In a talk on writing I gave last summer on Zoom, I suggested there are three types of novel writer, differentiated by the way they work. I named the types: people-based, plot-based and location-based.
- People-based writers, whom I suspect are the majority nowadays, start with one or more interesting characters and gradually build a plot around them.
- Plot-based writers start by thinking through the plot and, only then, decide the characters to add.
- Location-based writers are primarily concerned with the visual scenario, for example those elaborate worlds devised for sci-fi and fantasy novels.
As a writer of mysteries which feature much misdirection and startling reveals, I would be an extreme example of a plot-based writer. I cannot start work until I have the central plot twist – the one that’s going to make the reader gasp with surprise, as in this comment from a reviewer of my second novel: “the ending was brilliant and one I definitely did not see coming.” It was that second novel, “For the Love of Alison” which gave me the most trouble to write.
The narrative starts with a successful London journalist, David Buckley, receiving an unexpected phone call from a woman, Alison Tindell, whom he has not seen for thirty years. As a student, Buckley’s romantic obsession with Alison caused him to be hospitalised for mental illness. Of course, he can’t resist the invitation to visit her at her home. The evening goes well, until Alison states her politician husband will be arriving and asks Buckley to temporarily leave. Buckley returns two hours later. He finds the police waiting for him, the politician shot dead on the floor and Alison, the wife, vanished.
So far, so good; I have an intriguing opening and a good ending. Big problem! I’m only ten thousand words in. How am I going to keep the reader interested for at least another sixty thousand words? Then I have a brainwave. Prompted by their questioning of Buckley, the police search for Alison and discover she has in fact died – twenty years ago!
I realise I have now dug myself a gigantic narrative hole that’s not going to be easy to get out of. And this is where my neat theory of writer types, namely people-based, plot-based and location-based, collapses. Since the novel is told in the first person and since Buckley has a history of mental illness, is this not a classic example of “unreliable narrator syndrome” and am I not now writing a people-based novel? Worse, to make Buckley’s escape from custody interesting, I have him travelling the country on the English canal network, the last place the police will think of looking for him. Much atmosphere is added through descriptions of his boat and the countryside through which he travels, so is this not now a location-based novel? My policy is to keep the reader on tenterhooks right up to the end, with Buckley’s desperate lone quest to solve the politician’s murder alternating with the police manhunt, as they gradually close in on him. But then I throw in the complication of a second murder, and a third, and a fourth. I’d say we’re firmly back to plot-based writing, wouldn’t you?
(c) Shalan Diver