Sunday, 8 April 2012

Tourniquet Plotting

If you want to write a page-turner, there has to be tension. This makes it hard to put a book down. The reader needs to know what happens next.

This can be surface-level tension, as in much of the best seller the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, where the reader is pulled along by a succession of events, and at the end of each chapter is a hook that makes you want to see just around the next corner (where there will be another hook, of course). However, some readers may feel manipulated by such writing, and if they analyse the plot afterwards, will realise there were ‘tricks of the trade’ to keep them reading, and the plot was rather convoluted, and, viewed as a synopsis, didn’t hold up that well. The same can be said of TV series like ‘24’, where some people feel that once you have seen one series, you’ve seen them all. Doesn’t mean it isn’t good fun or entertainment (I enjoyed both and borrowed some of Dan Brown’s techniques), and doesn’t mean it won’t sell a million, but at the end of the day, it’s superficial.

Then there’s character-based tension, where a character is put into a set of escalating events, and his or her mettle will be tested to the limit. A straightforward (and perfectly-executed) example of this is Lee Child’s 61 hours, which also uses a time-based ‘countdown’ to raise the reader’s pulse, as Jack Reacher is pitted against a rather nasty villain in a freezing mid-American town. The ongoing question for the reader (well, this one) is not only who will survive, but also whether the hero can kill in cold blood when it comes to it.

There is story-based tension, such as Lovely Bones, which, unusually, starts with the narrator informing the reader how she was murdered by a serial killer. The tension hangs around whether the serial killer will be stopped or not. This is gripping fiction about something that is any sane person’s worst nightmare, so there is a natural tension inside us already, it just needs good writing to bring it out.

Tourniquet Plotting
So, what is tourniquet plotting? A good metaphor for tension is a rope. Is it taut or slack? Rope is a nice metaphor, because the writer can imagine pulling the reader along. But if the writer makes the plot too complex with too many loops and flashbacks, the writer will either tie the reader in knots, or else hang themselves in the process. Also, coming back to surface tension, it can make the reader feel ‘yanked along’ every now again, and they can get annoyed by it.

Okay, so what is a rope made of?

Individual strands.

The way I write is multi-protagonist (see also some better writers than me, like Jack McDevitt, David Brin, Dan Simmons, etc.). It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But it has an advantage in plotting for tension. I introduce characters one by one, and they each have their lives, goals, and conflicts, and there is a mystery to be solved. I go back to characters frequently so the reader doesn’t lose track (e.g. using an alternating chapter format). Each character holds a piece of the puzzle. Only the reader sees the tapestry that is building.

There are no ‘spare characters’. Each one has a specific role. There are no ‘loose ends’ in the rope. Same goes for events. Things happen for a reason, even if that reason is not apparent at the time (a number of people say they like to read my books twice).
I write books in classic three parts (Parts 1, 2 and 3). By the end of Part 1, a number of the strands have already tightened, others have not. For the main protagonists, the tension never eases off for the rest of the book. By the end of the second part, all the strands are under tension, and the reader has the feeling the plot is literally turning, the strands getting closer, forming a braid. By the end, all the main (surviving) characters literally come together in one key place. In this final part, the braid tightens like a tourniquet.

I had a professional reader review my second book (Eden’s Trial) prior to publication, and she remarked that two thirds of the way through, she began to wonder if I could tie up everything, but then in the last quarter she simply couldn’t put it down, because everything came together.

To do this requires careful plotting from the start, and at the least, by the end of Part One of a book, a good vision of the rest, and who will be left standing by the last page. It can also require a lot of editing once the first draft is completed, with careful pruning of strands (even cutting some out) that don’t really add anything, or tightening others related to the central protagonist(s), so the reader knows which strands to pay most attention to.

It also needs good characters to begin with, and a storyline that is not too ‘contrived’. In this vein, I feel that Lord of the Rings, for example, was more successful than Harry Potter, where I found the last few books a little contrived with the ‘Horcruxes’ which just seemed to stretch out the story without much added value. Did anyone really doubt that Harry would survive and win the day? Whereas with Frodo, there was a real chance that he would slip into the netherworld.

There are two main dangers of this ‘tourniquet’ approach. The first is that some readers, particularly those who prefer a single head to view the world through, may get lost or lose interest. This is a danger with multiple point-of-view characters, especially if readers read, say, a chapter a week, because it will be difficult to remember who is who. The solution here is to give the reader a good ‘handle’ for each character, and make sure the reader could pick each one out of a police line-up. The second danger is that if there is not sufficient action, all the reader will see are strands lying limp on the floor, and she/he may get bored. Usually if there is enough action from the start, this helps. As mentioned earlier, some strands should stay taut throughout, until they are almost at breaking point by the end. Usually with books like this, if the reader gets past the first 60 pages, they are locked-in for the rest.

An exception to tying up all strands is with book series, such as trilogies, like my own. In the first two books, there are a few strands left deliberately open. These usually occur near the end of the book (in the second book, in the epilogue), so the reader knows these are essentially links or even ‘teasers’ to entice them to read the next book. This is like a piece of rope stretching into the void. If the reader has enjoyed the ride so far, they will grab that rope.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook format from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ampichellisebooks, OmniLit, and Waterstones UK.

Eden’s Trial is available as an ebook on Amazon (currently free with Amazon Prime) and will be out in paperback in the Autumn.

Eden’s Revenge is in progress and will be available as an ebook for Xmas 2012.

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