Maintaining Situational Awareness When Writing a Novel

Knowing what is going on around you is the key to staying alive in an airplane or even a car. Not-so-strangely enough, it is also true when writing a manuscript.

In an airplane, you’re constantly aware of the plane’s airspeed, altitude, attitude, position over the ground, weather and other essential items such as how much fuel one has on board vice what is needed to get to the desired destination. And that’s for only the airplane you are flying.

The level of complexity ratchets up if you are in a flight of two flying formation because now one has to maintain a position in space relative to another airplane or helicopter. Add more airplanes of the same or different types and capabilities coordinating a strike or a combat rescue with the bad guys shooting at you and the difficulty of maintaining situational awareness, a.k.a. SA goes up several orders of magnitude. Lose SA and you and others die.

Back in the old days, all one had was radio communications and your brain had to translate that into relative motion and position from your machine.  Writing the many radio calls back and forth that are necessary AND making them understandable to the average reader is a real challenge.   On one hand, you have to give the reader a flavor of what is going on without overwhelming them. And, you have to give enough detail to a reader who’s been in similar situations so that the scene is credible. My preference is to provide more than less, but I know that it can be a bit too much at times.

But I digress… Well, not really, because I’ve found that in writing a novel, maintaining SA on what is happening in the story line is much like flying an airplane or a helicopter.

As one as one writes (and edits) a manuscript, I find myself juggling a character’s background versus what he/she is doing versus others versus others versus the story line. My desire to keep the book in the proper historical context provides both a constraint and another dimension.

More characters make more complexity. Take RENDER HARMLESS for example.   Besides the primary good guys – Josh, Marty, John Osborne – there are the two German investigators – Starkeholz and Grenfel and a member of the Mossad – Lev Mogen. The main antagonist Dieter has his own supporting cast – Grünewald and Krasnovsky – and the list goes on. In some cases, each character has another layer of characters that play bit roles. As each new character is introduced, the degree of difficulty in maintaining manuscript SA increases.

Each character and his/her actions have to be developed in the context of the story and revealed in bits and pieces as the plot unfolds. The hard part is keeping the bits and pieces in a logical chain. Often, I find I have to go back and add in a scene. Or, worse, I’ve written in scenes that are either in conflict with ones earlier or later in the story or are duplicates.

So, writing a novel requires SA. In many ways, it is just like in an airplane flying on instruments where you are juggling a lot of information as one tries to keep it right side up and get to the destination airport. It is literally, even with all the computer driven avionics systems (which can fail) in airplanes today, it still is all in your head.

In a novel, you’re writing and there’s what’s “on paper” and what’s still in your head. The trick is to get it all out without losing the plot, so to speak. Or, in pilot speak, without crashing and burning.

Marc Liebman

September 2015