Don't Stop Me Now: Keeping Your Story's Momentum Going
I have to admit I’m not one for savouring the moment. My partner complains that I snaffle treats down so quickly I never actually enjoy them, whereas she can drag out a packet of biscuits over the course of your average season of Downton Abbey. It’s not my fault; my late grandmother’s treat cupboard contained more chocolate than a tuckshop run by Errol Brown. I’m not used to moderation.
But you know, I know when to slow down and enjoy the quiet moments. Just because I’m on intimate terms with e-numbers it doesn’t mean I wanted Constable to paint a gang of lads playing headers and volleys in front of the Haywain. The best moments in drama, and sometimes in comedy too, happen when they’re part of a slow release; a dawning realisation that you didn’t see coming.
This blog post is about momentum, and the things I’m going to have to tinker with when it comes time for me to redraft The Sad Club. Momentum is tightly bound up with plot, one element of the Holy Trinity of writing (the others being characterisation and dialogue). It’s always been the weakest part of my ‘A’ game, which probably reflects my meandering, sitting-on-the-fence outlook on life. So that’s one reason that The Sad Club has had such a tortured genesis, and why it’s mainly a book about personality and personal growth.
'God, not the paintwork,' thought Keanu as he watched Sandra practice reversing into a mother and child parking bay.
The structure of the novel was always meant to be half present day, half flashback, told in strict order of one present chapter and then one past. The reason for this was to illustrate not only the life the main protagonists shared at school, but also as a vehicle to show their growth as people over time. It’s been twenty years since they were all together, and it stands to reason that in that time they are supposed to have matured. The point of showing you cut scenes from their lives is to show that they haven’t, really, no matter how successful they have become.
Alex’s flashback is interesting, because the more the story progresses, the more distant the scenes from his life become. He starts as a relatively successful actor, and then we see an older scene where he’s a penniless addict. Following that, we see him disappear from his home town, then we find out the reason for that disappearance. We know from the present day that Alex isn’t happy with his lot, no matter his success. But the more we delve, the more obvious the reasons become.
So I’m almost completely wedded to that structure, which enables me to chop and change the order you discover things about the characters. It creates its own momentum because you get a fuller picture as the story pans out – a hint in chapter three becomes fully rounded in chapter sixteen, for example.
But. There’s a but. Isn’t there always a but?
I’m reaching the denouement of the story now. In the final chapters, where the whys and the wherefores are all but worked out and there is only the question of nemesis and catharsis to play out, it seems counter-productive to start shoehorning in flashback scenes to fit an idealised structure. It’s likely to kill the momentum I’ve spent forty-odd chapters building towards, and which writer wants you to take a breather once you’ve reached the top of the rollercoaster?
One solution I’ve considered is to do away with the flashback scenes entirely. I would do this with a heavier-than-lead heart because it’s part of what makes The Sad Club such an attractive story to write. The self-contained scenes give you a much more rounded picture of what made these men the way they are, much more so than a brief sketch using them anecdotally would. It also helps to keep details of the plot from you until the appropriate moment – why, for example, has Elliott never been back to his hometown? I’d much rather show you than tell you.
Another obvious solution is to make the structure of the flashbacks much more haphazard; instead of using them as non-negotiable, I could clump present chapters together and also flashbacks, if I so choose. Again, I would be reluctant to do this, partly because I want the story to be anchored in the present even though it’s affected heavily by past events.
What I’ll probably end up with is a compromise of those two approaches. When I started writing The Sad Club the structure seemed hugely important, but as the story has flowed, the less wedded to the strict present-past structure I’ve become. It will also enable me to melt down flashback scenes I don’t think have enough legs and incorporate them into the present-day narrative, which will in turn help with editing and word count, which is becoming a bit of a concern.
I won’t be too worried about conserving momentum until I launch into a redraft, at which time it will be all I think about. This first draft (or draft 1.5, since it was mostly written, abandoned and resurrected) is getting all the sets, characters, stage directions and plot points in place. Draft 2 will be shape, structure and plot. Draft 3 will be thematic and dramatic changes, and then anything after that will be dress rehearsal only before I start submitting.
And if all else fails, I can cling to one thing: I have a beginning, a middle and an end, which is more than I had this time a year ago. I also have an addiction to chocolate malted milk biscuits, but that's between me and my dietician.