Writing Multi-Layered Narratives
Ideas Are Easy
There’s a joke about writers: never ask them where they get their ideas from. The question might be met with a roll of the eyes, and the answers you get are often tongue-in-cheek (a PO Box in Poughkeepsie is a classic). The reason for this is pretty straightforward – it’s exactly the wrong question to ask. This is different to another, closely related question: how did you get that idea. Every book has a genesis and every story or character or situation has that initial spark. A writer should be able to identify that pretty easily. I got the idea for Hang Wire after a weird encounter with a malfunctioning fortune cookie in San Francisco’s Chinatown restaurant.
But there’s the rub: ideas are easy. In fact, ideas are so easy that most writers will tell you they have more ideas than they could ever turn into novels in their lifetime. Where they come from is a total mystery, which is why it’s a little pointless asking. Ideas are also insidious. They ambush you, usually right in the middle of whatever you’re supposed to be working on. Don’t write that, they whisper. Write this. This idea is it. The big one. It’s so much better than what you’re writing at the moment. You should totally ditch that one and climb aboard the Bright New Thing.
When plotting a novel, it’s tempting to save ideas, store them up and dole them out only reluctantly. Some ideas are those big ones – maybe call them concepts. Some ideas are little things, maybe no more than cool details or one-off scenarios. But when you’re writing 100,000 or so words, you’re going to need more than one. Remember: ideas are easy. They’re also free. Don’t be miserly with them. If you have a great idea, use it. If you have more than one, use more than one.
Ideas Are Not Story
I’ve had new writers ask me this a couple of times. They have a great and amazing idea which is super-exciting, and they start writing, and everything is going fine until they hit page 3. Then the story grinds to a halt. There is no way forward.
What the hell happened to that great idea?
Ideas are just one part of the package. An idea is not a story. An idea is the hook that gets a reader in, or the concept on which the whole plot pivots. Or it might be a cool, interesting and unique character – or character flaw. These are all pure gold, but they’re not the story.
Although it’s contentious, I think there’s a difference between story and plot. Plot is what happens – a series of interconnected events. If you’re writing a police procedural, and have a detective, and over the course of 300 pages there is a murder, a double-cross, and a dramatic confrontation in a deserted warehouse, that’s your plot.
But why are you writing this? There are a lot of police procedurals. There are a lot of detectives. What makes this one different? Well, the characters, you would hope – because everything is about character. But the reasons for why a character follows the plot is the story. What is the story of you characters? Why do they do what they do? If it’s because the plot demands it, then you’ve got it backwards. The characters have to do things because the story demands it.
Confused? Well, I said it was contentious. But I digress…
If there’s one secret to writing, it’s that you have to – wait for it – write. That’s it. Sit down and start writing. I’m serious. That is the primary job description. Write it.
This is where you’ll work out whether those ideas you have work. That’s why you shouldn’t be stingy with them. You want multi-layered narrative? Put in lots of ideas. Throw them all in. You’ll know soon enough which ones work and which ones don’t. The more you write, the more you’ll learn how to spot problems early and circumvent them.
But write. And write and write and write.
The Age Atomic, the sequel to my debut novel Empire State, is about 95,000 words. But the first draft hit 160,000 words – and wasn’t finished – before I had to stop because, in the words of Monty Python, it was getting very silly. I was well over the target word count and couldn’t figure out how to tie everything together.
I knew exactly where I had gone wrong. I had too many ideas. My novels tend to be packed with them anyway – someone said that Empire State has everything in it but the kitchen sink, and I felt obliged to point out there actually was a kitchen sink in two scenes.
With The Age Atomic, I had no choice but to cut, and cut, and cut.
Kill Your Darlings
Kill your darlings is advice everybody has heard. To get to the end – to produce that novel – you have to be ruthless. No matter how wonderful the idea, no matter how sparkling the prose, if it has to go, it has to go.
But here’s the thing: ideas are easy, remember? You’ll have more ideas than you’ll ever need. Now that you’ve put a whole bunch into a story – as I did with The Age Atomic – you can see which ones fit together and which ones don’t. And the ones that don’t get the chop. No question.
Sure, it’s painful. I cut 50,000 words from The Age Atomic – more than half the length of the published novel – then reworked what was left until I had the right story.
Sounds like a colossal waste of time, right? Actually, no. I had to overwrite as much as I did in order to see what the true story was. Those 50,000 words had some great ideas and maybe some bits were even written quite well. They had to be ditched from that book, but I might be able to re-use parts of it in something else.
Hang Wire had the opposite problem. The original draft was written a while ago and ran a little short, with a few different ideas that didn’t quite gel together. What Hang Wire needed some extra ideas, new material that tied up the loose ends and added some extra depth.
Where did these ideas come from? I have no clue. But you know what? It doesn’t matter.
Do It All Again
So, how do you write multi-layered narratives with twists and turns? How do you mix genres and concepts?
I really don’t know. In a way I suspect the answer is to not worry about it, or overthink it. Write the story that you need to write. If that happens to be a classic epic fantasy, or a hard-hitting crime thriller, great. If it happens to be a steampunk Western romance with ghosts and time travel, great. Just like you shouldn’t worry about sentence fragments and split infinitives, you shouldn’t worry about jamming different ideas into the same story and seeing what happens. If it doesn’t work, ditch it, try something else.
The only thing you need to do it keep going. Keep writing. And then when you’re done – and I mean, when you’re done, not when you’re in the middle of something and then another idea comes along and tries to tell you to drop everything and work on it instead, start over. New idea, new story. The adventure begins again.