Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Flow charts

Never mind ‘where do you find your ideas?’ A more interesting question to put to any writer of traditional detective stories is ‘how do you construct your plots?’ A sizeable number of my contemporaries don’t have a clear idea of how their mystery is going to unfold when they start on chapter one. But the more complex the plot, the more planning is generally required.

Kate Ellis is someone who shares my love of the convoluted plot. She sets herself a particular challenge by combining the main mystery in her Wesley Peterson books with a corresponding puzzle set in the past. I admire the way she juggles the different elements, especially in her latest, The Blood Pit.

Kate’s writing style, as I’ve mentioned before, was influenced by the early episodes of ‘Taggart’, which began with several apparently unrelated plot strands that were woven together gradually so as to lead to an amazing and unexpected conclusion. She usually knows the outcome of her mysteries (although she’s been known to change her mind about the identity of the murderer at the last minute.) And she plots the whole book out…in a flow chart.

When I learned this, I was so intrigued I couldn’t resist the urge to cross-examine for more details. This is what she told me: ‘I get a sheet of A3 paper and put what really happened in a bubble in the centre. Then I have various other bubbles coming off that (connected by lines) outlining different aspects of the plot (red herrings decorated with little fish.) I put the parallel historical plot in its own little section down one side. I end up using it as a rough guide and, even though my centre bubble usually remains fairly constant, things get changed quite a bit.’

Suffice to say that this is a much more organised approach than my own – which relies rather heavily on committing details to memory. But it’s fascinating and obviously effective, and if I were more methodical, I’d give it a try myself.

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