I drove across Indiana today in heavy snow. Visibility was poor on I-70 between Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Traffic was slow. I saw cars off the road and a multiple vehicle accident. I kept going. I found the track and I stayed in it. Hmmm. . .sort of like writing a novel.
The first novel I wrote had a three-act structure, and I knew what the climactic moment of each act would be. Those moments gave me something to write toward. I needed that assurance that I was moving toward something definite in order to feel confident to try to write a novel in the first place. The novels I’ve written since then, although a number of them have been based on true stories which gave the books a trace of a structure, have been more spontaneous. I’ve made myself curious, and I’ve written to try to satisfy that curiosity while being careful not to satisfy it too soon. I’ve played the “what if” game, letting my imagination intersect with the facts.
In my new novel, Late One Night, for example, I took the unfortunate story of a house trailer fire in which a mother and some of her children died, and I said, “What if the absent husband became a suspect?” A question like this can begin to shape a narrative. What would have to happen for the husband to be a valid suspect? Why might someone else be a suspect, too? A mystery isn’t too mysterious if suspicion is cast toward only one person. What would the twists and turns be as the issue of truth slowly comes into focus?
Writing a novel is like driving through a snowstorm. There are plenty of distractions—the driving snow, the cars off to the side of the road, the accidents, the iced-over wiper blades smearing the windshield. What I’m saying is there are so many storylines—so much “stuff”—that can pull your attention from the main through-line of the plot. You have to find the main track. Sometimes posing a question can provide it. Trying to answer that question is the main work of the novelist. Will Gatsby reunite with Daisy? Will Ahab have his revenge against the white whale? Will Odysseus make it back home? Pay attention to the main storyline first. Then give the novel more texture by creating secondary storylines that will be important to the main one. Penelope’s suitors, for example, or Tom Buchanan’s love affair with Myrtle Wilson. The secondary storylines vibrate against the main storyline and create a more full-bodied sound. Just make sure the secondary storylines are relevant to the main one. Often, it’s those secondary storylines that put pressure on the main through-line.
In Late One Night, a well-intentioned neighbor tries to seek custody of the surviving children. Another neighbor resents the absent father. Gossip spreads through the small town. Each element adds something to the original question: “What if the absent father became a suspect?” Each secondary storyline allows us to look at that question from a slightly different perspective. When we follow this strategy, not only do we create plot complications, we also complicate and deepen character.
Today, the snow finally stopped. I turned south and the farther I went the clearer things became. When we write a novel, we can think we’re lost, but as long as we have the main track, and as long as we keep going, we can get to the point where we can look around at the periphery—at those secondary storylines—and know we’re right where we should be.