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A head in a bag

Twas the Festival of Writing last weekend, with a hey and ho and a hey nonny nonny.

My highlights? Everything, really. It’s just like a great big bale of fun and passion and intensity squished down into a weekend-sized pellet and washed down with a bottle of wine. (Or two, if you write crime thrillers. Or three, if you’re an agent.)

If you came, then it was lovely to see you. If you didn’t, pshaw! Come next year, and we can be friends anyway.

I’ll probably have a few Festival-related missives to send, but I’ll start with the one about the head in the bag.


I was giving a workshop on how to build a crime novel, using my own This Thing of Darkness as an exemplar. The basic thrust of the class was how to build your novel up, bone by bone, and how you don’t always begin that process from the most logical starting point. In my TToD, for example, I knew I wanted a denouement at sea – Fiona Griffiths on a fishing trawler in a storm – but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know the crime. I didn’t know anything about the solution. I didn’t have anything else really nailed down.

And then: I built from there. I hauled my big structural milestones into place until I was confident I had a layout that could sustain a crime novel. (The twist in that little tale of triumph? Simply that at one point I had a 130,000 word novel that felt long and boring. Whoops. I talked a bit about how I solved that issue too.)

But then I threw the crime-novel problem over to the class. I wanted us to build a novel then and there, to get some sense of what could and couldn’t work.

To start with, I asked for an opening crime to launch our novel - the inciting incident, in effect. One person suggested a dead student. Apparent suicide. Whisky and pill bottle. Yadda, yadda.

Now that’s a perfectly fine opening thought. And, to be clear, this was suggested ad lib, on the basis of precisely zero planning. The student setting was suggested by our own university surroundings. And, OK, we all know books that start much like that.


There’s nothing there to suggest an angle. Nothing unique. Nothing pressing. Nothing to make an agent (or an editor or a supermarket book browser) say, “Oh wow. Want to know more.”

Now that can be OK. My first Fiona Griffiths novel had a crime so boring I can hardly remember it myself. (People trafficking. A couple of people bumped off as possible informers. All very 1.01 in terms of crime premise.)

But that first book of mine had something extravagantly memorable – it just wasn’t the crime. It had to do with Fiona herself; her past, her illness, her family background. And that’s fine. You need one golden line for an elevator pitch. That’s all. The element you care to emphasise can be anything at all.

But still. Because we were building a crime novel in class, I drew attention to the basic dullness of that setup crime. A dead student? Looks like a suicide but we all know it wasn’t? I wanted to do better.

And boom! I was running the class with an agent, Tom Witcomb at Blake Friedman, and he piped up with an alternative crime:

  • Romantic dinner for two in Paris. Young Man proposes to His Beloved.
  • His Beloved, tearfully, says no.
  • Young Man, heart-broken, walks the streets of Paris, filling the Seine with his tears.
  • He gathers his belongings, heads to the Gare Du Nord, and prepares for a life of loneliness and despair
  • At the station, he’s pulled aside by a guard. He’s asked to open his bag. And there, blankly staring and still softly dripping, is the head of His Beloved.

I hope you can see the instant improvement here. That premise is basically all set up for a book that sells to an agent, a publisher and a supermarket buyer.

Yes: a million questions remain unanswered, but the basic sell is instant, strong and memorable. You can pretty much imagine the cover already. (“He proposed. She refused. And someone killed her.” “The must-read thriller that everyone’s talking about.”)

Of course, a good premise is thirty good pages, nothing more. There’s a lot more to be done to complete a plausible novel. Some thoughts:

  • Who tells this novel? Tom W saw the Parisian detective as the central character. Personally, I think this is beautifully designed to be a proper psychological thriller with Young Man as the narrator. Done that way, the book would be a did-he or didn’t-he story the whole way through, with the reader changing their minds about five times through the book.
  • Who did kill the Beloved? A criminal gang? Some shadow from her dark past? Probably. But the marriage proposal had to be causally linked to her death. So the Beloved would still be alive if Young Man hadn’t proposed. You can’t just have the death as a random accident.
  • Climax and Denouement. For me, the Parisian setting is important, not just a throwaway starter. So the climax probably needs a Parisian, or at least a French, setting. One delegate suggested we have a battle on top of the Eiffel Tower with some bad guy being hurled to his death. That’s probably a bit comedic, in all honesty, but the basic thought process is spot on.

The hard part of this book is going to be knitting together the Beloved’s dark past with the head in the bag. I mean, yes, you could imagine scenarios where bad guys want to kill the Beloved. But why don’t the bad guys just drop Beloved into the river? Why go to all the trouble of sticking a head into Young Man’s hand luggage?

You will need to find an answer to that question that’s plausible enough to carry the book. Not real, true-to-life plausible, perhaps, but something that gets you over the line. (In my The Dead House, I had a basic plausibility issue with my crime. I don’t think the crime I dealt with has ever or would ever happen, but I probably did just enough to get away with it in fictional terms. That’s all you need.)

I’ve talked about all this in the context of crime, but the same kind of thinking applies no matter what your genre. Some strong selling line. Some good unity of concept and tightness of execution. Lots of trial and error when it comes to developing a given starting point.

That’s plotting. That’s writing. And it’s hard! But it’s fun.

What about you? How do you construct a novel? Do you start with an inciting incident? WIth an elevator pitch? With something random? And what do you do from there? Tell all.

Oh yes, and I'm going to run a completely free webinar or two this autumn. Just tell me what you'd like me to talk about and I'll put my thnking cap on. No subject excluded, except possibly Brexit.

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Comments (10)
  • It depends… (can you tell I'm a consultant in my other life?)

    An Empty Throne (and the rest of the series): started as a world-building scene - jagged crags at night, under the world's glowing rings - plus the question of how to tell the story arc of someone becoming as evil as Sauron.

    Fangtooth: started with the image of the MC - an ogre with one oversized, protruding tusk - combined with the challenge of trying to write something aimed at a YA audience.

    The Oxygen Wars: started with a question: why are so many alien-invasion stories about them wanting our resources/water? It's unfathomable. What would be a realistic reason for aliens to launch an attack on Earth?

    In pretty much all cases, step two is is a plot graph.

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    • Love em. They all seem like really compelling nudges in the direction of story. Great.

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    • I usually start with flavour. What the book will taste like when it's done.

      For Requiem it was the idea of the werewolf as a natural part of the ecosystem like any other, and the idea that disrupting that would have consequences humans hadn't foreseen (it moved a bit sideways in the writing).

      For Lone Man it was the idea that sometimes getting everything a person wants is a disaster, not a blessing. For Lost Soul, I played with the idea of the Chosen One, and what might happen if the proto-Chosen One politely declines the honour and goes back to growing cabbages.

      Both Oathbreaker and Judas (WIP) look at the idea of redemption from opposite angles. The first looks at how a good person can become an evil one in tiny increments and through decisions made in good faith. Judas plays with the idea of whether one very, very, very bad act means a person must carry the psychic stain (as opposed to the just consequences) for the rest of their lives.

      Second step is to figure out whose story it is. The plot starts to coalesce from there.

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      • Ditto. Really interesting how people's stories arise from quite different starting points. I think my starting points are usually quite tangible - a storm at sea for example.

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      • I have an idea for the plot, but it still needs a climax and denouement.  How about this:

        She is working for a secret international espionage agency and has a job in I/T at the same company as Him.  That’s how they got together, and the relationship she engineered with him is part of her cover.

        Her mission, to steal the top-secret algorithms that make their robotics division superior to any other company, was just coming to its conclusion when he proposed to her unexpectedly.  Tearfully, she rejected him and left him so she could complete her mission that day.

        She was unaware that the companies own security team had rumbled her and knew she had swallowed a micro SD card loaded with the top-secret algorithms.  They were not going to let her leave and were not prepared to risk holding her until nature took its course – her absence would alert their enemies – so they killed her and put her head in his luggage.

        Maybe he manages to evade arrest in the first place and so is a wanted man whilst hunting down the killers.

        Does someone fancy having a crack at the climax?

        If we all come up with a section of the plot and somehow arrive at a finished story, do you think Tom Witcomb would be willing to represent a Consortium of Authors, so we all take a proportionate share of the royalties? 😊

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        • Weirdly, that plot works but - for me; this is personal only - I'd never put that plot with that opening. Yes, if you reset the thing to (say) the campus at MIT or some West Coast IT headquarters. But Paris? IT? It's not a mixture that I'd put together. Good plot though!

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        •  I was interested in the Head in a Bag idea  because I know a true story like that... where some graduate anatomy students  were carrying a head in a bag across the University of Chicago campus, but instead of a security team it was a thief who held them up and took the bag... without looking inside. Life is at least as strange as fiction.

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          • Oh wow!. Just ... those thieves ... wow.

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            • Indeed... it was my fiance a million years ago who was carrying the bag. Alas, we never heard what happened when the guy opened the bag!

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            • Forgot to add earlier.  Because of her relationship with the boyfriend, they were unsure whether he was party to the secret algorithms, so put the head in his bag to ensure he was arrested and taken out of the picture.

              Marsha, love that story.  You could have fun with building something around that, maybe a comedy or errors.

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