After writing several books now, and being deep into the snake pit with the next one, I’m coming to see that (for me, anyway) writing a novel is a lot like designing a trick shot on a pool table. I know that might sound like a stretch, but it’s more than mere fancy, so stick with me, because I promise there’s an interesting lesson to be had.
Think about how you approach a trick shot. First, you have to set up the table. You pick a number of balls and place them in their positions, Everything has to be just so, and each ball is there for a reason. Some of them are there to be struck by the cue stick, or the cue ball. Some are there to create barriers, making the shot more difficult, forcing the chain of strikes and ricochets to take a more tortured path. And others are there purely for show, serving no purpose other than to make the situation look complicated.
Then there’s the actual shot. You walk around the table, examining the layout and all the angles… Then you place your cue ball amidst all that chaos, lean down low over the felt, draw the cue stick back, and… SNICK! You set the whole thing in motion with a single, deliberate stroke of your arm.
Well it turns out, for me, that writing a novel is an awful lot like that. In the early stages of a project, I spend a lot of time “setting up the balls.” I walk around my constructed world, choosing characters and placing them in the world. I give them relationships, wants, obstacles, etc. It’s all very much like positioning balls near pockets, and then setting other balls in between.
Then I sit down and begin a draft. I choose a particular scene to start with, and then I set my “camera” in place, and launch into that first scene with a deliberate tapping of my fingers. Do you see the analogy? Yup. Choosing the opening scene is analogous to choosing where to set my cue ball, and so setting up the camera can be seen, in the analogy, as deciding on my stance and where I’m going to strike the ball. Finally, I let “the scene unfold,” launching that first character into the story, and then watching where he goes, who he hits, how that next character in the chain reacts, and so on.
But that’s not the lesson. So far, all I’ve done is show you an analogy. The lesson comes from what happens next.
If you’re trying to set up a trick shot for the very first time, chances of it working out on your first try are astronomically against you. In almost every case, what really happens is that the shot runs afoul somewhere. Some ball caroms off at the wrong angle, strikes some other, unintended ball, and before you know it, you have a hot mess. Nobody is sticking to the original shot plan. The dogs are lying down with the gerbils, and your audience is hissing and booing at the complete cluster fluck of balls ricocheting off bumpers and striking nearby ladies in the face. Then the 8 ball drops into the corner pocket and your game ends in shame and humiliation.
So what do you do? You go back to the start, of course. You reset the table. You reset the cue ball. You reset your stance, and you try again. But you make subtle changes, too. Maybe you move the cue ball a bit to the left, or add a bit more English to the strike. Maybe you reposition one of the “character” balls. Maybe you move one of the obstacle balls further back, or introduce a new ball to complicate the rebound.
Then you stroke it again.
And again, the complex interplay that ensues runs as expected for a brief time, until some new problem arises, and the table devolves into a different chaotic soup of unintended consequences, running the trick afoul once more.
So back you go, again, to the start. Reposition. Readjust. Retweak. Stance. Stroke. Etc. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Eventually, if you stick with it long enough, you reach that magic moment. You strike the ball. The cue strikes the target. The rebounds go where they’re supposed to. The ricochet that looks like its about to sink the 8 ball magically gets side-swiped by that nothing little rebounder coming out of the corner, and Holy crap! The target ball drops into its intended pocket. Then every last ball on the table drops in its turn. And before you know it, the table is clear. The trick shot has been created. There still may be some bits of showmanship and presentation to polish up, but you’ve got your sideshow ready to trot out at the next company mixer.
In writing terms, this is the point where you’ve finished constructing your story. There are still bits of editing to polish, but the lion’s work has been done. You know what happens, to whom, when, and why. And you know how it all ends. And if you’ve set it up properly, it is all entirely believable. The characters are doing what they should. The plan and the people are in perfect agreement, and the glorious conclusion seems pre-ordained. It all just feels right.
So what’s the lesson in all this? Hopefully, after everything I’ve just said, the lesson is obvious, but even if it is, it bares repeating: The success of the entire venture rests in getting the setup right. Do that, and all you have left to do, metaphorically speaking, is stroke the initial ball and then sit back and watch the rest drop, one by one. Screw it up, and no amount of jiggery pokery is going to get the dance back on track later.
And I’m discovering that that is why it takes me so long to write my novels. I care that every character behaves in a way that makes total sense from their point of view. Because if they didn’t, it would be like watching the cue ball hover over the table, tapping the balls into the pockets with ease. There’d be no satisfaction in a billiard trick like that, and there isn’t any in fiction, either. In fact, we writers even have a name for that tomfoolery: it’s called Deus Ex and it’s nobody’s friend.
So if you’re stuck on your story, and it just doesn’t want to run to script, try having a look at your initial conditions. Is each character in the right place, with the right set of relationship and conflicts, so that they will naturally behave the way you want them to when you set things in motion?
If not, maybe you should go back and tweak the initial layout. Because when you finally get the beginning right, the rest of the story will write itself.