Select Page

I get it. Embarking on a book – a whole world, no less – can feel daunting. I mean, you’re magicking up a whole world from the bare bones of your imagination (that, my friends, is what we call a mixed metaphor. You’re welcome.)

Every time I start a new book (and several times in the middle) I get the wobbles, become overwhelmed with the sheer size of the thing.

When I wrote The Breaking, my first novel, I had to trick myself. Because, obviously I could not possibly write a whole novel. Leaving aside the obvious elements of who-the-hell-did-I-think-I-was – I simply couldn’t imagine getting that number of words down on the page.

So I wrote a short story. Two thousand words. I could manage that.

And then I looked at that short story and I underlined every plot point – every moment when something happened that impacted on the rest of the story. For instance, the short story (it’s called Chasing Stallions and you can find it in the almost-certainly-out-of-print The Flamingo Book of New Scottish Writing) is narrated by a young boy. In one or two lines in the story, he describes watching his mother laughing with her new friends, now that she has a job. Aha, I thought: here are two plot points: mother gets a job and mother brings friends to the house. These moments became a whole chapter.

At the time I thought of this method as ‘expanding from within’. I’ve passed it on to lots of writers I’ve mentored individually. Try this version of it – take one small paragraph that you’ve written, or a single page. Underline the moments within the paragraph or page that could be expanded. Sometimes that might be narrative, and sometimes it might involve looking deeper at an individual moment.

When I’m working with a writer individually we might go through the page and really look at where the plot points are, but always, the task is not to add on to the end. The task is to find the missing moments in the writing.

Here’s an example, from a story I wrote several years ago for the ‘Writers on Writing’ series. This is a paragraph from a story I wrote about a young man arriving in Prague on the eve of the Czech separation from Slovakia, to stay with a girl he met in London.

She sent her father to collect me. He was about three hundred years old, stank of stale goat. He put his hand out, all formal, “Klara say welcome. She have work emergency. I host you. You come.” I shook his hand back. When he smiled he showed the gaps where teeth should have been but I said Dobres Den and he said it back and then I looked around for the car but there wasn’t one and we had to drag my case up the hill and get on the tram. People wore animal fur hats and earmuffs, gloves so thick you couldn’t tell the shape of their hands. I’d brought my coat, a woollen beany, and my old school gloves, with a hole in the thumb. Ice shone on the road but when I saw the tram station I felt a finger of familiarity.

Now I might choose to look at that paragraph, choose to expand it, but finding moments that could be whole scenes. The rule is that I will keep the opening line, and the closing line.

One point might be this moment: “He put his hand out… I shook his hand back.” In this paragraph, it’s two lines. But I could easily step into that two lines and expand it to a full scene. Here’s the trick with that: just keep asking, what else? What else is there?

He put his hand out… what else? What does the surrounding space look like? Smell like? They’re in a bus station – does a bus pass noisily as he speaks? Does the narrator step back and trip on something? And when he shakes his hand back, is it clammy?

In that example, I’m expanding the sensory world, making more of the moment.

But I might take the next moment – dragging the case up the road – and I might expand that into some narrative moments. The old man trips on the road, the narrator ignores him perhaps. And then, what else? Maybe a stranger – one of the people wearing a fur hat and thick gloves – helps the man up, spits at the narrator, snaps at him in a stream of Czech…

Do you get the idea?

Today, take a paragraph or an old page, a moment you’ve written that feels a little thin, a little incomplete. And rather than adding on to the end, try expanding from within.

Today’s prompt…


Write someone going into or under the water