HOW TO AVOID GETTING LOST IN THE WOODS
By Roger Angle
Author, “The Disappearance of Maggie Collins”
When I first started writing novels, I was used to creating literary short fiction. I’d begin a story with a line that came to me, or with an image in my mind, without much else. I’d follow the story wherever it led me, like a dog following a scent.
That worked OK for short fiction, but when I started writing novels, I’d often follow the scent for 175 pages or so and then realize I had not yet found a story, not even close. I had gotten lost in the woods.
So, I asked myself, how do you avoid that?
My answer was to plot out the major turning points in the novel:
- The triggering event or call to action.
- The big story problem: Will James Bond defeat Dr. No?
- The point of no return, where the hero or heroine commits to the action and can no longer turn back.
- Deep doo-doo, where the hero gets in up to his neck in alligators.
- The struggle to survive or to win with several reversals. Looks good, looks bad, looks good, etc.
- The climax, win or lose.
- The hero returns and everything is hunky dory again.
No matter what outline you have in mind (and there are many), you need to find a way to structure your story, both to lead your reader from one plot point to the next and to keep your own eye on the ball.
My answer is to write each chapter in such a way that you drive toward a goal, toward a plot point or turning point that will end the chapter and propel the reader onward. Hollywood writers sometimes call this a “button line.” In newspapers, we used to call it “a kicker.”
For example, suppose your main character is a middle-class teenage boy who is unhappy at home and is acting out. You want him to get in trouble. You might have him meet some kids from the wrong crowd, as they say, and steal a bunch of car parts. The climax of the first chapter could be his getting arrested at a gasoline station he and his buddies intend to burglarize. The end of the chapter could be the sound of the jail door clanging shut, a life-changing event.
Of course, that is just Chapter One. He has to get in and out of more trouble before the story comes to its conclusion. You may want to cover his whole life, or just a summer, or just 24 hours. That is up to you.
When I was writing MAGGIE COLLINS, I knew I wanted the two main characters to be in love and having trouble. I also wanted to introduce the killer. So I orchestrated two scenes. The first shows the hero and heroine embroiled in the case and arguing about their future together. The second scene shows the killer stalking a victim.
As the story goes along, it gets deeper into the characters, deeper into their relationships, and deeper into the story problem. A famous thriller writer, Lee Child (a.k.a. Jim Grant, a former TV writer and director) says the best way to structure a story is around questions that you raise in the reader’s mind.
In MAGGIE COLLINS, the first question is, Will the hero and heroine catch the killer? Oddly enough, the second question is, Will the killer find love? (His idea of love is twisted, to say the least.)
Another thing you need to know, as a writer, is your theme. What is your book about? I needed to know, to keep from wandering off onto side paths and getting lost in the woods.
I thought about the three main characters and what they want. The older detective, Dupree, is in love with a younger woman, Maggie. He wants to retire from the force and take her with him to live in Maine, literally in the woods. He wants a quiet life.
But, alas, that is not what she wants, which is the danger and excitement of being a NYPD detective. In a way, she is a thrill seeker. She loves her job.
What does the killer want? As I said, he wants true love. When he kidnaps women, he goes through a kind of ceremony that declares his love for them. If they don’t respond in exactly the way he wants them to, that brief relationship does not end well.
So what, I asked myself, is my book about? I decided that my theme was the perversion of love. I put that on a sticky note above my computer, as a guide, so I wouldn’t forget. That helped a lot. That, and driving toward a plot point in each chapter.
It isn’t easy. Good luck. You will need it. I sure did.
BIO: Roger Angle was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize his first year as a reporter and won the Random House short fiction contest in 1999. He grew up around cops and has always been fascinated by criminals, con-men, and desperados. He lives in Southern California.
“The Disappearance of Maggie Collins” is scheduled for publication on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2018, by Down & Out Books:
A brief description of the publisher: