Zigzagging in Writing and Life

I walk in the desert, sometimes on straightaways, sometimes on hills. I learned something from the hill walks: she who goes up, must come down. And sometimes “down” means a very steep grade. I discovered that it was much easier to get to the bottom of these steep hills if I zigzagged from one edge of the path to the other. By descending diagonally, I can cut the steepness of the hill and am able keep my footing.

This seems to be a good metaphor for plot. While writing, we zigzag down an increasingly steep slope, never quite letting our readers know what direction they are traveling, but always keeping them on the path to the end. Or perhaps they are going up a hill, but the point is still the same: zigzagging.

I sent More Deaths Than One to hundreds of agents and editors, and the consensus was that my writing style was too matter-of-fact for the overly complicated plot. This from people who never read more than a few chapters. (Luckily for me, I finally found a publisher — Second Wind – who read the whole novel and understood what I wanted to accomplish.)

It could be that as readers head down the steep slope of my story, zigzagging from side to side, the plot does seem complicated, but when they reach the end and look back, they can see that the story is very simple. A straight path. A man discovers that what he knows about himself is a lie, and he sets out to discover the truth. Very simple. All the complications are simply the zigzagging path.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “Zigzagging in Writing and Life”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Funny, I’ve always imagined the plots of my stories as winding roads leading from location to location (or scene to scene, I guess). Even now I can see that path in my head, from where my characters are now to where they will go. Great post Pat.
    By the way, you wrote “zizagging” in the title. Just thought I’d let you know.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    Well put. The reader has to feel that they have been on a journey by the time they have reached the end of a book. There aren’t always lessons to be learnt or it would be an English or Science text rather than a novel. There’s nothing wrong with a good, rollicking adventure that takes you away from your own drab existence. I think that’s why my dad loves Westerns. The bad guy gets gunned down in the end and the good guy rides off into the sunset with the girl on his horse. Of course there are Westerns like Shane that are a lot more complex than that. In the end the reader should feel like they have accomplished something by getting to the end no matter how winding the road might have been.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Yes, if readers feel as if they ended up in the same place they started, they won’t feel they gained anything by reading the book. Even when people read for entertainment, they still want to feel as if they didn’t waste their time.

  3. authors promotion Says:

    I wish you good luck with More Deaths Than One, let me know when is released or if I can do a pre launch campaign for you.

  4. Mike Croghan Says:

    This post has great meaning for me. I want to thank you for it. I”ve been working on an historical novel/family history for several years and chose to avoid following a linear story line. Because the times and many of the people I write about are traditionalist, I wanted to do them honor and tell the story much as they might – in a cyclical spiraling way rather than in the more westernized, linear sequence. So your switchback metaphor and commentary give me lots of affirmation. Again, thanks.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      An author can follow a cronological story line and zigzag from plot point to plot point, each new development twisting the plot in a different direction. Still, I’m glad you found affirmation in my post. Everything in service to the story — so whichever is the best way for the story is the best way of writing.

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