Friday, March 26, 2010


I'd like to swap to Thursdays, she says. Mondays are way too busy in my world and I never get my blog post done in time, she says.


Well, future Thursdays are likely to be less crazy than this week, as I'm in the middle of a run of first birthday cakes I promised to make for friends. Yes, it's birthday season in a big way. This does not leave me much time for writing or blogging.

So! A short post for my first Thursday, and this one on a topic I was reminded of recently when I had my burst of good writing progress. Gangplanks.

No, I'm not talking about that suicidal feeling you get when you decide your writing isn't working. Nor the method of escape you contemplate when life gets in the way of your writing aspirations.

I'm talking about the way you begin your scenes, your chapters, and even your story itself.

There has been a bit of discussion at the Books and Writers forum about the idea of a gangplank in the past. The idea is this: instead of putting huge pressure on yourself to get your opening sentence/ paragraph/ scene/ chapter just right- well, just write. You probably know where you want to start in any given scene, so just do it. Don't worry about whether it appears on the page just as you imagined, because with the magic of editing, your gangplank can be left on the dock, so to speak, when your ship sails.

I can't say it any better than the marvellous Beth Shope, who wrote a fantastic blog post about gangplanks, doorways and bridges, which you can find here. In her words:

It's perfectly OK to write gangplanks; it's not OK to keep them.

And that's the important part. While jumping straight into a scene without the encumbrance of worry can help the creativity flow, you need to be able to recognise a gangplank, and you need the objectivity to cut it out and drop it in the sea.

Anyway, encompassing the true spirit of this principle, I like to start my own scenes not just with a gangplank in the writing itself, but also with a couple of sentences of direction to myself. As I'm writing, I'll routinely check back and use those sentences to remind me what was important in the first place.

I'll give you an example from a recent chapter. First up, I've literally written in capital letters:


So, there you go. Then I've added a couple of ideas about what I want to achieve in the scene:

[With all the boys gone, including Tom and Len, Bill and Kit begin to rebuild their relationship brick by brick. Bill and his dad struggle to keep the farm going and he’s sure he’s made the right choice. But then word arrives that Tom has been killed in action, and it all falls apart. Bill is shocked and guilty and decides the only thing he can do is sign up and go fight.]

I don't always stick to the initial ideas once I start writing, but it's good to remind myself of what I wanted to achieve.

In a scene like the one mentioned above, it's not full of action. Bill has chosen not to sign up to fight in World War I, while his best friend and his brother and almost all the other young men his age have. He's fighting a major inner battle about it, and he and his fiance are also recovering from the aftermath of a violent assault on her person. But where to start it?

In the previous scene, everyone left for the war, leaving Bill and Kit alone to sort out their relationship troubles.

In the next scene, I can start in a range of places.

I can pick up right where I left off and show them arriving home after farewelling the troops.
I can pick up the next day, when they've had a chance to absorb the goodbyes and accept that it's just them left.
I can pick up a week later, and show them struggling on their own to cope with all that's happened.
I can pick up a month later when they've already had a few awkward conversations and things are looking up.

In short, there's no hard and fast rule to where I'm going to start that scene. And in fact, I might start it in all four of those places at different times, just to try it out. Any one of those could be the gangplank that leads me to the real deal, and they'll all be worthwhile to me because they all "happen", even if I only choose to leave the last scene in the final story.

And to finish, I'll say that just as a ship needs a gangplank to get the passengers off at the other end, I also add extra little comments to myself, and also often write a little extra to finish a scene.

That's probably about that for now- I find it a very useful technique to take the pressure off starting the scene "just right".

And now I'm off to apply that advice to my installment of AKIT, in which we're finally going to catch up with Nemo...


  1. Great advice Claire. It's nice to put a name to that "thing" we do ;)

  2. Great post Claire. I didn`t realise I had a gangplank in the current novel until I tried to enter Nathan`s first paragraph contest and realised that the first few pages of the story were just filler. It`s great to have a name for it. And gangplanks at the end, I hadn`t thought of that; we`ll see, if I ever get there...

  3. Awesome post! I never thought of a gangplank before...

    I also like that you say what you want to accomplish before actually writing the scene, as opposed to just letting ti flow.