Friday, November 11, 2022

STRUCTURAL NIGHTMARE: the dense plot from the denser mind of a writer on his latest novel By Eric Beetner

Why did I do it to myself?

I am an outliner, but this isn’t about the eternal battle lines between plotters and pantsers. For my latest novel, There and Back, the 36th novel I’ve completed (some co-written, some very short, some under pen names, some so bad they’ll never see the light of day) I came up with a story that I liked quite a lot and I wanted to follow it where it led.

The trouble became that it led to those two words all writers should dread: dual timelines.

In the novel a group of young tech execs get sent on a wilderness retreat for “team building”. When tragedy befalls the guides and the urbanites are left stranded in the woods, not everyone makes it out alive.

But then half the novel is about their adjustment back to civilization and how difficult it is for some to make that adjustment. And there are secrets about what really happened out there.

The best move was to slowly dole out the events in the woods while seeing their progress back at home. It meant a complicated mix of reveals, concealments, tragic deaths, cliff-hangers and call backs. My outline soon looked like the murder board on an FBI serial killer investigation. It no longer made sense, even to me. And I was the one making it all up! I was supposed to be in control, but I realized I wasn’t.

I had to step back and dig deep into my screenwriting background. I went from my 3-page handwritten scrawl of a bullet-point outline and transferred everything to 3X5 notecards. One for each scene. Color-coded for events that happened ‘out there’ and ‘back home’. With the cards laid out I could literally stand back and see the whole book in front of me.

More than once I had to revise when I discovered, “No, that can’t happen yet or it will spoil the reveal over here.” Or “Damn it! He’s already dead!”

The constant back and forth was meant to keep the reader on their toes in two places and times at once. Just when you think you know who did what out there, I needed to switch it up to keep the surprises coming. When you think you know a character, I wanted to show a different side of them in the pressure cooker of fighting for their lives, or the tough re-adjustment to life back at home after such an ordeal.

One of my pet peeves in a mystery novel that relies on withholding certain information, is when the heavy hand of the author is on the page. The convenient “I can’t remember”. The frustratingly placed chapter break. The realization 300 pages in that if someone had just said that in chapter 1 we could have avoided all this nonsense. I’ve read several huge best sellers and felt cheated by the author’s manipulation of the plot to inject what, to me, become a false suspense. I wanted to avoid doing it myself. It meant a constant policing of how and where I revealed information about what happened “out there”. That meant shifting those damn notecards around a lot. I had to course correct along the way when things got too convenient or what I thought would be too frustrating for the reader. You need to feed them at least an appetizer before the meal. You can’t starve them for story under the guise of suspense. Suspense only sustains for so long before the air leaks out of the balloon. 

I ended up with over 50 cards pinned to my wall. I wrote and re-wrote cards, swapped them out, moved them in the timeline. But without this painstaking process, I wouldn’t have been able to keep this dual timeline straight. I’d never attempted a structure so complex, and even though it worked and I’m very happy with the results, I’m not sure I ever would again. I suppose I proved to myself that I could do it, but let’s just say that I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.

What about you? Have you ever bitten off a story idea that got away from you? Have you ever needlessly complicated your own life with a story structure you needed an PhD to decipher? Or is it just me?


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Welcome back, Eric. The first draft sometimes feels like the whole thing got away from me, the second and third reeling it all back in – hopefully. Best of luck with There and Back. It sounds like a winner.

Anonymous said...

Wow!! I’m impressed and intimidated, lol. Congrats! The book sounds great.

Josh Stallings said...

Thanks for sharing your process. It helps to know even with a lot of writing under your belt there are still those “Damn it he’s already dead.” moments. Great essay.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Josh's comments.

विकास नैनवाल 'अंजान' said...

That seems a whole lot of work but this essay would help a lot of budding writers. But the book sounds delicious. I'll have to read it now.

- Vikas Nainwal