I finished ITV's The Loch last Sunday night. It was a pretty good show. Thing is, it had started so well – the mist-shrouded landscape, the implacable gunmetal grey of the water, the chain of lochs and queues of boats, the cast of quirky characters and a great pair of leads – that it couldn’t help but disappoint. For a second or two towards the end of episode one, when the eyes of the bedridden boy snap open, it almost had a Twin Peaksian feel to it; a macabre weirdness that was borderline supernatural.
Eventually though, stuff got so crazy the touchstone became not Twin Peaks but Lost, millennial society’s go-to example of a show collapsing under its own complexity. The Loch’s characters, having served their purpose, suddenly evaporated. The Mancunian dude with the shady past? He was vanished in episode four along with his childhood mate. The manipulative teacher? Sidelined by six. The maybe-gay Doctor having an affair? Dispatched in five. The students involved in the shooting? All weirdly absent by the end. None of the poor buggers got screen-time again.
This week I took a long train journey – I’m typing this in Carriage C, seat 3 on the way back home – and sped through Terry Brooks’ account of his writing life, Sometimes The Magic Works. I have fond memories of reading Brooks’ work as a kid, and he has some interesting stuff to say about endings (particularly, I reckon, to those of you familiar with King’s advice in On Writing.) Brooks asks us to consider stories that suffer from “a plot element that seemed never to go anywhere…” or whose “first three-hundred pages were wonderful than everything fell apart…” or – crucially, given The Loch – stories which “involved you with a character who wandered off somewhere along the way and never returned.”
“I’d suggest all these problems are organisational in nature,” Brooks points out. His answer? Outlining. “Let me give you my thoughts,” he says, “on why I think outlining is a valuable tool that doesn’t have to deflate your excitement.” What follows is a decent chapter of helpful advice I know I’ll be drawing on.
It’s the way of these things to sometimes cluster or arrive in threes. I’d got onto Brooks’ book having heard it recommended on Hank Gardner’s Author Stories podcast, and on the train I dipped into an episode with Chris Paolini, the Eragon dude. I should point out I’ve not read the Inheritance Cycle (anything, in fact, described as a cycle or chronicle since I was sixteen come to that…) But wouldn’t you know it Paolini too espoused the necessity of outlining; almost urged aspiring authors to map out their books, build blueprints, complete chapter by chapter synopses. He outlined the whole cycle, it turns out, before returning to each individual book to outline them again in detail.
Is the universe trying to tell me something?
Maybe. With Takeback submitted, I’m in The Hangfire Smokehouse ruminating over a couple of possible ideas. At the moment, I have an A4 synopsis for both.
If Brooks and Paolini are anything close to right, I’ve got a long way to go yet.