To my boyfriend, it’s a way to break a pause. He says this whenever we’ve been silent for a while and he’d like us to talk of something new. It’s one of the zillion things I like about him.
But when I think about it, I realise that pretty much all of life is a then. There are pauses longer than others, and for good reason. But at some point, we are all asking ourselves – or being asked – that simple question. “Then?”
What happens next? Where do we go from here? Does where we’re going make sense, or do we need to take a step back and reassess?
I have always known that I will write literary fiction. The English language astounds me with how many possibilities it contains, and I wouldn’t be doing justice to the language if I didn’t explore and expand on as many possibilities as I can in my writing. Literary writers are all about using the language to convey emotions, build scenes and expound on themes – over and above the plot itself. And more than once I’ve been awestruck by a clever description of an outfit or a comment on marriage or an unusual use of adjectives, even if I didn’t love the story as a story.
But here’s the catch with that.
We literary writers often get caught up in the beauty of what we’re writing. A killer simile here, a slick juxtaposition there. It reads like a dream and we’re all but giving ourselves the Pulitzer already. Till a few years ago I was the same, hung up on the literariness of literary fiction. “Hey, that’s a really cool way to describe a disappointing sunset. Oh wow, I finally found a way to use ‘senescence’ in a sentence! I want to write something that begins with a cow falling out of the sky.” I’d make careful note of every line and phrase that I thought of and wow myself at how seasoned I sounded. When I’d go over them again, though, my practical side would speak up. “Yes, that’s a nice line about a sunset, but does anyone in the story have the kind of eye and vocabulary to make that observation?” So what I’d end up with, most of the time, was a handful of pretty sentences that had only the most tenuous links to each other and practically no idea of how to weave them into a full-length story. Enter self-loathing, enter angry crying, enter conviction that I will never make it as a writer and I should just stop trying.
I’m different now in my approach. I’ve come to recognise, more than ever before, the importance of having a solid story first and foremost. It’s like steak – if the meat itself isn’t good, doesn’t matter how much sauce you pour over it. Every line, every character, every incident in a story needs to make sense as part of a bigger picture. And now that I’ve started pairing my pleasure reading with critical reading (more on that later!) I can see for myself which short stories are good stories in themselves and which ones use linguistic tricks to cover plot holes. (And you’d be surprised how many stories by ‘famous’ writers fall under the latter category.)
And the most foolproof test of whether or not a story is good boils down to one question.
Does every paragraph, every motif, every new character, tie back to a central theme that has a beginning and an end that are plausibly connected?
And the same applies to anything that you are writing.
If you’re new to approaching your fiction this way, there are two ways you can get started.
The first way is to write out a summary of the story as you envision it. Keep it to one page and focus only on the sequence of events, not on any linguistic devices or motivations the characters might have. Then, read the summary through and ask yourself whether it makes sense as a story. Does every incident follow as a consequence of the previous one? Do the hints given throughout the story resolve themselves properly at the end? Are the characters’ actions consistent with who they are as people? Remember, this is about having a plot that works. It doesn’t matter how Nabokovian your language is, if your story doesn’t make sense it won’t work. If you find that your summary isn’t quite as strong as it could be, take a step back and figure out what you’re trying to say with the story and how you want things to work out at the end. Once you have that in place, you can move on to writing it prettily.
The other way – and this can be much harder – is to start writing the actual story in a single draft, just as you currently envision it. I say this is harder because here you’re working on the story itself, but you’re focusing more on the plot movement than on the language – which can be agony for us literary fiction buffs who want every sentence to be perfect. I struggle with this method myself, which is why I tend to go for summaries first. The advantage of this method, though, is that you get to see how the plot works in the actual setting rather than in a theoretical abstract. A face-off scene at the bar might seem cool as a bullet point in your notebook, but what if the flow of events preceding it calls for the protagonist to be by himself at the bar instead? Things like this often come to light only when you’re working on the actual draft, which is where this method scores some points over the summary method.
And if you’d like to start off even simpler, just create a flow chart of events. Start with the opening scene, mention each important event/conversation/character intro and see whether the final step adds up from all the ones above. This is a barebones approach that might miss out on a lot of crucial detail, but it works at a pinch if you’re looking to do a birds-eye check on your story.
If I’m honest, I realise as I complete this post that continuity isn’t a separate aspect to plot-building. A plot must by default have continuity, or it isn’t a plot but a hotch-potch of events. So asking yourself “Then?” at each stage when you start a new story is really a way of developing it all the way to the end, and not just checking an existing story for loopholes. Who would’ve thought, right? Just a one-word question, but it’s so important. It’s helped me out of many a tight spot with my fiction, and it’s sure to help you too. By all means, though, do keep the pretty similes and the outre scenes. Continuity makes for a strong skeleton, but those make for an attractive overall structure. And you need both to have a winning story.