As a discovery writer, I find it incredibly difficult to envision plot details before they’re immanent. Usually, my writing process consists of me hacking my way through a briar patch of narrative minutiae, pausing every so often to scale a low tree and confirm that I’m still headed toward that elusive mountain in the distance. I’d rather plunge headlong into the next chapter than outline the content of the chapter after that.
And yet I’m writing a hugely-complex fantasy epic. And if there’s one thing that’ll make a hugely-complex fantasy epic feel unworthy of its own length, it’s the telltale episodic tang of a plot made up along the way. I want the Seed of Glory Sown in Sorrow saga to feel cohesive—as though the whole thing was written in one fell swoop. So what can be done to achieve the desired effect?
Well, one thing I have to be willing to do is retcon extensively. I keep a running inventory of plot vectors, and, if their trajectories get altered by new developments, I don’t wait to go back through the manuscript and adjust it accordingly. But it’s much easier to tweak existing content than to insert content ex nihilo. For the narrative to feel tight, it needs to have been structured around its content from the beginning. Afterthought-amendments are easy to spot. Effective retconning requires pre-inserted access-points.
So that’s what I give myself: placeholders.
Basically, what this technique boils down to is hanging Chekhov’s Guns without knowing for sure how they work. I do this by instinct. I think to myself, whilst hacking through the undergrowth, ‘You know, this feels like a good place to have foreshadowed something that’ll come later.’ And I drop a marker.
It could be anything. A name, an object, an odd look from a character. Maybe I already have a pretty good idea what it means; maybe I’m riffing on spec. Point is, it’s a tangible link to a larger world that hasn’t yet been fleshed out. And now I’m on the hook to turn it into something essential.
Sometimes this doesn’t pay off. Sometimes I have to go back and amputate the scene. But cutting’s always easier than adding. And when it does work—when I can extrapolate the spec hint into an entire subplot or tweak it so it harmonizes later events—it makes it seem as though I knew from the beginning exactly how things would turn out.
Ironically, the best results are often achieved only after I’ve given up trying to reconcile my placeholders with the overarching plot mechanics. When this happens, I’m forced to innovate. I have to come up with reasons that things still work. This post hoc justification process produces complexity across broad timespans.
And complexity across broad timespans is the hallmark of a cohesive narrative.