I love watching Dr Who, also any of those gloom-laden detective thrillers currently on television … The trouble is, I often fail to understand the plot, and have to ask my teenage daughter to explain. It may be gaps in my grey matter, it may well be the increasing existential complexity of life in the Tardis, but it may also be the fact that I tend to fall asleep at crucial moments and miss the clues. I was always a bit like that. I would never be able to identify with a Time Lord, let alone Philip Marlowe or Jackson Brodie, being far too dozy and unfit.
I often wonder how you fiction writers plan out your plots and scripts. Flow charts, index cards, Cluedo boards, spread sheets? For all I know there’s something clever on your Mac which ensures that continuity and logic hold your stories together. Mind you, Raymond Chandler never really mastered those skills, did he, yet he remains a genius.
The planning of children’s non-fiction is of course very different – which is not to say it shouldn’t include leaps of imagination. The key planning stage for any information book is a detailed synopsis. This is the element of the work that deserves to have the most time spent on it, although nobody would guess that from the stage payments listed in our contracts. It provides the nuts and bolts on which the whole edifice depends, so it is absolutely crucial that it works. What is more, the structuring can provide hours of relatively wholesome fun! Really!
The conundrum starts with the choice of a topic. Is the subject to be sliced vertically or horizontally? Is a history book best ordered by themes, by chronology, by locations, by artefacts or by personalities? Is a book on wildlife best ordered by species or by habitats? This is rather like the problem faced by us all when we put CDs on a shelf: do we order them by artist, by title, by date or by genre? (Being a sad person, I find that quite enjoyable, too!). There may be no ’correct’ answer, but any solution must be guided by a strictly logical progression if it is to fulfill its objective – communication with the reader.
The exposition may be shaped by other factors, too. Is the topic best explored in chapters or in a succession of discrete double-page spreads? How many pages are left to play with once the prelims and the ever burgeoning end matter is taken into account? Could some of that information be better placed within the main section of the book? A picture list is generally part and parcel of the synopsis, because, for the children’s market, visuals are as important as text. Plan in pictures! And that’s fun too.
And if relentless logic reduces your attack to a plod or a grind, there are all sorts of clever ways of varying the pace or upping the tempo. Take your pick of the tricks: practical activity panels, amazing fact boxes, in-your-face visuals or all those clever gimmicks such as pull-outs, pop-ups, or bees that really buzz. In a less showy book, a case study panel can bring the reader down to earth from a wider or more theoretical debate, changing the focus to a more personal one.
Other wake-up devices can be nicked from the world of fiction, such as introducing narrative elements, or bringing an event out from its natural chronological order to provide a dramatic ‘hook’ at the beginning.
In the Jurassic era of my schooling I had an inspired teacher who would allow one ‘Red Herring’ question in class each week. This would send him off the curriculum into all kinds of perfectly irrelevant avenues of anecdote and inquiry – and I remember every one of them to this day, long after the proper lesson has been forgotten. The web offers that wonderful kind of freedom, too – but it should come with a health warning.
The general format of websites is rarely suited to a thorough, logical exploration of a topic. The links tend to divert the reader along tangents, many of them leading to dead ends. And watch out, fiction will not be not immune from this tendency as it goes electronic. This week on Radio 4 the head of Penguin Books seemed to welcome the fact that in future readers would no longer read a Jane Austen novel straight through, but would be encouraged to digress into Jane Austen recipes or sharing the Jane Austen experience on social networking sites.
Nevertheless, I am told that the future is electronic and that children’s non-fiction in paper format is doomed, so perhaps my wise words on structure are the equivalent of a monk telling Wiliam Caxton the best way to cut a goose feather. Should we be welcoming in the age of electronic incoherence more wholeheartedly and positively? The Time Lord may say, ‘Yes!’, but I suppose I say, ‘Well OK, but please give us the chance to make it more coherent. Book writers do know how to present information in ways that work.’
If you listen to a wonderful piece of music, you don’t notice the nuts and bolts engineered by the composer. If you listen to a great poem you don’t notice intricacies of metre and structure – until you sit down and study it. Children’s non-fiction may not aspire to such heights, but a lot of structural work must happen before a book works well enough, unobtrusively, to communicate and inspire.
Before I shut up, may I briefly return to the plotting of fiction? I was watching a You Tube clip recently of good old Kurt Vonnegut discussing the ‘Shapes of Stories’. (Was it a Dragontongue member who recommended it orginally?) Vonnegut draws out graphs of standard plot progressions along the axes Beginning > End and Good Fortune > Ill Fortune. Have a watch! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ . Non-fiction books may not be concerned so much with the decline from good fortune to ill fortune, but alas such plots are read by their authors all too often – in their bank statements or on their royalty cheques! How much does one earn for an episode of Dr Who, I wonder? Tell me how it’s done!