Samuel R. Delany on Plot Thickening — Author Toolbox

Samuel R. Delany

Plot thickening is tricky business.

I learned to love excellent writing by reading great authors of my favorite genres. But, reading novels didn’t teach me how to write one. One of my favorite authors wrote a book about writing, including plot thickening, and that book, in a roundabout way, is the subject of this article.

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This article is part of the incomparable Raimey Gallant’s Author Toolbox Bloghop. Be sure to check out the other great articles in this series!

How I became a writer

How does anyone become a writer? By reading and aspiring.

When I was just a sprout, I admired and hoped to emulate many of my favorite science fiction authors, but I had no sense of the evolution of this young (and it’s still young in my opinion) genre. It took several years, with the help of author-anthologists like Isaac Asimov, Sam Moscowitz, and Harlan Ellison, for me to appreciate the history of science fiction. Before the Golden Age, Science Fiction by Gas Light and the two Dangerous Visions anthologies eventually helped me ground myself and appreciate science fiction authors as products of their times as well as prophets and fabulists of possible presents and futures.

Not long after my exposure to the anthologies about different periods of science fiction history, I learned about the Clarion Writers Workshops. Thanks to some of the anthologies and essays written about the workshops, I began to get a sense of how would-be science fiction writers were becoming published giants in the field. I was (and still am) amazed by the raw talent and power of many Clarion graduates. But that pales beside my awe at the authors who taught (and still teach) new, young writers how to write gripping, thought-provoking, mesmerizing, and even world-changing stories.

One of those teacher-authors is Samuel R. Delany. From the first Delany novel, Nova, that I found in my middle school library, I recognized him as a different kind of writer. His stories sang. They were poetic. They were epic. They were mythic. They sank into my brain and changed me. What was this perspective he wrote from?

It was years before I knew enough about Delany the human being to appreciate how his identity shaped and shapes his writing.

But, that is not what this article is about.

When I wrote my first NaNoWriMo novel, I had no idea what I was doing or how I should go about writing other than one word after another. I leaped into the forums and subforums of the NaNoWriMo site, reveling in the camaraderie of the experience. I occasionally haunted the writing sprint chat room, carving out my story in 400-500 word chunks when I couldn’t bury myself deep enough in my own mind to write 2000 words without external prodding.

Many of my companions during that NaNoWriMo season talked about plot bunnies and the magic of silly hats. They gushed about the advice they learned in the NaNo survival handbook No Plot? No Problem!

I read the handbook and was encouraged to keep the editor part of my brain chained and sleeping. During that magical first NaNoWriMo, I coughed up about 60,000 words with a beginning, middle, and end, and I was ecstatic. Somehow, in all my rambling, I’d constructed a plot.

I knew my NaNoWriMo experience was nothing like the intense, raw, “take your skin off and feel every molecule of your environment” experience that Clarion graduates wrote about. NaNoWriMo was only as immersive as I made it. I still went about my workday and home-life. I wasn’t removed from my normal environment and I wasn’t challenged by teachers and peers to write the best stories I could.

About a year later, at my local Borders Book Store (remember those?), I saw an intriguing title: About Writing, by Samuel R. Delany, one of Clarion’s founding instructors.

Even without a quick flip-through, I couldn’t leave without it. When I got home and dug into it, the text was quintessential Delany. The introduction was 60 pages long and ranged from King Solomon’s court to Orwell’s 1984 to his own childhood in a dizzying trip through Delany’s mind. Encapsulated in the introduction were some leaps of understanding about how Delany writes, but the leaps were inside my head, not on the page. His introduction led me to the understandings but didn’t spell them out for me.

The above is not sixty pages and it doesn’t range over 3000 years of literary history, but it is my introduction. I hope I conveyed to you a little bit of why I want to share Delany’s On Writing with you for the Author Toolbox Bloghop. Onward!

Plot Development Through Sensory Imagery and Notation

In the second essay of his About Writing collection, Delaney discusses his approach to plotting.

I distrust the term “plot” (not to mention “theme” and “setting”) in discussions of writing: it (and they) refers to an effect the story produces in the reading. But writing is an internal process writers go through (or put themselves through) in front of a blank paper that leaves a detritus of words there.

Delany asserts that talking to a new writer about plot, theme or setting is like giving a novice filmmaker the last three years of New York Times movie reviews. The filmmaker would make better use of a manual on his or her camera, and some pamphlets on specific techniques like viable cutting points, matched action, and maybe on lighting.

Delaney’s version of a few necessary tools of the new writer’s craft has to do with developing the scenes in a story.

When I am writing, I am trying to allow/construct an image of what I want to write in my mind’s sensory theater. Then I describe it as accurately as I can. The most interesting point I’ve noticed is that the writing down of words about my imagined vision (or at least the choosing/arranging of words to write down) causes the vision itself to change.

Delany focuses on two main ways that writing down the sensory vision changes it.

  • It becomes clearer. Areas of the mental diorama that were dark or unseen become visible. Areas that were initially visible become sharper and more detailed.
  • If the imagined scene depicts or suggests an action, the notating process propels the action forward (or backward) in time.

The rest of the essay is a demonstration of these techniques. Delaney shows the process of imagining a scene in greater and greater detail as he searches for the best word or phrase to convey the image he constructs, showing how word choices change the mental image, and how the notation propels the envisioned characters into actions.

Why is this Essay Such a Powerful Lesson?

I am a pantser at heart. My stories come to me as visual imagery, often of a scene or scenes. When I try to develop scene lists or outlines, the story runs ahead, beckoning and teasing me. I always succumb to the siren call, “Write me! Write me now!” The terms “pantser” and “plotter” refer to two approaches to writing. Pantser is short for “seat of pants writer”. And plotter suggests a more organized approach to noveling. These are two endpoints on a continuum, not discrete and mutually exclusive approaches. Though I lean toward writing by the seat of my pants, I often create rough character sketches and scene lists so I have a week or two worth of plot idea vaguely in mind when I start a writing project.

But, I can’t write as a pantser if I completely silence my inner editor. I’ve tried it, but I always want to spend just a little more time (and then a little more, and…) on the scene, imagining the characters’ interactions, observations, and actions. I want to write a scene with enough detailed imagery to pull me along to the next moment. “And then what happens?” and “What comes next?” I still ask myself these questions when I’m stuck. But, I seldom get stuck if I spend enough time fleshing out the new scene and letting the details flow and layer themselves via the words I choose. So, I keep searching for the right words as I develop the scene.

How I Applied this Technique

One of the first scenes that I wrote in the novel I’m currently editing came somewhere in the middle of the story even though I wrote it quite early. I imagined it as something that actually happened to a character when I first wrote it, and as something that was dreamed by a character when I did my first revision. Originally, I imagined the dreamer and the character experiencing the moment as one person. It took a while to realize that dismissing the scene as a dream cut off a huge area of potential plot. I had written a crucial character out of my story before she even had a name. As a result, the novel’s scope was too small to fully explore some of the key conflicts I’d envisioned. The remaining characters lacked a layer of motivation that the story demanded. They moved forward through the story, but left a trail of questions behind them.

This vignette came to me originally in much the way that Delany describes above. I had a vision of a bony, pale woman in a worn gray hospital gown and socks sitting on a lawn at an inpatient facility living some sort of internal nightmare that bled into her external reality. I focused on her, on her movements and thoughts, first from her perspective and then from an outsider’s perspective. When it was time to put the vignette in its proper place as a bead strung sequentially among all the other beads, I added a few details about the work shift.

The sky tilted, subtly off-kilter.

It was happening again.

She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, hoping the nauseating wrongness of the lowering sky would be gone when she opened them. But, as she blinked back the sharp headache, she was greeted with the same vision. The late afternoon cirrus wisps, brightly back-lit by a setting sun, had been replaced by thick, low pulsating purple clouds.

There was no sun. There were only the swollen bruise-hued glowing clouds.

She choked back a sob and forced her face into expressionlessness. Please, not this time. Please, no one notice this time. She forced her eyes downward, and stared intently at her worn socks.

The proctor shot a suspicious glance at the woman. Lank dark hair fell over pale eyes. Long arms wrapped themselves around knees that jutted like sharp sticks against the thin grey robe. Had she just tried to say something?

He jotted, stylus rasping against the glassy panel of the notepad, making note of the time and of the patient’s slight awakening from her usual withdrawn and remote state. A survey of the high-walled garden lawn assured him that the others were behaving normally. Normally. The corners of his mouth tightened downward. What an inadequate word for these sad, broken folk scattered like leaves on the manicured lawn, staring vacantly at nothing.

A sharp buzz from within the ward broke the dull, humid silence. As if summoned, the early evening wind ruffled the grass, hair, and long gray-and-white robes of the patients as they stood up on cue. From hesitant habit, they found their assigned places in line. The proctor strode past the wavering line waiting to enter the building. When he reached the doors, he nodded at the young man at the head of the line and ticked off the identification code on the screen. The breeze quickened and grew chill. The proctor checked off the codes as the line slowly snaked through the door. “Hurry it up!” The lash of his voice prompted a few winces, but the line wandered past him as slowly as ever.

One patient seemed oddly anxious to get indoors, shifting weight from foot to foot. A flicker of curiosity crossed his mind when he realized it was the woman with the pale eyes, the one who had caused so much trouble the day before. Her eyes slanted off to the side as she drew near. She seemed almost aware of the doorway, unlike the others.

He should notify the ward doc, but he knew it would tack at least an hour onto the end-of-shift reporting. He hesitated, watching the patients file along the corridor and enter their rooms. She wasn’t causing trouble. It wasn’t like the doc would help her any. His stomach chose that moment to rumble, pushing aside doubt.

He and his next-shift counterpart exchanged assignments with a nod, and he hurried to the ward desk to get the data upload and reporting out of the way.

It was nothing, he assured himself, nothing but a random firing of neurons in a dim corner of the woman’s hind brain. If it had been anything more, she would have raged again, like they all occasionally did, poor kids.

I call this a vignette because it didn’t fit into the narrative. It was adrift and might have been placed almost anywhere in the story without being anchored to it. It was a hook with nothing to hang upon it. It was a signpost pointing nowhere. But, when I realized what was missing from my story and envisioned the scenes and characters that would inhabit that yet-to-be discovered country, I realized this snippet was the wharf from which I would set sail.

In this snippet, more than any other I wrote during that frantic first November, I had applied Delany’s technique of sensory imaging to propel the action. I moved the scene forward by asking myself “what did she do?”, “what did that look like”, “what happens next?”, as though I were audience as well as storyteller.

These days, I use the technique with self-awareness, giving myself permission to take the time to search for the best words and phrases to describe and notate the images in my mind.

Samuel R. Delany, both in his collection of essays and letters in About Writing, and in his many novels, has given me tools that work well for my style of writing. This essay, called “Thickening the Plot“, is one of my roadmaps. Reading it was more a journey of self-discovery than a lesson learned. I feel lucky that an author I love, admire, and aspire to emulate has expounded in great depth on the art and craft of writing. His writings about writing are available to anyone who wants to learn from him.

Who inspires you to write? What have inspiring authors taught you about the tools of the craft?

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Samuel R. Delany on Plot Thickening, Effects, and Causes
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For more great articles on tools by and for authors check out Raimey’s Author Toolbox Bloghop post.

31 thoughts on “Samuel R. Delany on Plot Thickening — Author Toolbox”

  1. I love your vignette, your writing style is so beautifully descriptive. Thank you for sharing some snippets of Delaney’s advice, I’m a plotter at heart, but I love watching my story unfold like a movie in my mind’s eye, it really helps to flesh out the setting and action. Looking forward to your next Author Toolbox post!

    1. Thanks! It’s good to read something encouraging about this story as I tackle it one more time! Delany’s writing advice isn’t applicable only to pantsers. But, I found this essay particularly relevant to my writing style, especially the implied permission to let my editor out of her box while writing a first draft.

  2. Great post! I have a hard time picking a favourite writing book, but I really love DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira because instead of focusing on craft it helps you develop a consistent writing process, which is something we all struggle with.

  3. I have a shelf of writing books. Which one I use depends on the story. Some stories lean more toward one technique more than any other.
    I love the sample you wrote! Adding layers to your writing makes it more enjoyable as a reader.

  4. I love digging deeper in the scene. I usually end up doing this on my first editing pass, turning my proto-draft to a first draft, and it is one of the steps I love the most. Thanks for sharing a craft book that promotes it. I will definitely check out Delaney’s book. I have only read a handful of books on craft. Right now I am reading Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It is great tool for crafting a character-driven story and looks at neuroscience behind what compels us to keep reading. I would highly recommend it.

  5. I already told you I loved this post on twitter :p just checking to see if it works now when I comment. Thanks again for this! I especially loved the sample you shared 🙂

  6. It’s so true that your vision changes once you start writing. Generally I begin with a seed of an idea, but the more I write about it, the more it evolves, until eventually the seed and end product show no relation… although, the end product is always better and more interesting! When you work to evolve an original idea, it becomes more complex and thus more real/believable.

  7. I will have to check out Delany’s “About Writing.” I love Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and I feel these types of books can be incredibly helpful!!

    Thank you for the great post!

  8. I love the images your writing evoked. Really nice. I’m in awe of science fiction/fantasy writers. It’s something that seems it requires so much more skill than I possess. I’m going to remember this article if I do ever decide it’s something I want to try my hand at, even if it is just for short stories to start. Thanks!

  9. Great post! I’m a pantser by heart, though my current WIP I did start with an outline of certain “high notes” I wanted to hit. I found this idea from Delany intriguing: “The most interesting point I’ve noticed is that the writing down of words about my imagined vision (or at least the choosing/arranging of words to write down) causes the vision itself to change.” I’ve had a few moments like this, where I’m, in a way, discovering the story as I go.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I think you’d enjoy the rest of the article. The examples he walks through show exactly what he does in going from mental imagery to words. And, I’ve seen it in his writing. Some of my favorite passages in his books were clearly produced this way. The characters’ actions speak so much more loudly than words. It makes me want to cross out every “said”, “uttered” and “told” I’ve ever written, and try again.

  10. I found what you said about being distrustful of terms such as “plot”, “theme”, and “setting”. I have always felt that the first time you write a story, it’s for your own pleasure; the second time you write the same story, it’s for your critiques. That is, when you draft, you can play in as many scenes and fanciful descriptions as you want. The editing process, however, is to ensure your readers wouldn’t scoff at your baby like it’s a mistake.

  11. Thank you for sharing this – Delany’s approach to thinking about writing really intrigues me, and I think I’m going to have to go chase this down now. My writing “bible”, as it were, has always been Elizabeth George’s “Write Away”, which I would recommend to anyone and everyone if given half a chance. Which I seem to be, so … I recommend!

    Thank you for sharing your writing! Your use of language is really interesting – you manage to convey a lot of detail while leaving so much to the reader’s interpretation, it’s a delicate balance that you pull off well.

  12. Your post is so heartfelt. Thank you. I was a panster at heart too…and I think you could say I might be in life too. Who inspires me to write? Writers like Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, and Rachel Cain to name a few. I haven’t heard of Delaney’s book so I will have to check it out 🙂

  13. This is great advice for beginning writers! I actually had a discussion the other day with a friend who said that writers NEED to read and learn as much as they can about writing before sitting down to pen anything–but I know if I did that, I’d never have written anything because my scope would be far too vast for my newbie brain to comprehend. (And also, I love writing little bits of writing independent from the story to explore it! I haven’t done it in ages, but it helps so much.)

  14. I love constructing images in my mind: It really does make scenes come to life, and it’s an important tip 🙂 My current work started as an image of a boy on a cliff with a dragon. It expanded from there, like a movie in my head!
    I confess that I’ve never read books on how to write, although I’ve read a lot of articles on the internet whenever I get stuck on an issue!

  15. I’ve recently read a post by Delaney on “plot thickening” – it’s an idea I’m going to remember, for myself and for other writers I work with. Thanks for the reminder, and the practical application.

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