There is such a lot more to writing a novel than the act of just sitting down and churning out heaps of pages of text. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence can do that. The true story writer weaves an unforgettable story and memorable characters set against a unique background. A great plot will grip the reader from the first line of the book and leave them hugely disappointed that they have finished the book and have to leave the characters whose lives they are so involved with.
Spend time plotting your book. It is the best way firstly to ensure you finish it. There is nothing worse than running out of steam half way through writing and not knowing where the book is going. Alternatively as you write you could discover the book runs off on its own and what you’ve written already doesn’t work for the direction the story is now going in.
Take the time to plot. Use time alone to sit with graphs, sheets of paper, post it notes – whatever you find helps you. All writers are different in their approach to plotting, some like to have vast mind maps worked out and detailed in drawings on the wall, others prefer to have spread sheets. All work and with experience you’ll discover which method works for you.
Firstly though, what is a plot.
It is essential that the story has a goal, or problem. This is the foundation of the plot. With your story goal in mind, ask yourself what the outcome of your characters’ pursuit of that goal will be. Will they, achieve the goal? Will they solve the problem? Will the characters experience the right way to solve a problem or accomplish something or experience the wrong way to try to solve a problem?
Consider do you want the reader to understand or learn from the characters’ failures, or from their successes? Have you got some social commentary to make about the way people deal with one another?
Author E.M. Forster talks about a story as being ‘a narrative of events arranged in … sequence’. In Forster’s words:
‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.
Forster in Colin Bulman, Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing, p. 165
The way the events in the story play out sequentially to show cause and effect are the plot of the book. A plot will contain lots of what happened and why, these fit together to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Although each book is completely different from another, each plot structure is the same. If you have done a good job of planning your plot and can see where the peaks and troughs are then you are on the right course to writing a great novel.
A great plot, even though the setting, the mood and atmosphere will differ from book to book needs to grab the reader’s attention. Immediately they need to be curious about the character and the situation. Why is the woman doing that? Why is she crying? Who is she afraid of? Different parts of the plot will relate to others, or will highlight certain points either about the action, or the character. When writing a book make sure not one sentence you write does not relate to or have a point to make.
It is important to make sure that the desires of the characters are in keeping with the framework the writer has established for them.
It is important that the plot creates surprise and at all costs avoids clichés. Even if you are writing a plot where there are common tropes, make sure you put your own twist onto their characters to make them stand out and help the reader like them.
It is vital the plot keeps the readers attention. They are going to invest their time and effort into reading the book, if it’s a hard copy you want to create a book they will want to carry around with them to read whenever they have a chance. For that level of investment it is vital your plot doesn’t disappoint.
A plot arc is the rise and fall of the drama, tension or emotion. Of course there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end, but there are really only six core types of plot arcs or narratives – basically what happens to the main character. It is a writers job therefore to make that structure different.
The six types are:
- RAGS TO RICHES
- RICHES TO RAGS
- FALL AND RISE
- RISE THEN FALL
- RISE THEN FALL THEN RISE
- FALL THEN RISE THEN FALL
These are the typical plot arcs, countless books follow these tried and trusted patterns, although with some variation.
There are five W’s which are contained in every article and story, Who, What, Where, When, Why.
The narrative of the story is how each of these affects the action and the protagonist.
A dramatic arc, regardless of what story it is used in always follows the same path. Look at books, and films and you’ll be able to see this happening.
Firstly, the set up, this introduces the protagonist, the setting, and their story.
A call to action is something which challenges the protagonist, setting them on a certain path. This could be a puzzle to be solved, a goal to be achieved, a situation to escape from.
There will then be a confrontation, where the protagonist attempt to deal with the situation puts them in a bigger mess. It seems at this point as if they can never reach their goal.
At the midpoint of the story the protagonist can see what they need to do to achieve their goal, but it seems as if it is impossible to reach.
The crisis point of the story sees the protagonist in such a mess, a dramatic crisis that they are at their lowest ebb.
The resolution is where there will be a showdown, culminating in the ending.
The narrative and character arcs are different in that the narrative arc is the overall path of the story while the character arc is the path the protagonist, take during their journey. Usually the character has to overcome an obstacle, something that will alter their lives, either physically or emotionally. A narrative arc is external, while the character arc is internal, the emotional turmoil experienced by the protagonist. When the narrative arc is at its peak, during the most turmoil is when the character makes a critical choice, change or has some kind or revolution. All the characters can change, but usually only major characters have arcs.
Typical narrative arcs involve the protagonist overcoming a threat, rags to riches, where the protagonist is poor, through hard work gains money. Equally these can include where a poor protagonist gains money, loses it and becomes a better person. Others include a quest – a journey to find something, or someone. A voyage differs from a quest in that the protagonist visits a new world and returns a changed person. In a tragedy the protagonist battles a flaw that causes their downfall. Comedic plots involve confusing but funny situations which are eventually ended happily. One variation of the rags to riches is where the character experiences something which changes them for the better – or worse.
When you are plotting your novel see which type of narrative arc it fits into. Think about the story that is driving you to tell it. What does the main character want. What are they experiencing? Think about the characters, who are they, what are the differences between them all and how are they connected?
Consider your setting. Where does the action take place? The setting also considers the time the story is set in, is it modern or a historical plot? Minor details like the time of year need to be considered too.
Something else important is the mood of the book, this matters considerably once you try to classify the genre of your book. Are you writing drama, or a romance?
Often it can help to look at your idea from the point of view of the three part structure. Basically the beginning, the main action and the resolution. In the first part the author sets the scene and introduce the characters, the setting, and the seeds of what will become the conflict.
In the second part the characters change in response to circumstances and conflicts around them. They need to be faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, which will escalate into a seemingly impossible situation.
In the third part the huge problem is solved when all seems lost and the story ends. Of course there are variations in that the end can be happy, where everything works out well, or sad where the protagonist doesn’t achieve their aims.
It helps to pin down what you intend to write to do an elevator pitch, condensing the proposed idea into five points, the genre, who is the protagonist, what do they want, what are the obstacles they face and what is the overriding subject – ie losing a partner to dementia.
This can help focus your mind as to the scaffold of the story. From here think about the main characters. It helps to write a detailed description of them so you understand their motivations.
It can help to plot your narrative arc in a visual diagram, mind maps helps to get everything in your imagination down in front of you so you can see what fits into your plot and what doesn’t. It could be that you’ll find you have two stories, sometimes two different ones, or a series of books. However don’t forget that the story is yours, let yourself be flexible and let it take you where it wants to go.
Every story goes through the same five dramatic stages. exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Plan gripping, interesting subplots. These can complicate the main action and also give different insights into what is going on. The purpose of a subplot is to explain and or develop tensions and crucial plot points, they help deepen the readers understanding of the central characters.
Each and every character in your novel thinks the novel is about them and have their own goals and motivations. As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, every character in your novel should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.
Although a plot outline is helpful for structuring your story and staying on track, remember that it is a flexible blueprint rather than a rigid structure each element of your novel must bend to fit. As author you can go back and alter your plot outline if necessary. Even though you have the main structure in place characters do have a way of doing their own thing.
Good endings are important. It may seem to be going about the plot creation in the wrong way, planning the story ending before the climax. However, if you know you want a particular type of ending, then you will need to create a climax that will set the reader up for it.
One of the first decisions an author has to make when developing the plot of their novel is whether the end will be happy, unhappy or somewhere in between.
There are four endings common to every book:-
1. Happy : the protagonist achieves the goal or solves the problem, and his success turns out to be a good thing.
- Tragedy: the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, and his failure is a bad thing.
- Tragi-comedy (Personal Triumph): the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, but his failure turns out to be a good thing.
- Comi-tragedy (Personal Tragedy): the protagonist achieves his goal, but his success turns out to be a bad thing.
When you plot a novel, you are working at multiple levels, plotting the stories of each of the main characters as well as the broad story arc.
There will be one main line of action, which happens from chapter to chapter, but equally smaller ones, which happen in individual scenes. Having the scenes plotted out on a graph, paper, spread sheet or whatever enables you to make sense of the purpose and narrative drive of that scene. If it has no purpose it should not be in the book.
The writer has to know why each piece of action is relevant to the main story. How does the scene bring the protagonist further towards, or away from their goal.
Having this done before you start to write makes the plot going off on its own, down dead ends far less likely, so there is less (although certainly not no) revising and re-writing to be done.
With the plot outlined you can see if the reader could guess what might be happening. And also see if the characters act according to the external circumstances around them.
The writer should tease the reader, creating hope that things will work out and then dashing those hopes, only, just when things seem utterly hopeless, for things to turn out well. On the other hand, if you already have a vision of what happens at the climax that will determine the ending.
Traditional theories of plot development define the climax as the moment of greatest emotional tension in a story and the point at which the protagonist’s fortunes turn. The main character arrives at a tough situation. Basically they decide whether or not to change himself or his behaviour.
The character through whose eyes the audience sees the story – will have a particular way of trying to solve problems that is the key to the plot development. With some characters, it is a type of behaviour. With others, it is a personality trait that either helps or hinders them.
In a story there needs to be twists and turns and lulls in the action, a delicate balance. Too much action and the reader will have no chance to get to know the characters. Too much misery and the reader will lose interest in the character.
A good writer who is interested in creating a gripping plot will be able to identify the peaks and troughs in the plot and adjust the pace accordingly. This can be done by writing down the individual scenes and going through them to see where the story is not achieving all that it needs to. Some writers like to map out the story plot with flow charts or using post it notes on a wall so that the plot can be seen as a whole.
While all of this plotting sounds like hard work and far removed from the vision so many writers have of sitting day after day knocking out a bestseller, it is an essential part of the craft of writing and one that proficient writers will relish in order to make their novel the best it can be.
- Plot. Write. Sell. Chapter four
- Plot. Write. Sell Chapter six