The Plot Thickens

Well, I’m hoping to talk about my new book soon, the last volume in The Girls of Troy sequence.  But while I’m waiting to have something to show, I’m recycling some older blogs. Here’s one I wrote in 2011.

The Plot Thickens

               Help! I’m going too fast! My writing I mean. Wait a minute,  isn’t that a good thing? What about this dreaded writer’s block you lot are always banging on about?  Well, yes. That can be bad too. And writing away at ninety miles an hour doesn’t feel bad. It feels great, in fact.

But…it isn’t always the right thing for your story.  You can go too fast for your own good; you can speed too lightly over the surface.  Sometimes you just need to slow down and let the plot thicken.

Strangely enough this can be harder than making a story shorter.  I rather enjoy cutting a manuscript down. Out with it! off with its head! I cry , as I slash and burn page after page.  And usually, it’s much better for it.


But adding – that’s another business. What do you add? For a start, certainly not the dreaded ‘description’ that they were always telling you to put in at school. Who wants page after page telling you exactly what colour the cushions were, or how the sunset streaked across the sky? No, what you need to put in is the small, but telling detail. And that needs concentration, and concentration is good, because it’s what’s missing as your fingers hurtle over the computer keys. Maybe all it takes is the replacement of a weak and vague verb by a strong and suggestive one.  Maybe, it’s looking harder and harder at a scene your eyes have just flicked over, and saying to yourself, now what exactly is going on here?  Your villain, for example, whose speech you’ve had such fun with – is his villainy going to come across to the reader? No? Then look at him again. Hard. What exactly is he doing as he speaks?  Maybe he’s shredding to bits a flower from the bunch of flowers the heroine has thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table. Maybe there’s a small nervous tic in the corner of his eyelid that betrays something about him that we haven’t noticed.  Maybe he’s lovingly stroking his adored dog… Or maybe none of these things, but something much more relevant and vital noticed by you, the writer.

As I write this, I scoop up from my brain a couple of instances where the tiny observed detail has brought someone or something to life.

When we first meet Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch we’re not very taken with her. She’s sanctimonious and priggish, and we wonder how we going to endure spending several hundred pages in her company. In the first scene, she’s going through her mother’s jewellery, and because she thinks she despises jewellery, intends to give it to her more frivolous sister. But she’s seduced by the beauty of the gemstones; her pious mask slips for a second, and we realise that we’re getting to know her a bit better than she knows herself, and that it might actually be rewarding to spend those pages in her company:

         ‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy…

Aha, Dorothea! Got you!


And here’s Dickens, the master of the tiny telling detail, introducing Little Dorrit’s vain and self serving father, living like a lord in the debtor’s prison. A well intentioned workman makes the ‘mistake’ of trying to give him a few coins, rather than slipping them discreetly to Little Dorrit. The Father of the Marshalsea is outraged, and once again, we feel we’re being told all we need to know about him:

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime (the workman) bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

        ‘How dare you!’ he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears…


And, oho! We know you too, Mr Dorrit!


The plot has thickened, not through a build up of verbiage, but by choosing the exact ones to help us ‘see’ the characters ; ‘feebly’  ‘perfect acquiescence’  ‘trying to justify her delight’  The effect is easy, almost unnoticeable, but Eliot and Dickens didn’t achieve it without a great effort of concentration, of pure and focussed vision. So when I feel myself rushing in my writing, euphoric though this can be, I have to tell myself, slow down, think, go deeper, not faster….