Writing the big picture

Well aren’t you lucky people; two blog posts in one day! It must be Sunday.

This post in the one I have been thinking about for a couple of days and intended to post, but the announcement yesterday say me writing about COVID and Christmas instead. And don’t worry, this post will hopefully be a little more cheerful.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about my way of viewing the world. To summarise my waffling, I like to consider myself having an overview of the big picture of events in the world, what is happening and how events are unfolding around me. In reality of course my understanding of local, national or world events is limited by what I can read and what information is available to me, but I like to kid myself I have a good overview of world events

When it comes to writing a story, it can be a challenge for me keep a track of what my characters know and how they see the events unfolding around them. In my first novel Free City, I was telling a story of a handful of characters wrapped up events bigger than all of them, and I had to be careful to make sure I did not write them as knowing something they could not possibly understand. I wanted to make sure my readers had a vague idea of the unfolding events, but individual characters needed to be in the dark, at least in part.

The final push to write this post came from seeing this post on Instagram today (it appears the post was a screenshot of tumblr of quotes by a couple of writers, a level of nesting even Christopher Nolan could be proud of). When we (read I) think about war and battles, it is from a position of history textbooks, maps and diagrams. Knowing the movement of the 5th Armoured Division is easy when looking at a plan written years later, but thinking about what the soldier on the ground would have known and understood at the time, and it is likely to be much, much less. When thinking about civilians caught up in a war and they will understand even less.

Writing the big picture is not only an issue when writing about war. I have two novel ideas on the go at the moment. The first is written from the viewpoint of one character telling the story of another person (it makes more sense when you read it). The narrator in the story is understood to know the ending of the story at the start of the book, he understands the big picture throughout, so it is OK for me to drop in the odd hint or teaser, if anything it keeps the story interesting and hopefully the readers engaged.

My second work in progress, which I am focusing on more at present, is written in the third person present tense. Following a single protagonist on their own adventure while a larger story unfolds around them, it has been a challenge to make sure she does not appear to know too much about the situation around her. This has been aided a little as she lives in a world without extensive communication technology, so much of what she knows of the world has to be told to her in person, and means I can simply picture my understanding of the world without a phone and social media.

Even with this advantage, I’m still not convinced I get it right every time, and the quotes provided above have certainly prompted me to focus on including (or not) the bigger picture in the stories I am telling.

I’m not sure I have profound advice for those of you wanting to improve your writing, I’m still feeling my own way in the dark, but it feels like I should finish with a couple of tips which have helped me;

  • Less is more. If you write a piece of information about the big picture, consider if the character could or should know it, and if there is any doubt miss it out
  • Keep track of the overarching picture while focussing on the individual character’s story. I have the overall world plot written down beside me when I am writing, and regularly make sure whatever prose I have come up with fits into the world I am building
  • Keep track of what people know, in a similar way to tracking the big picture, it can be good to have notes beside you for the characters in the book (at least the protagonist) so you can jot down what they have learned and what they still do not know
  • Don’t worry the details in the first draft, you might mix the story up a little, but that is what the edit and editors are for, adding clarity to the plot and making sure you reveal enough to advance the plot at just the write time

Most of all when you are writing, do not be afraid to make experiment and make mistakes. Is there an interesting way you can explain how a character knows something which might appear unexplained (magic, telepathy, espionage)? Has the character taken a guess? Could it be time to swop the character’s roles around to explain the sudden understanding? As always with writing, having fun should be first and foremost, the details can be ironed out later.

2 thoughts on “Writing the big picture

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