Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Writing: Expectation Vs Reality…

I was having a sort out in my room the other day, in the aftermath of nanowrimo and all, and I found something I wanted to share with you all. I don’t … I don’t really know what the lesson is here, but I suppose if we go through it all together, maybe we can figure it out?

So I found my first notebook from way back in the very beginning, at the point when I decided I’d quite like to write the series. Wow, that was a long time ago now…

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Anyway, I dug it out and I sort of wanted to share it with you? As you can see, it’s a bit battered and it’s definitely stuffed to bursting! I carried it around with me on the ride to and from work, which I bring up because the writing’s weirdly neat for me and my bus-writing!

It wasn’t anything ground-breakingly original, nor anything very complex in it’s conception either. It was essentially just a collection of pictures I’d found online (me having no artistic talent whatsoever and thus being incapable of drawing my own) that vaguely fitted either the general vibe of the stories I was looking for, or an effort to try and get a fix on what I thought various characters looked like, how they acted, what their backstories were, all that jazz…

I started work on it initially, if I remember rightly, because I had some many images and ideas and little fragments and flashes of inspiration floating around in my head and I wanted to tie some of it down in one place. I wanted to see what the common threads where, what my imagination was driving at, and having it all down in hard copy in front of me was very useful in that regard.

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At first it was all pretty well-organised; just a few notes, some snatches of Old English and translations, the odd place-name I’d decided on…

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But after a while, things got a little out of hand! Even the notes were trying to escape the confines of the notebook!

One of the more interesting things about having a ratch through this old thing, after several years of it being tucked away safely in a box, has been seeing what ideas I have kept largely unchanged since the very start of this whole endeavour and what has changed, sometimes quite radically!

Whole character arches have been completely altered and swept away, whole others have only had small additions or subtractions made. Sometimes I’ve even stumbled over characters I came up with way back when which I’d since forgotten about entirely, only to realise I’d been trying to recreate them from scratch because my stories still needed them! Talk about inadvertently reinventing the wheel!

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I suppose the big question is: Was all this cutting and sticking worth it? Well…

I feel that it would be dishonest to say that this has been a practice I’ve continued into my writing endeavours today. Just as an example, this is what my current notebook looks like!

I know, glamorous, isn’t it?

And you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, but surely that’s just the outside, right? It’ll be full of pretty pictures on the inside, naturally!’

Nope! ‘Fraid not!

(Sorry Mam, I know my handwriting’s … distinctive!)

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It’s not pretty, but it works!

But that doesn’t mean that all that work on the old notebook was wasted effort.

For some people, I understand that world-building is quite literally the process of building a whole world from the ground up and then populating it with characters to explore it. For others it’s a case of having a bunch of characters and needing to build a world for them to fit inside of. For yet others (and I realise this might not be how most people think of world-building, but I reckon it still counts) the whole thing starts with the story and they build the world and the characters as necessary for the story to take place.

But none of those broad models works for me at all…

The beginning of my writing journey was a mess of origin stories for people I didn’t know would be main characters (and indeed rather suspected would not!), a single clear crystalline image of three wildly different castles, some flashes of scenes in no particular order, and a smattering of world-mechanics for travel and magic and culture. And through of of this, the certainty that it would all fit together perfectly if I could only find a way to fill in the blank bits!

Filling up a notebook like this was a helpful first step towards filling in those gaps. Getting down everything I knew I knew, not worrying about what order I knew things, not worrying about whether I was being wildly different to everyone else, just pushing all that swirling mess inside my head out onto paper and making space for carrying new ideas… It helped me feel like I was getting somewhere, even if – in the strictest of writing senses – I was doing no such thing!

Come the New Year, I think I’ll be dipping into the old notebook a bit more and sharing some choice chunks with you all! Some ideas that sounded good in principle but just didn’t quite stick the landing, some characters I realised I hated already and they hadn’t even made it through the story yet, and one huge integral feature of world-building that made it through several drafts before I realised I’d almost created a monster I couldn’t make myself stand behind.

After all, if we don’t share out mistakes, other people have to go and make them for themselves, don’t they?

Have any of you found old notebooks lurking long after you’d finished with them? Did you find buried treasure or ghouls best left forgotten?

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) – Part 2

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super VillainsWelcome back! This is Part 2 of a 2-part post. Part 1 looked at some of the various reasons why I personally find planning my stories out fully in advance to be enormously helpful, but in keeping myself on message, and in just keeping myself going at all!

Here in Part 2, we’ll be taking a look at the various methods – or steps, I suppose I should call them? – that make up my planning process.

Obviously, you may feel that I’m planning in a ridiculous amount of detail, but I swear that (for me) each step allows me to learn a different thing about the story I’m creating, and I couldn’t write without them.

If you are currently planning, or maybe you struggle with planning in a helpful and productive way, and you find any of these methods helpful: that’s great! Always very happy to possibly help!

You might have a totally different way of planning out a story, in which case please do let me know down in the comments!

Right, now that’s out of the way with, let’s go!

Step 1 – Argh! All The Wild Ideas!

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Technically this is probably Step 1.3, but I was too busy plotting to grab my camera before this…

Step 1 of planning out a story is to grab all of my relevant ideas, and at least three colours of post-its and start scribbling. Jot down each and every single thing that you currently know happens in your story. Every. Thing.

“Stan meets Cleo” – that gets a post-it. “They sneak into the castle” and “They get caught” should probably be two post-its. Heck, “Sinister cat appears” should absolutely be a post-it! In fact, make several of that one, you’re going to want to repeat a moment that inherently awesome!

Once you’ve got all the immediate ideas jotted down, get yourself a big flat surface, and start laying them all out, and shuffling them around. You’ll know going in that some things will happen before others, so stick those ones earlier, but some ideas will be a bit more nebulous, and you can play around with the order until you find something that you really like.

Also can you see, I have some smaller beige post-its? Those just have chapter numbers written on them, and as I start sticking ideas down, I tend to get a bit of a sense that this event, or that development will be a whole chapter in itself and doesn’t need anything added. Again, a lot of this will change a bit as you work on shaping your story, but that’s the beauty of post-its! They can just get pulled up and stuck down somewhere else!

Why do you need multiple colours of post-its, though? Well, if you have a Main Plot and a Sub-plot, you’re going to need to differentiate them nice and easily. Got a romantic sub-plot too? Definitely need to keep an eye on that. That way, you can see if a plot-thread has started to disappear out of your narrative, or if your sub-plot has basically become the main plot by taking up too much space!

20170824_22414620170829_233430As you get a better handle on your story, you’ll be able to fill in your blanks.

(Also, as you can see, I ran out of space on my table pretty quickly and the wardrobe was immediately sacrificed! Please don’t judge me for the stuff on the floor?)

Step 2 – Typing Up (Round 1)

As anyone who lives around post-its for long enough knows, post-its are only ever a temporary solution. They come unstuck and get everywhere really easily. Then they get hoovered up, played with by the kids or the cat and you will never see them again. And there went your plot.

Plotting stage 2So once you’ve managed to haul the plot points you’ve got into the general shape of a full story with a distinct beginning, middle and end, it’s time to start typing them up.

(For the sake of my own sanity, I tried to find colours in Excel that matched the post-its pretty closely, but you may be mentally-robust enough not to need to care about such things?)

Whether you just literally type up what’s on the post-its, or whether like me you use this opportunity to start fleshing out each point, it’s totally up to you. Basically, you’re preserving the post-it plot and giving yourself a usable, printable document to start playing around with a bit further.

Plotting stage 2.1

Susan Pevensie Part 1As you can see, there will likely still be some gaps in that plot! I never worry about them too much yet, but I do make sure to mark in what idea I do have in that space, and make myself little notes to remind myself that there’s  still something I need to work on. That way, when I get to later stages (or even, heaven forbid! writing up!) I won’t be suddenly and unexpectedly blind-sided by this massive gap that I don’t know what to do with.

I don’t have a photo of one, but I tend to keep a ‘To Do’ list of all of these little gaps separately, so that I can work through them and get them sorted out when I’m not at my desk staring at the document too.

Step 3 – Narrative Arcs and Plotting Tension

I fully confess that Stage 3 is the one I understand the theory behind the least. However, I do find it useful, and I recommend at least giving it a bit of a go. I promise that it will tell you something!

Plotting stage 3

Basically, I sit down with my plot-points and try to measure the average tension of each chapter of the story. I tend to use a scale of 1-10, but that’s mostly because that’s the extent of my estimating-expertise. You may find that you are more comfortable in talking about ‘the tension’ of a chapter, and may have more nuance in your estimates.

Ch.19 - The Tragedy of Backstory - Part 1The point here is largely to check that you have a steady over-all rise and fall of tension, but also to check that the tension does actually rise and fall in a sensible manner, and that the various plot threads do in fact intersect at some point! There’s nothing worse than a book with three plots, not one of which relates to any of the others, right?

When I planned this plot initially, I found that I’d built up nice and evenly to the climax, lots of good narrative tension going on, and then the story basically stopped! Clearly that’s not ideal, so I shifted some of the explanatory dialogue and some of the personal resolutions further towards the end so that there was more of a winding down of tension and the reader will (hopefully) not feel that the book just stopped and dropped them.

Everything will hopefully feel nicely resolved and wrapped up.

Step 4 – The Check List!

Finally we get to what I tend to call ‘The Final Stage’ of planning; the stage where everything I’ve learned and considered and decided comes together into a check-list of sorts that I can have next to me while I’m writing and just check off as I go.

Plotting stage 4

This stage is really just about getting a clean copy of the planned out plot so I can start writing. It’s got as much detail in it as I possibly can think of, it’s got draft chapter titles, it’s got everything!

I very rarely get chance to just sit down for a full day and write uninterrupted. Between a full-time job, and friends, and family and keeping up with laundry and cleaning and all that other fun stuff, writing just has to be done in the snatches of time I have spare some weeks!

As a result, having the most detailed plan I possibly can means that I’m much more likely to end up with a first draft that is tonally consistent and doesn’t wander off into wild tangents because I had a blank space and a flight of fancy at the same time! As I said last time, having a plot all planned out also means I’m less likely to get discouraged because I can’t remember what was going to happen next and now I have no inspiration to think of something different. The less I leave to my poor over-worked brain while I type away into the dark of night, the better!

And there you have it! I’m sure that there are loads of other great ways to plan out a plot, and if you have a method that works, please do come and tell me about it in the comments! There’s never not something to be learned from a fellow-writer!

New to this blog? Check out some of the rest of this series – or indeed try out some of my original fiction! – down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) – Part 1

In which there are many ways to plan out your novel, but why bother taking all that time?

Greetings everyone!

So, I know I’ve had a lot of time away from all you lovely people, but in my defence I have been doing Actual Writing for the Novel! I know, I amaze myself sometimes…

Ch.23 - Plotting for Non-Super VillainsAnyway, while I’m buried under a pile of trying to remember how sentences combine to make chapters, I thought I’d share with you some of the ways in which I planned my novel; what order I tackle things in, and how each method helps me. Obviously, as I have been repeating since the beginning of this series, this is in no way intended to be any kind of ‘How To’ on the ‘correct way to plan a novel’, because I generally feel that no one should ever look to me for guidance on the right ways to do anything (I have far too much trial-and-error, with a strong emphasis on the error!) but if you are currently plotting out a story, or trying to, or will want to some time in the future, then hopefully this will prove useful!

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.

Why Plot Ahead?

So you know how it goes: you get this really great idea for a story, and you just know it’s a strong one, and you’ve got all these great characters to go in it, and there’s going to be all these exciting twists and turns and you want to just start writing immediately! Get going while it’s all fresh in your mind. You might forget the best bits otherwise! And you’re all fired up with enthusiasm and muse-vibes!

Why risk all that by taking a step back and wasting time with planning it all out on paper before you get going?

Now, I do have to acknowledge, here and now, that plotting out your story before you write it isn’t for everyone, that there are amazing cryptids out there called ‘pantsers’, as in they write by the seat of their pants. For those of you not familiar with these magical beings, these are writers that can just sit down at their keyboards and just know what to do without struggling about and they just… they just write a novel. Without planning. Or like… needing to know what comes next!

To all of you such magical beings out there, I am in awe of your mad skills but I really don’t know how you do it!

Failing such wondrous gifts, I feel that planning out a story before you sit down and devote time and effort and everyone else’s sanity to it has several advantages:

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

For one thing, I find that having a whole story planned out means I’m far less likely to abandon the project. (This may or may not have been a common issue in my early writing career. And my current career. Um.)

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2
Before we dive into designing our own maps, let’s take a good long look at other famous maps and see what lessons they can teach us all.

I can’t lose my train of thought if Life gets in the way for a while and I need to put the project down for a few days: my train of thought is already there in the broad strokes and the writing process just fills in the details. Jotting everything out in as much detail as I can while the ideas are fresh, shuffling them hurriedly into order while the shape of the story is there right behind my eyelids is a great help. I’ll have a beginning, middle and end of the story all laid out and even if I get a bit lost in the middle (more on that in a minute) I’ll still have signs and clues to get me back on track.

As a result, I don’t get discouraged so easily, and can at the very least force myself to bash out the roughest of rough first drafts to fling at a friendly beta reader who can try and explain where the madness has crept in!

What Is My Story Anyway?

Terry Pratchett once said of first drafts that they were “essentially just telling yourself the story.” That’s how I feel about writing up my plan for a story.

I might start off with some initial ideas, but it’s only by jotting all those ideas down, shuffling them around and generally corralling them until they start making sense that I can find the story that’s been floating around in my head for ages. And having told myself that story the first time, I can start to get a better feel for things like; what kind of story is it? What kind of tone should I aim for? What kind of audience? Where might it fit with other stories of mine?

It’s also a useful stage for me to try and identify any weak points in the plot, any areas where I might have made a leap of intuition or just have left a big gap in my plot which needs to be thoughts about and fixed.

For example, I find that it’s common for me to easily plan up to the middle of a story when things are about to pretend to go right for the protagonist, or the tension’s the highest, and then… well I know the ending! I have the last chapter! But no, I have no idea how we got from Point F to Point M.

Not a single clue!

Alternatively, I might have a character with a big role in the first half of the book who has apparently completely disappeared around chapter 9, never to return! Well, if he vanished like that, did I really need him at the start? If not, I could maybe combine his character with another person with a role in the second half who maybe showed up around chapter 7. If he did in fact need to be there the whole time, is there any way he can be tied to the end? If not, I can still make a note that I need to write him out properly.

Aren’t I glad that I’ve spotted that at this initial stage?

What Is My Story Actually Saying Though?

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffins
When you need to hide the Magic Thingy, but you don’t know where? Well, we have a few suggestions…

Finally, plotting everything out in details allows me to try and identify any themes or ideas that I especially like and would like to develop more fully. We writers can really mine gold-dust out of our subconscious given half a chance, but we don’t need to leave such gold-dust in its raw form. Spotting something I really love at an early stage allows me to try and make the most of anything that will make my story stand out and shine among all the others, and the earlier I find it, the better it can be integrated.

Conversely, it is worth acknowledging – as I will also discuss in more detail in another post – that some of our ideas, once we write them down on paper, are terrible. Now, I know that everyone’s criteria for something they neither want to write nor read will be different. But I am currently trying to properly unpick how I managed to write in a major over-arching theme into the whole series of my novels that I flat-out disagree with and will not stand behind.

It’s not that I set out to write a theme that in the cold light of a new day is kind of xenophobic, because of course I didn’t! But it can happen that you have one idea, and then another one, and another one and individually none of them are bad or even questionable at all. And then they all start coming together and make up a pattern between them that… well, that could raise some eyebrows, let’s say.

The point I’m making is that one of the reasons I think many creators respond defensively to audiences of their work objecting to certain themes which they did not intend to be in their work lies in how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve expended in making that work. No, they might not agree with every aspect of their own creation, but trying to back down from a completed piece is extremely difficult. You’ve spent months and years slaving over that work, and it can be extremely difficult to look at the finished product and acknowledge that there’s something kind of messed up lurking right there in the middle where you didn’t spot it.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the level of personal investment I have for my work, even when it’s terrible and bad.

Ch.9 Fantasy Idioms - A Shortcut to Writing a New Language
Creating your own Colloquialisms: a shortcut to writing a new language! Have fun with words…

But by planning everything out in detail, in the event that I notice something I’m not going to be proud of myself for writing, there’s a lot less of a connection to any single part(s) of my whole. As you’ll see in Part 2, which is full of pictures of my personal planning process, although unpicking a particular plot-thread is difficult and time-consuming, it’s also not so emotionally draining. Either I’m discarding bullet-points in a document, or colour-coded post-its, and neither of these took a lot out of me in terms of eloquent word-play or refined story-telling. They were ideas, and on consideration they weren’t that good.

Essentially, planning – for me, at least – is the practise run. It’s the equivalent of speaking your ideas out loud and checking that they all sound as good outside of your head as they did while still inside of it. If story-telling was dress-making, it would be the mock-up.

And for me at least, no matter how tempting it might be to just sit down and get writing straight away when I have a good idea, I think it’s the most vital step you can take.

Part 2 of Plotting! (For Non-Super Villains) can be found here.

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If this is your first time on this blog: Hi! Chronicles in Creation is an on-going series in which I discuss various aspects of writing and world-building in more-or-less real time, screw ups and all!

If you’d like to see some of my actual original fiction; check out the Ghosts & Gowns series and see what you think!

 

 

 

Posted in Chronicles in Creation, Short Stories

Hide and Seek (the MacGuffin Edition)

Once Upon a Front Room…

We begin this week with one of my favourite little bits of Urban Legend, the reason for sharing it will, I hope, become clear later in the post.

Once upon a time, a young lady, having found a man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, brought her boyfriend home to meet her grandmother. They all sat in the grandmother’s front room, drinking tea and eating cake, as is traditional, when the young man’s attention was caught by something on the lady’s mantlepiece. Eventually his distraction was noticed and he was asked what he was looking at.

“Mrs Wilson?” He asked instead. “Mrs Wilson, where did you get that object from?”

He gestured as he spoke to a curious metal item on the mantlepiece, all strange shapes melded together. The old lady beamed at him, pleased that he had noticed her treasure.

“Oh well now, dear, I’ve had that for years! My sons brought it home from me when they were very young, why it must have been over fifty years ago now! I polish it every Saturday, you know, got to keep it nice.”

The young man nodded, still distracted and staring at the object.

“Mrs Wilson,” he asked carefully. “Mrs Wilson, do you know what it is?”

She shook her head, unconcerned but curious about the man’s interest.

“No, dear, I’ve no idea. The boys didn’t know either – found it in a field, they said they did.”

“Hmmm…” The young man nodded. “Would you mind very much, Mrs Wilson, if I called someone out to come and look at it? I think they’d be very interested.”

It was agreed that this would be acceptable. The young man called a friend in the army who came out an identified the object promptly … as an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. It had sat safely on this lady’s mantlepiece for over half a century, polished and prized and completely unidentified.

The end of the story is that the whole family trooped out to watch from a safe distance as the army exploded the bomb properly, and that it left a – well! – a very sizable crater indeed for such a small object! The young man was very popular in the family after all that, as you may imagine!

Ch.21 Hide and Seek MacGuffins

The Evil Overlord List

For those innocent young ones among us, way back in the early 1990s, a man called Peter Anspach began to put together what would become known as The Evil Overlord List. It is a magical thing which I recommend all writers should read at least once because it points to many recurring flaws in the plans of, well, Evil Overlords in fiction. Trying to avoid these recurring issues may be hard, but if you’re looking for a challenge then this is a great start. Also it is hilarious!

I bring Peter Anspach’s mighty work up now because I reread it a few months ago and it got me thinking…

There are several items upon it which definitely inspired a certain mindset for this post, specifically:

#5. The artefact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.

#49. If I learn the whereabouts of the one artefact which can destroy me, I will not send all my troops out to seize it. Instead I will send them out to seize something else and quietly put a Want-Ad in the local paper.

The Weaknesses of MacGuffins

The term ‘MacGuffin’ was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock to describe certain plot-relevant objects, although the item in question has been around for far longer than that. The Holy Grail is often considered among the first MacGuffins in literature. In reference to movies about spies, Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”

I should note that George Lucas disagrees, and feels that the audience should be made to care just as much about the MacGuffin as the characters, but I freely admit that I lean towards Hitchcock in this matter. If King Arthur’s men find the Holy Grail, I may be happy for them, assuming the plot has made me care about them, but I myself will not be affected either way, and on some level even in a well-told tale, I will always be aware of this. The Holy Grail shall become mine in any way.

Well-used MacGuffins often set the plot in motion in the first act and then should decrease in importance because the plot and the characters are increasingly the focus for the audience. Yes, the Holy Grail may be why the Knights of the Round Table go off on this quest, but the adventures and mis-adventures they encounter along the way should be more interesting than ‘Find the Thingy’. Yes, trying to get to the Holy Grail before the Bad Knights may be a source for conflict, but the characters need to be distinct and interesting, and what choices they make in search for their goal should be more interesting than ‘Will they find the Thingy before the others do?’

A badly-used MacGuffin needs to keep reasserting its importance to the plot all the way through because apparently there wasn’t something more interesting going on. If you are concerned about your MacGuffin, check back through your work and see if you find a strikingly high number of times someones cries ‘Where’s the [Thingy]?!’, ‘What have you done with the [Thingy]?’, [I have to get to the [Thingy]!’ Also check for conflict-based cries of ‘He has the [Thingy]!’, ‘Don’t use the [Thingy]!’ ‘No! If we do that then they will have the [Thingy]!’

MacGuffins have had a bit of a rough reception in recent years, because they have mostly been used poorly by writers and especially films to create and drive narrative tension as easily as possible. They seem unaware though that the tension these MacGuffins bring (that of two or more people wanting the Thingy) is very shallow, and since I, as the audience, do not want the Thingy, you can imagine how much I Do Not Care.

Sensing this, writers have taken, again often in films as they are such a visual medium, to placing MacGuffins in increasingly iconic but ludicrous places. No seriously, why is the Thingy hidden behind a trap door on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral? How did they get it there without someone noticing and do you have any idea how often maintenance and repair work has to be done on that roof? How have the workmen not found it, or at least accidentally bricked up the secret entrance because they didn’t know about it? What, is every set of contractors given a briefing so that they don’t mess with the Thingy before starting work? And it’s still a secret?

Obviously, as writers we could try and write stories without such devices, but as such a staple of drama in stories for so long, that’s a lot harder to manage than to say. It would be like saying ‘right, I shall now write a series without any romance.’ Or ‘I shall write a book without a villain.’ These things are possible, and there are some great works that manage this without any apparent effort, but they are few and far between for a reason.

Playing ‘Hide the Whatsit’

Rather than discarding MacGuffins in all their iterations – which would be sad, as it’s not their fault they are poorly used – in this post we shall consider some more … mundane places to hide your MacGuffin, places in which it is definitely conceivable that an item could have been hidden for long stretches of time.

Because I believe firmly that the interesting thing about MacGuffins is often simply the mystery of working out where they are and/or what they look like. Many a good story has rested on the conceit that even if the characters have heard of a magical object of legend, they still won’t know what it looks like. Also, because objects can move around and change hands a lot over the years, they can end up in some very unexpected places. And I don’t mean, in the abandoned pagan temple half-buried by a landslide, unexpected. Like, in this chap’s garage because he picked it up at a car-boot for £4.50 and then forgot about it because it didn’t fit in the alcove like he wanted it to, unexpected.

Your readers won’t see it coming, which will always be a nice change, and you’ll be forced, as a writer, to be more creative with your plot to accommodate this lack of daring chase scene up the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the Do-Hickey that simply could not still be there after six decades without being disturbed by now.

This harkens back to the WWII bomb sitting safely in a woman’s front room for fifty years. (See, I told you this would all make sense!) No one knew it was there, but it was quite safe, and there was no need to hide it in the darkest depths of the land either.

Here’s some suggestions to start you off:

Great Auntie Freda’s Display Case

Auntie Freda’s lived in that house for nearly seventy years, and that display case hasn’t moved in all that time. You’ve visited every month since you were little, and you might think you know what’s in there, it’s in plain sight and all, but come to think of it, have you really looked inside it since you were six? No, no you have not! That slightly tatty box at the back might as well have the Philosopher’s Stone in it for all you know! Auntie Freda herself probably doesn’t know what all of it actually is, although she’d be able to tell you where most of it came from if you asked her. But only if you asked her though, you’d not be interested in hearing the stories of an old lady now, would you, dear?

Especially good for hiding small and shiny items, which might otherwise catch people’s eyes. Anything that’s got a serious ‘I am important to the plot and the universe’ vibe *ahem-Infinity Stones equivalent-ahem* will be utterly disguised by a mundane setting and a surrounding environment of sentimental tat.

Old Mr Wilson’s Shed

Maybe not all that suitable for perishable items, but Mr Wilson has used that shed as a covert place to stick anything he didn’t want his Good Lady Wife to find for years, but his memory’s not what it once was. Stick The Sacred Stone behind the half-full tins of paint in colours that don’t match any walls in the house any more, no one’s going to find it.

Or maybe it’s an old key that’s hanging on a hook behind the door? Again, you’re not going to look twice at it, are you? No one knows what all the random keys once belonged to, do they? Frankly anything small and vaguely metallic can be kept perfectly safe in an old tool box, or stuck near the bottom of a jar of screws? Like garages, only more so, sheds are the last descendants of an alchemists’ laboratory, and should always be approached with the same level of caution. One never knows what secrets one may stumble across, if due care is not given…

The Bottom of Someone’s Filing Tray

OK, you might think this is a silly one, but think about it. No one ever gets to the bottom of their filing tray. Ever. Even with the best will in the world, you get two-thirds of the way down, you run out of energy and you give up. Then you wait until it fills up again so far that it’s threatening to slide and topple all over the floor and you start filing again. And of course you get two-thirds through it and run out of steam, and…

Yep, so let’s be honest, you haven’t seen what’s at the bottom of that tray in forever, have you? This will not, of course, work for large or round MacGuffins, but if you ever need to hide the map to the secret treasure, or the password to the bank vault, or anything that’s paper-based, then the bottom of a filing tray is a perfectly good place to start!

Charity Shops and Car Boot Sales

Neil Gaiman (of course) has already shown the possibilities here with a short story about an elderly lady finding the Holy Grail in the Oxfam Shop on her way back from picking up her pension. It’s a hilarious story, especially when Sir Galahad turns up, you should read it.

People pick up random things they can’t identify all the time from car boot sales and such, just because it’s cheap and quirky and it might look nice in that corner of the bedroom. And the people selling things in car boot sales are often clearing their homes of stuff they don’t need, or getting rid of bits and pieces after a relative has died. If Great Aunt Freda dies, Cousin Errol isn’t going to know or care about anything much in her display case, is he? It’s mostly all just random souvenirs from holidays only she remembered, isn’t it? He’ll just want to get a little bit of money from it to help with the legal fees, and that’s all.

You could even take the idea to another level and have Cousin Errol call in a day-time tv show like Cash-in-the-Attic, or have the car boot feature on Bargain Hunt, and have a member of the Search Team just happen to catch sight of the Thingy when the show airs. So the reader gets a glimpse of the Thingy, but now we need to track it down again. To arms!

A National Trust Property

I have been convinced for years now that the National Trust exists entirely for the purpose of hiding and guarding Britain’s Magical Items, and no one has found a good reason yet to show that it isn’t!

The usual National Trust property combines everything that is perfect for hiding a MacGuffin. It’s bureaucratic enough that no one will question when or from where an item has come from, so long as the paperwork looks genuine. It’s small and homely enough that random items can be dismissed as an old curio of once-sentimental value. It’s probably been heard of by very, very few people, unlike something like the Tate Modern or the British Museum, which everyone has heard of and will think to look in. It’s guarded by Little Old Ladies – no, really, have you stepped across the line in a NT house? Those women will eat you up alive and make you apologise afterwards for causing them the trouble. They can glare a man into submission at a hundred yards. Never displease a Little Old Lady who has literally got all day to make you suffer appropriately!

Think of them as the modern equivalent of the knight with the sacred vow to watch over an item for all eternity (you know the one). The only flaw they might have is if you bribe them with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Keep an eye out for that.

Side-Note – Transporting One’s MacGuffin

Of course, once your Fearless Heroes have finally acquired their MacGuffin, they need to take it somewhere. But how?

Ok, don’t panic, and don’t reach for the ‘I must epic-i-fy this’ button! This is really quite simple.

I mean, you could call in Special-Ops, and move under the cover of night. You could do that. I have no doubt that it would be very suspense-full and the villains will doubtless have a spy in the camp anyway, and they will track your caravan of ‘covert’ cars down easily enough and give chase…

Orrrr you could just take on the train with you.

I recently bought my mother a Christmas present (I know I’m early, but it was perfect, and don’t worry, she doesn’t read this blog!) The thing was taller than I am, but thin, and I wrapped it up in bubble-wrap, and just walked onto the train. You know the best part? It didn’t matter how weird it looked, or how many side-long looks I received, no one – and I do mean no one – actually asked any questions whatsoever. Because of course they didn’t. Perish the thought!

The best part of this, though?

Even if your villains do give chase, all you have to do is shout ‘Oi! That’s my bag you’re running off with!’ and the entire carriage will leap to your aid as a distraction from the tedious reality of being on a train for two hours! It’s perfect!

In conclusion

Basically MacGuffins, and the searching for and acquisition thereof are a staple of stories for longer than writing has been around. They are so long-lived for a reason and just discarding them would be a huge shame. Still they are boring to the audience when writers forget that, like all storytelling elements, they are not intrinsically interesting without characters and plots that are interesting around them.

So don’t be boring with your MacGuffin and assume that a scary castle location will save it. Have a bit of fun with the concept! Your readers will thank you for it later…

Liked this post? Let me know in the comments where you would hide your MacGuffins!

And check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series for more weird and wacky ideas what writing than you could possibly wish for!

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Forty Days and Forty Nights – The Redemption Arch Series

Happy Shrove Tuesday Everybody! Enjoy your pancakes, whatever you choose to put on them!

Now, don’t panic, I’m not threatening to write you forty posts for Lent! However, I did want to take a break from talking about character design and world-building, and celebrate the season of Lent this year with a series looking at that most popular of character arches: The Redemption Arch.

We all love a good redemption arch, don’t we? I think it’s partly because it gives us all hope that no matter what mistakes we make ourselves in our lives, we can still make up for them somehow and earn forgiveness, from our friends and from the world at large.

And because this plot-line is so popular, there are many different approaches. Some of them good, some of them less so, as always.

A well-written redemption can be gripping and uplifting and nerve-wracking and soul-crushing all along the way. We get so invested in a character’s struggles as they seek to turn themselves piece by piece into a better person, and we really root for them as they stumble and pick themselves back up and keep going until finally they, and we, know that they’ve done it at last. It’s an amazing, emotional climax to a plot, and we’ve followed that character every difficult step of the way.

A poorly-written redemption is such a damp squib. I’ve experienced them, you’ve experienced them, and I think we can all agree that they are always such a disappointment. I think that redemption arches can go wrong in a different way from many other regular plot-lines, partly because there’s a moral theme as well as a narrative one that’s coming into play. And that can lead to one side or the other becoming unbalanced, leaving the reader feeling unsatisfied.

Well, for the next few weeks, we’re going to take some long, hard looks at redemption arches, good and bad, and some of the themes that come into play which separate the great from the meh. Things like restoring balance to the galaxy, or the role of tragic backstories, and even take a long, hard stare at the relationship between forgiveness and revenge.

Coming up next, we’ll tackle the first topic: what happens if the redemption arch is interrupted, and why it is a risky but interesting approach…

First time checking out the Chronicles in Creation series? Catch yourself up with the full post-list here.