One day, the amazing tutor in my creative writing group asked us to sketch out a plot for something we wanted to write. My mind went blank. I have never sketched out a plot in my life. What happens is that my pen wanders off apparently under its own steam, and leaves me looking in astonishment at the results.
I could hear seagulls crying overhead as they had earlier over my garden; and bustling sounds of commerce floated up from the street below the room in which my fellow writers were scribbling in enviable ease. I sat, staring at the blank sheet. Then my trusty pen moved forward, and this happened:
I’ve lost the plot. If you bump into any part of it, please turn it round and point it back in my direction. My protagonist has taken up the attitude of a breeze block, and is bobbing pointlessly around the garden, just out of calling distance. My primary conflict has shred itself and is blowing around the study like confetti. I call it a study; it’s actually one end of the dining table. I call it a dining table, it’s actually – oh well, you get the point. The setting of my story (is it a story?) is wreathed, on this mild clear spring day, in an impenetrable autumn mist. No town, no secondary characters, no cars, no countryside, no seaside, nothing visible on which I can pin my next faltering phrases.
Now, I must stop this self-pity and get on with it. I’ve locked the garden door, and I’m being disciplined again. You know the protagonist must have a clear central motivation, don’t you? This is non-negotiable, and it has to be consistent too. You can’t have her wavering excitedly from one motivation to another, like a toddler in a toy shop. And it has to matter. If it doesn’t matter to the protagonist, it sure as hell won’t matter to the reader. (The reader! Who am I kidding?) When I last saw my protagonist, who, by the way, has now floated off over the garden fence beyond the host of golden daffs, her motivation was relatively intact. That is what I was led to believe. She was determined to adjust to her new, extremely well paid job doing something in Finance which she hated, having been sacked from her previous job gutting haddock in Big Tel’s fish market, for almost no money at all, which she loved.
I’m wavering again. Back to my setting. I peer under the dining room table in case there’s a setting lurking beneath it, a branch of a discreet Swiss bank in the shadow of Mont Blanc perhaps, or a smart open plan office in Canary Wharf. Oh lord, doesn’t she even know what country she works in? I gaze through the window at the daffs, willing them to stop nodding in that inane way they have, and do something useful. Clearly, even they would be better at writing a novel than I, at this point.
It comes to something when you have to rely on a daffodil to ……. oh hello, who is this? I think it’s another protagonist emerging from the behind the compost heap. A blokey looking bloke. What is to be done with him? In the absence of protagonist numero uno I might as well see where he fits in for a while. Ah now, he’s the lover she was found sporting with in a fish crate down by the quayside, rather than getting stuck into the cutting and gutting. It’s fair enough really, Big Tel gave her several warnings and in the end it was just one ungutted haddock too far. And they’d been in too much of a hurry to take the fish out of the crate first, so they had flattened them in their unbridled lust. There can’t be much call for squashed haddock. I suppose Big Tel could market them to the gentlefolk of the city as escalopes, but it doesn’t get round the problem of the bones. Or the lack of a city. Or the absence of gentlefolk. Oh, dear.
Eureka! I’ve cracked it! This is the story and I am, in fact, my own protagonist! My motivation is to marshal all these unruly elements into a cohesive whole, the setting is my dining table and the garden, and the conflict is clearly that I’m not managing to do any of it.
That’s a relief. I was really beginning to believe I’d totally lost the plot. Time for a break I think. I’ll have a tidy round, get rid of the shreds of that old conflict littering the carpet, then I think I’ll invite that rather nice blokey looking bloke in for a drink. What? What’s wrong with that? Numero uno breeze block has finished with him, hasn’t she? Getting used to bigger fish now. Probably locking fins with a trendy City shark as we speak. I’m ready for a total redesign, starting with him outside. Now, if I can just find where I put the key……