be happening, and that the psychological thriller novel that I wrote in 2014 ‘The Perfect Murderer’ conformed to it. This was quite by chance, or maybe having read thousands of novels rubbed off on me.

This approved pattern starts slowly, as my first chapter does, before climbing steeply to an early dramatic peak – which happens in my second chapter when the corpse of an American tourist is found. My third chapter pulls the key police personnel together in a meeting to discuss the case, which shows something of their individual characteristics.

The problem is that if one is submitting just the first three chapters to an agent or publisher, then it’s not going to grab them by the lapels and say “look at this !” Some experts advise that the opening paragraph should be shocking and that the story should hit the ground running with the first chapter charging into the second. One way around this is to have two versions of your opening chapters – a sensational, make-an-impression sizzler for submissions and the real more sedate bookish form. Daft isn’t it?

I’ve not done this (yet!), but have used a tip to use a hook/elevator pitch in the first paragraph of my covering letter by describing my novel as The Silence of The Lambs meets World of Warcraft. This is meant to indicate the contrast in how an undetected murderer, a psychopath and The Watcher, a game-playing fantasist approach killing their victims.

In the submissions that I’ve made to literary agents, and those publishers with an open submission window, I’ve placed the elevator pitch in the introduction of my query letter. Many agencies ask for a synopsis in a small number of words. One requested just 250 words, which had me frothing at the mouth for a moment until I realised that it forced me to use my elevator pitch.

There’s a bewildering variety of formats requested by agents for submissions, and certainly no such thing as an industry standard form. Some ask for the first three chapters, others the first 5,000 or 10,000 words and one asked for the first twenty-five chapters. The most sensible, to my mind, requested three consecutive chapters from anywhere in the novel which I thought best represented my style and the action in the story.
I’ve read on various forums and blogs that there is a trend towards shorter story formats, owing to readers using iPhones and tablets on the move, where content is taken in bite-sized chunks. Increasingly limited attention spans and the need for instant gratification is also affecting how patient people are when beginning a book – hence the advice that a story should go BOOM right from the start.

Image result for scary book cartoons

I understand the need for a compelling hook or a unique selling point to attract readers but am really confused about the contradiction between allowing a story to develop with peaks, plateaus and even the odd trough and attempting to provide one cheap thrill after another. No one can stay permanently high, forever aroused and unfailingly interested.

Thoughts please…

Plot Development

I spent most of 2014 writing my first novel, called ‘The Perfect Murderer’. It’s about a serial killer, a veteran soldier who has become a player in real life role-playing game where the victims are really killed. His activities awaken the hibernating bloodlust of a psychopathic murderer, a man who is a respected member of the establishment. He would never be suspected of being homicidal, even though he’s killed once a year for forty years. The moral twist is, that the people he killed were all hardened criminals – so it could be argued that he’s been making society safer.

I started my writing with a loose and adaptable storyline. I didn’t want too rigid a plot, as I knew from previous experience that characters in a story can sometimes behave in ways that one can’t predict. I also reckoned that I’d be learning a lot about my subject matter as I went along, which might alter the narrative. The story involved a massive amount of research, including psychopathy, forensic pathology, police procedure, post-traumatic stress disorder, the conflict in Serbia and self-identity and personality.

I wasn’t sure how long the novel would be and didn’t have a specific target to reach. Mind you, it was still a milestone to pass the 100,000-word mark, though that made me wonder quite how far I had left to go! I anticipated that I’d end up at about 150,000 words. I was right, though, after the climax of the hunt for the killer, I soon realised that my story had left a lot of characters’ fates unexplained, including several undiscovered corpses.

This can be a stumbling block with murder mysteries. There are at least two unidentified bodies in ‘The Maltese Falcon’, though they were dismissed as red herrings. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to add an afterword which added another 18,000 words. This felt fitting and right, as I’ve always been a bit disappointed when a thriller simply ends as soon as the villain is dispatched.

It was more of a coda to the main part of the story, and it gives the reader some comfort about what becomes of the investigators after their harrowing experiences. It was rather discombobulating to finish, mainly because I wasn’t quite sure if the whole thing worked as a tale that would engage a reader’s attention. I’d varied the pace of the action, offering different points-of-view from the detectives and killers, thrown in a few dead ends and sprinkled several of my own red herrings around – but did it work as a crime story with psychological twists?

This was impossible for me to judge, for, after all, I knew what happened next! Although I did a lot of editing as I went along, I still devoted ten weeks to going over everything with a fine tooth comb. When one examines any piece of art in this microscopic way, it ceases to be what it is to a consumer who’s enjoying it at face value and becomes more of a tiresome obstacle course. I was appalled by what I’d missed, particularly in repeating nouns and verbs. The search function in Open Office Writer helped to identify these, though I was still uncertain about how well the plot developed and flowed.

While prowling the literary blogs recently, I came across one by Natalie M Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency. One of her postings on ‘Adventures In Agent Land’ is about plot development, and is well worth a look. In fact, she offers really useful practical advice for any writer.

I was pleased to see, from a graph that she included, that the storyline of my novel conformed to what is reckoned to be the approved pattern.

This find was reassuring, and her dot method of judging the ebb and flow of a story is a useful tool to use. I’m still not sure how well my novel works as a reading experience, but I have a trusted and wise first reader who is currently working her way through it, and she says that it’s “gripping.” I am grateful for her assistance, as she’s pointed out several errors that needed straightening out in grammar and punctuation.

Writing, then editing a novel really is a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.