Credible plotting versus the killer novel idea

The other day I was working on my novel, and up came – yup. The Killer Novel Idea. Great. I know about killer ideas. They’re brilliant – and they also kill the carefully organised plot and character arcs. I had a few options – including storing it for later. But in the end i decided to use it, which meant I was going to have to go back to Chapter 1 again and do some more revisions. Again.

To me, plot means more than just narrative events, it means the way these events are shaped to fit the character arcs, the dramatic structure and all the other things that go into a saleable novel these days. There are so many threads, layers and interplays. Stuff can’t just be bolted on. Hence the rewrite.

The need to get those connections right is actually true in a general sense. A few years ago Penguin asked me to evaluate a manuscript one of their other authors had written. Would I provide expert comment on the historical-factual side? The author had created a marvellous historical novel – well written, competent, skilfully weaving character arcs into a plot built around well-known events. Structurally it was spot on. So was the factual research. Then I came to the climactic scenes. Now, the character arc had been leading up to a particular conclusion for the protagonist. And sure enough, it happened. It was entirely consistent for that character as developed in the novel.

Except for one small flaw. It couldn’t have happened in the historical setting the author was using. And that obliterated the ‘suspension of belief’for me. I made the point in my commentary. It wasn’t changed when thw novel appeared – and I could see why, given the way the event integrated with the character arc. But it still grated. I believe the author was later tackled about it, for the same reason, by one of the people who had lived through the events around which she’d set her story. What she’d done, in short, was create a character development arc, driving the details of the plot, that didn’t gel with the setting she’d chosen. Boom!

That clash between setting and brilliant plot turns happens surprisingly often – not always blatantly. There are a couple of reasons for it. One is that sometimes the research hasn’t quite got there. That’s rare.  More often, I suspect, the author trips up on those connections between character arc, plot and setting. Not hard to do – it’s like wrestling a tiger at the best of times. And one of the ways that can happen is that sometimes an author’s writing away – and suddenly that Killer Idea floats in.

It’s an insight. It’s brilliant. They’ve been wrestling with the novel, and here’s the answer to the character arc issue, or some other part of what they have been doing. Problem is, it doesn’t gel with the setting or some other fundamental aspect of the book. How does that get sorted? Well, Tolkien did it – fairly often, too. Dump the old. Start again – rework the story to fit the new idea.  If necessary from the beginning. Make it happen.  There’s no doubt about the benefits of this approach – integrating those ideas from scratch really pays dividends. That was why The Lord of the Rings was so good.

Problem is, that takes time; and for most of us, time is a luxury we seldom have. Contracted authors get deadlines that have to be met. Or the Killer Idea and necessary rewrite might destroy the other good stuff in the novel – setting, world-building, background. The answer? Well, that Killer Idea wasn’t right for the story. Maybe it can be filed for later use in another tale – one purpose-built for that idea.

Do you have any Killer Ideas stored up (you don’t have to say WHAT they are…)? Ever had to re-work something because of a new notion? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

4 thoughts on “Credible plotting versus the killer novel idea

  1. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt! I’m forever being “kidnapped” by my characters who refuse to follow a prescribed plot point. Sigh! Just like children they are… 🙂


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