Sequencing

More and more, I feel like what I wrestle with in plotting novels is not figuring out what should happen, but what order it should happen in.

This is almost certainly prominent in my mind right now because of the Rook and Rose books, which, with their multiple points of view and interweaving strands of plot, pose more complex sequencing challenges than a single-pov novel with a more linear narrative. The same is true to a lesser extent, of The Night Parade of 100 Demons, where the two protagonists are pursuing the same main objective, but with side plots lacing through and around it. Even in a straightforward book, though, sequencing can be a question, because I also wrestle with this on the level of an individual scene. When more than one thing needs to happen, which deserves the highlight provided by being positioned at a key spot? Which one leads more naturally into the other? Are things easier or harder for the characters if they go in a certain order? Does that create an echo or a contrast with the way things went elsewhere? Has there been too much of the (metaphorical) color yellow for a while, and we need some blue to break it up before we go back to that?

I’ll use the first Star Wars movie as an example. In the early part of that film, the sequence goes: Luke acquires droids; Luke follows R2-D2 and meets Obi-Wan Kenobi; Obi-Wan invites Luke to go with him and learn to use the Force; Luke declines; Luke goes home and discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed; Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan after all. You could, if you wished, change the sequencing such that the Stormtrooper attack comes earlier and Luke escapes with Threepio and Artoo. Then he goes to Obi-Wan for safety, learns all the stuff about Leia, and accepts Obi-Wan’s offer the first time it’s made, because by then he’s already lost everything at home.

And that would work! It would just work differently. The structure would be less mythic (because Lucas was following Campbell’s model in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, where the Call to Adventure is often refused at first), and it would radically change the tone of Luke’s initial encounter with Obi-Wan, since then he’d be a fugitive grieving the loss of his family. It would also change your perception of Luke as a character: as the story is structured in reality, he dreams of getting off his podunk farm — but when the chance to do that is offered to him on a platter, he turns it down because he’s a good kid who doesn’t want to leave his aunt and uncle in the lurch. If you remove the aunt and uncle before the choice appears, you never see that side of him; indeed, it won’t feel like Luke is making much of a choice, because there’s already no reason for him to refuse (and plenty of reason for him to agree). But that doesn’t mean the other sequence doesn’t work; it all depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve. Not everything is aiming to be mythically structured, nor centered on a good kid with both dreams and a sense of responsibility.

So once you know what’s going to happen in a story, there might still be decisions to make. Some things have to go in a certain order; Luke has no reason to visit Obi-Wan before he acquires the droids, and if they ran into each other for some reason, it would be an empty scene, with much less for them to talk about. (Movies in particular can’t really afford empty scenes, but even novels shouldn’t have them: if the sole reason you’ve got for an encounter is “to establish that this character exists,” ask yourself if you can just wait until there’s something to do with him.) But I think that for all but the most driven thriller plots, there’s often wiggle room. If the blue bit of plot will provide your character with a safety net for the dangerous thing in the yellow bit, is it better to do the blue part first? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s more exciting if they don’t have the safety net, but if the character is someone who simply would not risk doing the yellow thing without a fallback plan in place, then delaying the blue might seem like bad characterization for the sake of drama. Whether you’re looking at the larger narrative arc or the flow of a single scene, it’s all going to depend on the material at hand.

Which is why my novel-writing process increasingly features index cards with bits of plot scribbled on them. Those are very convenient for shuffling around on the floor, test-driving different sequences to get a feel for what will play best.

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