My third novel was languishing in a bottom-drawer file on my PC. I couldn’t see the way through it, even though I had all the characters, the plot and subplots, and the ending, firmly in my mind. I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Was I being too ambitious? It’s actually a good story; I’m very proud of it, but it had become a dense, tangled muddle. I had to figure out why it wasn’t working, why the damn thing wouldn’t progress. I decided a more forensic approach was needed if it was going to be resurrected.
I’ve been a keen knitter all my life. I’ve designed and completed many garments, invented tricky stitches and twisty cables. Complicated patterns don’t faze me; multi-coloured fair-isle designs aren’t a problem; twisty Arans don’t daunt me. So it occurred to me that I might bring some of my knitting know-how to my novel writing. If I can carry several different strands of yarn along at the same time when I’m creating a piece of knitwear, why shouldn’t I use the same principle, and knit several plot lines together, too?
Off we go, then. In the same way as I tackle knitting designs, I started with a blank sheet of paper. I wrote down the names of the main protagonists in a circle. The story has four main characters and is moved along by their individual voices in alternate chapters. So that’s four storylines. So far, so fair-isle. Then I added another three minor characters, who, despite their lesser status, still have important interactions with all the major players.
Next thing was to draw lines connecting each character with others they had links with. I soon had an unmanageable set of intersections and potential subplots where their lives overlap. This wasn’t knitting – it looked more like a tangled cat’s cradle. If I was actually knitting a garment with this many components, I’d take a more measured approach, using a maximum of four different strands in each line, or section of pattern. I’d drop the others and introduce them back at intervals, alternating as I went, until I’d created a multi-coloured masterpiece.
So, taking my own advice, I’m giving each main protagonist their time in the limelight. At the end of each character’s section, they hand over the reins and the story is carried forward by the next one, revealing aspects of the plot only they are privy to. I’ve refined the main storyline and the subplots to make things more manageable, and it’s slowly coming together.
I liken these segments to the self-patterned sections of the knitting: ribbing to keep the plot nice and tight; twisty cabling to add interest and intrigue; moss stitch to enhance the background; plain stocking stitch to keep things on an even keel; a lovely button for an unexpected surprise. Additional pops of colour and texture are produced by the character interactions, some of them quite unexpected.
In the background, I’m maintaining the tension (a very important aspect of knitting, and storytelling) so there’s no sagging in the middle, no dropped stitches to create glaring plot holes. Just as if I was knitting a sweater and shaping a sleeve or a neckline, for example, I increase or decrease the number of characters on stage at any one time and develop subplots to create suspense and keep readers interested.
So far, the knitting analogy has been successful. Sometimes the ‘garment’ is loose and free-flowing, other times taut and structured; it’s coming along nicely – satisfyingly complicated but not confusing. New colours have been introduced and the ‘pattern’ has emerged.
I can see the path I have to follow for a successful completion, with a final flourish to finish things off. I’ll be able to cast off soon.
I just love your knitting analogy for structuring a novel! I had to resort to a much more prosaic storyboard technique to fix my big, baggy middle.