4.3 Reincorporation

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Some writers can plot stories in advance. I can’t. Whenever I create a plot outline in advance, it may look okay on its own but it simply doesn’t hold up once I start the actual writing. As I learn more about my characters and their situation, the plot outline quickly becomes useless—details that looked good in advance just don’t fit once I start the actual writing.
In this section, I mean no disrespect for people who do create detailed plots in advance. Many writers I admire start with detailed outlines. I just can’t do it myself...and I know that many other writers are like me. Therefore the discussion in this section is for writers who aren’t “outline people”.

So if I plot at all, I do so in broad strokes. For example, in my novel Trapped (fall 2002), I only decided on two plot points before I started writing—the initial situation and an extremely rough direction thereafter. Here’s all that I had:

I did not decide in advance what clues the teachers would follow, what would happen to them along the trail, how they’d defeat the kidnapper, and many other details that I’d have to come up with in the actual writing. I assumed I could deal with them as I went along...and I could because I knew the most important secret of plotting: reincorporation.

Reincorporation means bringing back elements that are already present in your story: bringing back people, places, and things you’ve previously mentioned.

The recurrence of past elements is what makes a plot feel connected. After all, a plot isn’t just a sequence of incidents; it’s an ongoing development, wherein past events lead to subsequent events. As Connie Willis once put it, “Plot isn’t ‘And then’, it’s ‘So then.’” What happens next is a consequence of what’s already happened.

Therefore, if you reach a point where you’re asking, “What do I do next?”, your solution lies in asking, “What do I have to work with?” What does your story already have that can be reincorporated at this point in order to move things forward?

As an example, let’s go back to my book Trapped. There comes a point where the teachers learn that the kidnapper has taken the boy onto a boat and headed for a particular destination. Therefore, the teachers need another boat in order to pursue...and it happens to be the middle of the night, so renting a boat might be difficult. I had no immediate solution to this problem. However, thinking back over what I’d already written, I realized I’d already built in my answer.

My narrator (named Phil) had already mentioned he had an on-again/off-again relationship with a woman named Gretchen. Gretchen was idle, rich, vain, and beautiful, but she was forty and terrified of growing old. She kept her mind off her age by having affairs with younger men, including Phil. I’d thrown in this detail as a way of showing Phil’s character—his life was going nowhere, and his only-for-sex couplings with Gretchen demonstrated how pointlessly he was spinning his wheels. She called him when she didn’t have anyone better in her bed...and Phil went because he had no meaningful relationships either.

So Gretchen began as someone referred to “off-stage”—a convenient symbol that Phil was just drifting. I had no other plans for her. However, Phil and his friends suddenly needed a boat...preferably one fast enough to catch the kidnapper. Wouldn’t it be natural for a rich idle woman to own such a boat? So I had Phil visit Gretchen to borrow her boat; this led to a touching scene between the two that included useful character revelations and developments. In the end, it seemed natural for Gretchen to accompany Phil in pursuit of the kidnapped boy, and her presence on the journey added a great deal.

Notice how much of this was pure serendipity. When I first brought up Gretchen’s name in the story, I had no plans whatever for her. Zero. She was simply a side remark, a woman mentioned in passing to show how feckless Phil was. Her name cropped up a few more times in passages where Phil reflected on how he was wasting his life. However, I never planned for her to make any contribution to the plot.

Then I reached a point where I needed something...and Gretchen was a perfect candidate to provide it. I could reincorporate her, bring her back in, and it would seem entirely natural— almost as if I’d planned it from the start. At the same time, I could be fairly sure readers wouldn’t think that I was “cheating” by giving Phil a lucky break: wow, he just happened to know someone who had exactly what he needed! Gretchen wasn’t jammed into the book as an afterthought, she’d been there all along. Therefore, readers wouldn’t feel I’d just pulled her out of a hat.

What would I have done if I hadn’t had Gretchen? I would have used someone else—I had plenty of other characters I could reincorporate. For example, I’d done a fair bit with the chancellor of the school where my heroes were teachers; perhaps she had a boat. There were the parents of the missing boy; perhaps they had a boat. My heroes had got into a fight with a group of fisherman earlier in the story; perhaps those fisherman could be persuaded to offer their boat.
If you decide to write without an outline, you just have to trust that it will all work out. Occasionally, you may find you’ve gone down a dead end and you have to backtrack, then rewrite...but more often than not, you’ll find yourself traveling places you never dreamed of when you first set out.

And that’s kind of cool.

The point is there was no reason for me to invent something out of the blue. I had already set up resources I could use, even though I hadn’t done so intentionally. By reincorporating one of those resources, I could tie in the future with the past. The plot flowed naturally from what had gone before, and I could keep writing...until the next time I got stuck.

This approach does not rule out plot twists. In fact, it’s easier to justify plot twists if they’re outgrowths (albeit unexpected ones) from what has already happened. Here’s just one twist that occurs to me now. Suppose the teachers in my book had no Gretchen or anyone else to turn to; what could they do? The obvious course of action would be going down to the docks to see if they could find someone who’d rent them a boat, even though it was the middle of the night. So what if they went down, looked around...and suddenly saw someone they knew sneaking onto a boat. Maybe another teacher. Maybe the chancellor. Maybe a student. What would a student be doing around the docks at three in the morning? Maybe the student knew something. Maybe the student had helped the kidnapper somehow. Maybe the student was a girl who had a crush on the kidnapped boy; she was spying on him, followed him, maybe saw or heard something important...

Whenever you make a decision like this, you have to live with the consequences. If, for example, I brought in this girl with a crush on the missing boy, it would have all kinds of repercussions. So what? If your story has no complications, it’ll turn out mighty bland. Embrace the future, leap in with both feet, and describe what naturally results. Making things messy for yourself is one of the great joys of writing.

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Copyright © 2001, James Alan Gardner