Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he wrote, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?


As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –


you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!



Where are we now?

My blog was later than usual this week so here is an extra post to warm us up for the writing weekend…

We’re travelling deep into the hidden furrows of your characters’ hearts and memories now so it’s time for a breather before we go even deeper. Let’s look around at the places in your story where your characters eat, sleep, work, suffer, celebrate and love.


Your draft flows more quickly, more consistently if you get to know those places early in your writing. Most important of all, find out how your characters feel about them.

This is about more than location: what are the colours, smells, textures and sounds that tell us about your character and are significant for your story? What is the atmosphere in each place? How does the air move there? Is it warm or cold, stuffy or clear-headed, does it bring a taste to the mouth? Does it bring memories? Above all, does your character want to be there? Why? If not, where would they rather be and why?

  • Let’s start at home. Using your scribble-chat technique, let your character invite you to where they live and show you, a room at a time, their kitchen, sofa, bathroom, garden/ view from the rooms, bedroom, bed and so on. Robert Graves’ kitchen in Mallorca is below – I loved that place.


  • How does your character describe their bed. Tracey Emin was right, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Let’s move on to day to day travel – how does your character usually get around? Ask your character to describe their car, bike, route to work etc.
  • From there, it’s easy to lead the scribble-chat to your character’s work place. We spend vast chunks of our lives at work and have a wide range of feelings and reactions to it.


  • What does your character do in spare time? Find out about their gym, choir room and so on.
  • Can you think of other places that are important to your character? Friends’ and relatives’ homes, for example. Worship spaces. Places to socialise.
  • Where is your character’s favourite place in all the world, real or imaginary?

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Different characters will see the same places differently of course and that’s always fun.

As usual, this is just exploration. You could have another go next week and find yourself up to the eyes in different answers. That’s great! You can choose what excites you most and works best for your characters and your story. Above all, you are immersing yourself more and more in your characters and their world, letting your writing flow, and getting closer to a deeply imagined, consistent draft.

On Sunday we move to Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine? See you then!

Family skeletons and state secrets

What is a secret? Something someone knows about you that you hope they’ll never tell? Or something only you know and keep your fingers crossed that nobody else ever finds out? Or something just about everybody knows but hasn’t been admitted out loud?

Secrets are one of the most powerful ingredients in the mix of a great story. They can be international state secrets or personal, from yesterday or years ago, and publishers love the ones that work on both personal and political levels. Let’s see what secrets your main characters have lurking around.

Stage 3 – let’s go digging for secrets:

Take time to settle yourself in peace with your favourite writing materials. Give yourself plenty of time, a tea or coffee and favourite biscuit maybe, and invite your main character to come forward for a scribble-chat.

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We’re after the strange magic that comes whenever our invented people talk to us in our imaginations and we catch the conversation in writing as we go. Something about this process deepens our relationship with our characters in a way that day-dreaming and spread-sheeting our characters can’t hope to match, though those play their parts too.

As before, guide your character gently into the areas you want to cover but let the character be expansive. Have a go with the questions below and see what nuggets of gold turn up. As ever, ‘you’ is the fictional character you’re discovering and you are interviewing gently, like a best friend:

  • Are you now or have you ever been in love? How do you feel about it, looking back? How did it feel at the time? How did things pan out?
  • What was your first sexual experience? How did it feel then? How do you feel about it now? Repercussions?
  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret? How does that feel? Do you want to do anything about it?
  • Have you ever been betrayed? How has it affected your life?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? If so, how do you justify this to yourself? How has it affected your relationship?
  • What do you most regret having done?
  • And what do you most regret not having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

Any one of these questions could fill hours if you let it. When you find that your scribble-chat is taking on a life of its own, coming to your page or screen as if it’s not your writing at all but somehow channelled from the gods, please keep writing as long as you can. These are the pieces of writing that sometimes lead to whole chapters or can go straight, hot-minted, into your draft. For me this adventure is the most intoxicating thing about writing.

Prepare to surprise yourself. As Anthony Powell said, ‘One of the worst things in life is not how the nasty people are. You know that already. It’s how nasty the nice people can be.

Follow your own lead and add to the questions in whatever way you like.

Next, we will look at how to use your discoveries to unearth the most urgent and exciting parts of your story. I don’t mean that we’ll ditch the raw first-draft wildness – that can be precious and exciting – but these scribble-chats will guide you straight to the hot stuff, saving you maybe several exploratory drafts.


Now you’re in a great position to assess the main peaks and troughs in your character’s life. If you have time to write one or two of those turning points as short stories, those scenes will feel less daunting as you approach them later. You might find yourself writing something unexpected and useful.


I’ll leave you with Robert Graves‘ desk (above) in Mallorca where I paid homage last week. Complete with a pot of fresh rosemary.

Next week, Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine?

Character is destiny? Why?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bashed on without bothering with questionnaires and exercises and are staring at a standard rejection or two by now. The kind that maybe misspell your name and give absolutely no clue why your story isn’t right. The main thing I’ve learned the hard way is not to send work out too soon.

It’s a hard fact though that rejections teach us how to improve our work, by which I mean they teach us that our work needs to improve. We all do apprenticeship at this. Rome wasn’t built in a day and good novels take time and skill to write.


(The original of this cartoon hangs in my hall, by the way.)

So, why do I start with these character sessions? Not only because ‘character is destiny’, as Heraclitus is supposed to have said, but because of the magic trick I learned from playwrights: spend time getting to know your characters deeply, actually being with them, hearing them speak, and you can bypass a whole stage of the drafting process and get to a more sophisticated draft more quickly.

It’s fun to design our plot, move our people like chess pieces into the scenarios we want, building the story in the way that suits our own world view and agenda. It can be all too easy to forget to give thought to whether they would behave like that. And if they would, why.

Characters are always the heart, soul and engine of your story and the better you know them, the more your reader will want to be in your book’s world. Your plan is not irrelevant, not at all, but the space between your plan and what your characters want is where those really memorable fictional characters thrive. It’s also the most exciting place to be when you’re writing.

Darcy cover

So let’s go deeper now – Stage 2:

If it hasn’t happened already, let your character lead the conversation freely from now on (in your scribble-chats on your page or screen) for as long as they want. The questions below are your prompts and any one of these answers could take the two of you a whole day or even a weekend. Good questions come in pairs – feel free to add your own. The ‘you’ below is of-course your invented character though it’s sometimes fun, as a separate exercise, to let the questions guide you down your own memory lane:

  • What is your greatest victory? Your greatest defeat?
  • Your greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Your idea or experience of perfect happiness? And of perfect misery?
  • When was or would be your experience of the greatest trap in your life? When was your greatest escape?
  • Your greatest delight? Your greatest fear, past, present or future?
  • What would be or has been your greatest happiness and joy? Your greatest sadness?
  • Your greatest achievement? And greatest loss?

A little trick

If you leave these exercises aside, planning to come back later, try to finish with an upbeat one – not the greatest trap or misery for example, unless you’re on to something amazing. That way you’ll come back with a happier heart.

Look how far you and your character have come together! Do you know more about character now than you do about the person you share a bathroom with (or wish you did)? Congratulations, you’ve made a huge step into your novel or story and saved yourself masses of faffing and redrafting later.

Next week I’ll show you how these discoveries take you by the hand to the very core of your story…

Did she marry the prince for love or money?

You’re steeped in fictional magic now – at least one of your characters is coming to you whether you’re asleep or awake, talking to you, making you laugh, bringing you their lives.

Let’s remember Rule One – if your story is coming hot and fast, always catch those pages. These character chats inspire your story, help it to come, so try to do both if you can. Any time you feel your writing light fading a little, these scribble chats with a character will always bring it back to life.

Back to our character interviews. It’s time we went to school.

Where I grew up, strangers who met us for the first time would be friendly, interested, and make sure they found out where we went to school within the first three or four questions. Our answers, like it or not, would have us boxed in terms of religion, class, politics and hopes for the future in that sectarian society. Education is such a big one everywhere, it’s worth hearing what your characters say about it at length, whether they have plenty or none.

Usual scenario: find your favourite place where you won’t be disturbed – at home, in a café, a station, a park, anywhere people will walk by and not ask you what you’re doing. It’s amazing how little people do bother you if you’re engrossed in writing. Invite one of your characters (always one at a time at this stage) to come and have a chat. Settle in together and write as you go – how are they feeling today, OK or could be better? Then bring the conversation around to asking about your character’s education.

Take it a stage at a time if you like – first years, secondary, college, apprenticeship, university, – and catch the dates as they’ll be useful later. Then let your character roll. What you’re after above all is your character’s inner world, the thoughts, memories and above all feelings:

Do you remember your first day at school? How did it feel? Your last day and how you felt? Any memories that stand out? What friends did you make then? Are you still in touch? Why (not)? How do you feel about it all now?

IMG_0691.JPGWhat would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why (not)? What was the best thing you remember about that time? The worst? What was the best thing it gave you? And the least useful?

Moving on, do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job if you had all the freedom in the world? Do you see yourself in your same job in five years’ time? What job do you think you’ll be doing then? How do you feel about that?

We learn a lot about people from their jobs so again take time to get your character to talk freely about this.: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of a person’s personality and, in some cases, that can produce a crisis, in them or people around them. I’m particularly interested in people who have a vocation, maybe creative or spiritual, and are cornered into doing something else in their early lives – they often have some sort of crisis in later life and fight free. That’s the bit we want for our stories.

Careers don’t always turn out as planned of course and sometimes that can feed down through generations to the character you’re talking to, so maybe delve around inherited talents too and how that affects your character in the present.IMG_0995

Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it remarkably freely and it’s often where they find life partners.

Back to your character:

What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night if you’re lying awake?

It’s amazing how many novels ignore money in their characters’ lives. How often do you think about money? Your characters will be the same. I believe that is an important reason why Jane Austen’s novels have been classics for so long, and not just in this prettified age: her characters’ economics are always to the fore. That feels real.

However rich or poor we are, we have some favourite possessions and they can tell a lot about us so ask your character: what is your most prized possession? Why is it precious? Where do you keep it? Show me?

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What are the early successes you’re proudest of? Take time to explore these, the other people involved, the feelings then and now, whether those successes brought repercussions later.

And your early failures?

What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to? Why?)

What makes you laugh most?

Have a happy writing week! Next time we’ll go even deeper into the volcanic cracks and fissures of the past where our characters’ stories erupt.

Digging for secrets – who are we writing about?

You’re a great listener. Of-course you are, you’re a writer. Put you beside somebody new and in no time, they’re telling you about their family and job, their fears and ambitions, all sorts of things other people might miss. We listen kindly, helpfully, but part of us is always watchful for details that distinguish this individual from the rest of us, that hook into the heart.

Those details go into our mental attics in case they turn out to be useful later in our writing. That later time is now when we sit down to discover who we’re writing about.


The better you know your main characters before you start writing chapters, the faster your draft will flow and the better by miles it will be.

Readers assume that our published pages arrive golden from the heavens and all we do is gather them, but everybody prepares.

A typical ‘character interview’ can start like this:

  • External description: height, weight etc.
  • Name
  • Age
  • Address
  • Place of birth
  • Ethnicity

We want to know our main characters better than we know our best friends so try it this way instead. You’re in your favourite writing spot feeling relaxed and comfortable. You have your writing bits and pieces with you. Nobody is ever going to see what you’re writing unless you choose to make it public so you have that privacy that lets you write freely and happily.  Invite your main character to come and have a chat.

It all goes down in writing, even the tricky bit at the beginning when they’re maybe too busy/shy/hungover/exhausted to want to talk to you and you coax them into it …

‘You’ is your fictional character invite them to answer these questions for you:

How do you look? To yourself? To other people? How do you feel about how you look? What would you change if you could? What are you happy with? Talk about what you are wearing today? What are you happiest wearing? Unhappiest? When have you been most/least proud of how you look?

What is your name? Do you think it suits you? Why/not? Do you have a nickname? How did you get it? How do you feel about it? What nickname would you rather have if you could choose? Why?

Your age? How do you feel about your age? What age would you like to be? When was or will be your best age? How do you feel about getting older? How is your health? How do you feel about being ill/ well?

Where do you live? Why do you live there? What is it like – your home and the wider community? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? How long have you lived there? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live? Why?

Who do you live with? Chat about the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that? In what way?

Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language? How do you feel about that?

Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Who is most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with/ least safe with and why? How do you think they feel about you? Why?

The answers to any of these questions could fill a week. The essence is to meander. You can keep coming back to this throughout the week and catch whatever comes up about musical tastes, what’s in your character’s bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits and so on, it’s all gold dust.

Let your characters, one by one, take you by the hand through whatever is important to them in their own words.


This comes from one of many useful exercises in What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter:

Make a list with dates of all the places you have lived. Treat yourself to some time remembering each one in turn and then describe it in writing, concentrating maybe on a room or two. This is one of those memory lane exercises where details come to you with increasing richness even if they hadn’t crossed your mind in years. Take your time and, as you write, notice your own feelings about that place and time. Maybe you find yourself thinking of someone you remember, a hug or laugh you had together then, a great meal, a birthday?

Getting close to your past self is a great route into being comfortable with your characters’ deepest thoughts and emotions. In the late 1990s, when I was learning from Bernard Kops, he’d say time and again ‘Go deeper’. I was too busy playing with words and trying to be funny to know what he meant but deeper is where fiction plays its best trick, the one that hooks into readers’ hearts and takes them on the emotional adventures they long for.

Happy writing! More next week.