For a reader, there’s nothing better than a book that twists, turns and surprises you – all tied up nicely with a satisfying end. It’s fair to say that while books like that are easy to read, they’re certainly not easy to write. So in this instalment of our On Writing series, we talk to Tim Weaver, whose ingenious plots never let a reader down, and ask him how he keeps the reader guessing to the very end.
What’s your starting point when coming up with a plot?
All of my books are about weird, unexplained disappearances, so because they’re part of a series, I suppose I have a slight advantage, in as much as I know they’re going to begin with someone going missing. But, even if you’re not writing a series, the theory’s pretty much the same: you come up with a hook, something that’s going to jump-start the novel and immediately get readers interested. Once you have the hook – a man gets onto a Tube train but never gets off again; a family vanish midway through dinner, leaving the table set and the food cooking on the stove; a man with no memory searches for himself – you have the foundation on which to build a novel.
But the hook is only a foundation. I think a mistake that’s often made is to believe that one cool idea is enough. Sometimes, in very rare circumstances, it is; very occasionally, you can hold an entire novel together with one amazing concept. However, most of the time, you need to work harder than that. So many thrillers run out of gas in the last third because they’ve been built on just a single, neat idea that has already run its course by the midway point.
Your plots are very intricate, with real surprises. How do you make sure you’re always one step ahead of the reader?
Meticulous planners will definitely disagree with this – I’m thinking of people like Jeffrey Deaver here, who writes plans almost as long as the finished novel – but, for me, a lot of staying ahead of the reader comes from consciously not planning. Of course, ultimately, you have to approach a novel in the way you find most comfortable: planning gives you a terrific overview of the book from the very start of the writing process; not planning is a terrifying leap into the unknown. But where a lack of a plan starts to make an impact, I believe, is when it comes to delivering effective twists, avoiding over-used thriller tropes and – most importantly – constantly surprising and exciting the reader.
At a basic level, if you’re writing a twist that you never thought about until you got there – in essence, if you’ve surprised yourself, because something you’ve written was never part of any plan – there’s a very good chance you’ll surprise the reader too. And these moments can only come from that organic approach. If you know a twist is coming a mile off because it’s been in your plan from day one, the novel will be bent and shaped in preparation for that twist, giving readers a hint – consciously or not – of what’s coming down the line (Remember, crime and thriller readers are smart. They read more thrillers than you do, so they know all the tricks. Outwitting them is very hard, which is another reason why there are benefits to a less formulaic approach.)
Sometimes, of course, none of that matters because your twist’s so mind-blowingly good no amount of set up can ruin it, but a great twist has to make sense, and it has to remain true to the story you’ve told, so you have to lay the groundwork for it, and in that groundwork, there will be some foreshadowing. There will be, because there has to be. So there’s definitely a lot of value from being more free and easy with your approach to plotting – in theory, because it’s more spontaneous, it helps disguise some of that groundwork.
Of course, as I’ve already hinted, this is also a scary and frequently very stressful way of working, because you’re never ‘ahead’ of the story – you’re discovering what the characters are like, up to, the decisions they’re making and the consequences of those decisions at the same time as they are. And, again, it’s important to underline that my method might not be for everyone. Some authors may argue that it’s actually detrimental to the writing process because it adds an extra layer of stress and anxiety to the mix. But I’m already a very anxious writer, constantly trapped in a whirlpool of doubt and self-inflicted stress, so what’s a little more?
Do you have any methods for keeping track of all the aspects of the plot and how they fit together?
It’s possible that I’m the worst person in the world to ask this too, because I do so little planning. I may write a couple of pages of set-up at the start – covering, say, the first 10-20,000 words – and I’ll always have a relatively clear idea of where it’s going to finish, but everything in between is up for grabs. At about 70,000 words, as the book slowly begins to make a turn towards the finale, I may start to write out important things to remember on Post-It notes and stick them up, but at no stage will I commit anything to a proper plan. Those last 30, 40, 50,000 words are huge: this is when you deliver on everything you’ve set up, so those great, umprompted moments are even more important now, because they will be what readers remember.
Normally, if you’ve grown your book organically like this, it means – when you’re done – you’ve got things that don’t quite tie up or fit together, and that’s fine. I normally do a second run-through, fixing loose ends and tightening those twists (sometimes changing them completely!). It isn’t a rewrite, not even a second edit, just a really focused attempt at ensuring the book keeps readers on their toes. (This lack of drafting, or rewrites, or whatever you want to call it, is a consequence of another weird habit of mine: I can’t move on to the next chapter until I’ve got the current one as perfect as possible. If you’re a speed writer, who prefers to get a first draft done quickly and then go back and edit, edit, edit, this will obviously be different.)
Of course, at the end of the writing process (it takes me 10 months to write a book), it’s very hard to judge how effective anything in the book is – I’m lucky that I have an agent and an editor to help me – so once you think you’ve done as much as you can, it’s definitely worth giving it to someone you trust to read. Ask them to be honest. Honesty, as much as it can sometimes hurt, really is the best policy. However good you think you are, you can always be better.
Have you ever painted yourself into a corner, plot-wise? If so, what steps did you take to tackle the issue?
This, unfortunately, is one of the worst parts about not planning. Very often, you will write yourself into corners, and won’t be able to see a way out. When this happens, I normally take a day or two off to clear my head. I go walking, which is often where I do my best thinking, or I’ll do really boring things like admin, or VAT returns, or really great things like answering reader emails. Basically, anything but the book itself. The worst thing you can do, I think, is chain yourself to the desk and keep writing. Often, in a ten-month project, I’ll have moments where I don’t have a clue where I’m supposed to go next, but I always, always find a solution. It might not come straight away, but it will come. So don’t panic – this is a perfectly normal part of being a non-planner.
There will also end up being lots of times when you’re really trying to make a character arc or a storyline work, but in your heart of hearts, you just know it’s not happening. The reason a lot of people don’t turn back from there is because they look at all the words they’ve wasted – sometimes thousands of them – and feel frightened/guilty/dismayed about all the hours they’ve ploughed in and see the culling of those efforts as dispiriting and reductive.
Cull them. If you don’t think it works, it’s because it probably doesn’t. If you’re going to avoid rigid plans, you have to accept this will happen and factor it into your writing time. However, even if you don’t end up using what you’ve just spent a couple of weeks writing, never throw it away. I’ve re-used tons of stuff I cut from one novel in the next, or the one after that. Sometimes what I cut at the time I absolutely loved (though most of the time I didn’t!), but even if you’ve written something gorgeous, ultimately it has to adhere to the world you’ve built in this novel. That’s one of the most important things: not trying to shoehorn in something you like because you can’t face dumping it. Nothing is ever wasted, even if you decide never to use it again, because writing itself is a constant learning process.