We’ve had some good sessions discussing plot in the writing group lately, which is useful as I’m midway through the first draft of my next novel. The outline, plot and its overarching narrative has been established, but the story needs a subplot or two to allow me to explore the characters’ personalities more deeply and examine their motivations. I also need to be clear on the story. A plot doesn’t make a story but for there to be a story, something’s got to happen. I was all set to share some thoughts last week. Then life got in the way.
My partner’s mother came to live with us recently. She has her own annexe, the Little House on the Patio. Mum in Law has dementia and is also hard of hearing so things can get a little tricky. In Alzheimer’s world everything is a surprise. It’s a steep learning curve and the repetition factor alone is terribly time-consuming. But I’m a writer, I’m taking notes. I could write a book….
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, plot.
There’s some disagreement about whether a writer should plot a novel meticulously before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Some say it’s unnecessary, others can’t start without it. Stephen King, for example, says that knowing the whole plot before starting is “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice”. For him, “plotting is incompatible with the spontaneity of creation”. Not sure I completely agree with the master on this one. When writing a crime novel for instance, doesn’t it make sense to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there? For it to work, a crime novel requires a particular sequence of events, the laying of clues for the reader to follow and a satisfying conclusion. If you can do all this without working out a plot beforehand, I take my hat off to you.
The ground rules for creating an effective story were laid down by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in his discourse On the Art of Poetry. The trick in good plotting, Aristotle pointed out, is to show events moving forward in a logical sequence towards a believable conclusion, with things happening unexpectedly within this framework. The main characters need to learn and develop; moving from one state of mind to another, such as misery to happiness, ignorance to knowledge, discontent to serenity.
The events in the story should introduce an element of conflict to illustrate this growth. This can be between various characters or between the main character and an impersonal force, such as a natural disaster, disease, alien etc. But all the action needs to be relevant. It should contribute to the story or our understanding of the characters. If a scene makes no difference to the plot, it probably has no place in your story.
Similarly, the characters should be consistent, not displaying behaviour that has no bearing on the story or traits that are at odds with the personality you’ve so painstakingly created. A criminal should not have a sudden urge to become a monk, or an exemplary citizen unexpectedly embark on a life of crime, unless you have already planted some clues.
In good stories, thing don’t happen by chance or coincidence. Nothing is random. I’ve mentioned Chekov’s rifle before: ‘One mustn’t put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.’ Nothing – objects, characters, situations, moods – should be arbitrary in your writing. Everything must have a purpose.
Finally, if you’re asked to distil your book into one sentence, or express it as a series of interconnected themes, first ask yourself some questions:
• Who is it about?
• What do they want?
• How are they going to get it?
• What’s in their way?