Posted by: francesthomas | February 18, 2011

The Plot Thickens….

Help! I’m going too fast! My writing I mean.

Wait a minute,  isn’t that a good thing? What about this dreaded writer’s block you lot are always banging on about?

Well, yes. That can be bad too. And writing away at ninety miles an hour doesn’t feel bad. It feels great, in fact.

But…it isn’t always the right thing for your story.  You can go too fast for your own good; you can speed too lightly over the surface.  Sometimes you just need to slow down, and give the story room to grow.

Strangely enough this can be harder than making things shorter.  I rather enjoy cutting a manuscript down. Out with it! off with its head! I cry , as I slash and burn page after page.  And usually, it’s much better for it.

But adding – that’s another business. What do you add? For a start, certainly not the dreaded ‘description’ that they were always telling you to put in at school. Who wants page after page telling you exactly what colour the cushions were, or how the sunset streaked across the sky? No, what you need to put in is the small, but telling detail. And that needs concentration, and concentration is good, because it’s what’s missing as your fingers hurtle over the computer keys. Maybe all it takes is the replacement of a weak and vague verb by a strong and suggestive one.  Maybe, it’s looking harder and harder at a scene your eyes have just flicked over, and saying to yourself, now what exactly is going on here?  Your villain, for example, whose speech you’ve had such fun with – is his villainy going to come across to the reader? No? Then look at him again. Hard. What exactly is he doing as he speaks?  Maybe he’s shredding to bits a flower from the bunch of flowers the heroine has thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table. Maybe there’s a small nervous tic in the corner of his eyelid that betrays something about him that we haven’t noticed.  Maybe he’s lovingly stroking his adored dog… Or maybe none of these things, but something much more relevant and vital noticed by you, the writer.

As I write this, I scoop up from my brain a couple of instances where the tiny observed detail has brought someone or something to life.

When we first meet Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch we’re not very taken with her. She’s sanctimonious and priggish, and we wonder how we going to endure spending several hundred pages in her company. In the first scene, she’s going through her mother’s jewellery, and because she thinks she despises jewellery, intends to give it to her more frivolous sister. But she’s seduced by the beauty of the gemstones; her pious mask slips for a second, and we realise that we’re getting to know her a bit better than she knows herself, and that it might actually be rewarding to spend those pages in her company:

‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy…

Aha, Dorothea! Got you!

And here’s Dickens, the master of the tiny telling detail, introducing Little Dorrit’s vain and self serving father, living like a lord in the debtor’s prison. A well intentioned workman makes the ‘mistake’ of trying to give him a few coins, rather than slipping them discreetly to Little Dorrit. The Father of the Marshalsea is outraged, and once again, we feel we’re being told all we need to know about him:

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime (the workman) bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

‘How dare you!’ he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears…

And, oho! We know you too, Mr Dorrit!

The plot has thickened, not through a build up of verbiage, but by choosing the exact ones to help us ‘see’ the characters ; ‘feebly’  ‘perfect acquiescence’  ‘trying to justify her delight’  The effect is easy, almost unnoticeable, but Eliot and Dickens didn’t achieve it without a great effort of concentration, of pure and focussed vision. So when I feel myself rushing in my writing, euphoric though this can be, I have to tell myself, slow down, think, go deeper, not faster….

Let that plot thicken….



  1. Such a good point. I am editing at the moment and have realised that about 80% of the text is dialogue. Eek. I am in desperate need of some telling details.

  2. Great post, Frances. Editing your own work is the hardest thing to do. A lot of us tend to rush to getting the plot down and then go back and try to deal with things like pacing and description. Partly perhaps because we want to find out what happens next! Somebody recently lent me a book on editing your own work full of examples of the kind you describe which I found extremely helpful. Unfortunately I gave it back and no longer have the name. One thing with description that I try to do is imagine that I’m writing a poem and use imagery and rely quite a lot on a thesaurus to find the kind of work that sounds like I want it to mean. Reading Dickens and Eliot now however isn’t necessarily helpful when writing children’s books. Things have speeded up a lot since their days!

  3. What a good post, Frances. Middlemarch is brilliant. Funnily enough I have been writing about cutting text as I prepare the next blog… but from rather a different angle!

  4. Lovely post, Frances. When I re-write, my second draft often ends up longer than my first draft. Then I start being ruthless.
    I use a chapter from Jenny Nimmo’s “The Snow Spider” to teach my Year Six pupils about telling little details and how to use them, when setting out dialogue.

  5. It’s interesting how differently we write. I dash at my ideas and my first draft is total rubbish, but the main thrust is there. I feel the real writing takes place as I edit again and again, refining the story lines, weaving them together and developing the characters.

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