Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. This week, the forbidden art of plotting.
We usually think of plot as the ‘what happens’ of the book. And most of us concede that there are some intuitive rules – we understand, for example, that it wouldn’t be appropriate for The Hobbit to break off from Bilbo’s quest for a hundred pages while Tolkien described a day in the life of a peat collector in the Outer Hebrides – but beyond saying that whatever we include in our book should be ‘relevant’ to the story, we’re often hard pressed to explain what those rules are.
This week and next, I’m going to give you a quick breakdown of two central principles of plot construction – now I know different authorities say there are ten different plots, seven different plots, three different plots. Don’t worry about that. There are no Plot Police who’ll come rappelling into your office to clap you in mag-cuffs if you step outside of some prescribed formula. But by the very fact that your novel starts somewhere and ends somewhere else, it necessarily includes some things and excludes everything else. Plot is the organising principle that helps you decide what stays and what goes.
So here’s the basic plot unit. It describes the classic shape for a novel, and the structure of each scene that makes up that novel. It goes like this:
Someone wants something. Their attempt to get it is frustrated. They try another, more risky means, and arrive at a win, lose or draw.
That’s it. It’s reductive, but useful. And I know it sounds like that only applies to adventure narratives, but remember that the ‘risk’ doesn’t necessarily apply to putting themselves in physical peril. So, for example, you might have a scene where a daughter wants to borrow her father’s car for the evening. He refuses, so she makes up a lie about visiting a friend in hospital. At the end of the scene, he either uncovers the lie and angrily refuses (a lose), consents (a win) or defers the decision until her mother gets home (a draw).
The point of this structure is to make sure that in each scene and across the novel, you are slowly ramping up tension. The narrative is propelled by the dynamic between how badly your protagonist wants the ‘something’, and the gravity of the obstacles impeding him or her. Risks are the lifeblood of any successful story, but they must feel plausible. To feel plausible, a risk should be the safest course of action available to a protagonist in the furtherance of his or her goal. For instance, if a shopkeeper plagued by a bluebottle is frustrated in his efforts to swat the insect with a newspaper, it is not plausible for him to hijack an aeroplane and crash the aircraft into his shop in order to achieve his aim. (dramatic though such a tactic might be) This means, of course, that as a writer, if you want to induce the maximum involvement in your reader whilst keeping the story believable, you must manipulate circumstances so that your protagonist’s actions seem like the only reasonable ones to take. This dynamic can be expressed in the following (very rough) rule of thumb:
Desire x Difficulty = Plausible Risk
Very crudely put, the higher the value of Plausible Risk, the more gripping the narrative. It does not, of course, follow that the best novels are therefore thrillers – after all, desires, difficulties and risks take many different forms, and a novel can be less than ‘gripping’ and still be entertaining. However, the risks your protagonist takes cannot exceed the value of Plausible Risk nor drop under it without threatening the character’s integrity. If a character finds his goals under threat and does not take reasonable steps to solve the situation, he comes across as inhuman or a masochist. If a character attempts to resolve a minor problem through wild or reckless means, she comes across as insane. Unless your protagonist is actually a masochist or insane and these traits serve some narrative purpose, you must ensure at all times that his actions conform to the rule of minimum possible risk, whilst ensuring that circumstances force this minimum high enough to create tension and thus retain the reader’s attention. This value should build through the novel (though it need not necessarily do so in a linear fashion, the trend should be upward) so that it reaches its peak near or at the end, as the novel’s climax.
But I’ve got more than one viewpoint character, I hear you cry. Very well, same principle applies, only you’ve got an added level of complexity, because you need to make sure that the different characters’ goals are interlinked, perhaps conflicting. This means that when we aren’t with one character, we’re still seeing action that affects their ability to achieve their goal, so we care.
It’s no great secret that, in literary circles, ‘plot’ is a dirty word. Certainly, an over-emphasis on plot leads down some dodgy alleys, like the hacky how-2-rite manuals of the 1930s – ’50 Plots GUARANTEED to Sell!’ – but it doesn’t deserve its current pariah status amongst the supposed intelligensia. The literary world venerates ‘voice’ above all else, with ‘character’ a slightly grubby second.
These are good things to like! All my favourite novels have a distinctive voice and a rich cast of dramatis personae. But the idea that plot is somehow antithetical to these things is, frankly, idiotic. Shoot a little fucking higher, literary gatekeepers! Maybe that elegaic voice novel you loved so much would have been even better if there had been an elegant plot structure dictating what we did and didn’t see. Maybe more people would have finished it instead of putting it down halfway through if the scenes had built upon one another instead of existing as a set of discrete vignettes. Crazy paving is all well and good, but sometimes we want a road.
If you can divest yourself of the superstition that plot caters to a rather vulgar craving for incident and novelty, so much the better for your writing. I’m not advocating that your supple, aching meditation on grief would be improved by the insertion of a jewel heist – wait, actually, I am. That would be awesome.
What I’m primarily suggesting is that you expand your conception of what constitutes ‘plot’, so you can start recognising it at the scene-by-scene, paragraph-by-paragraph level. Franny & Zooey consists of – if I remember rightly – three conversations. But it’s great! There’s lots of engaging characterisation and this funny, sad backstory of the Glass family. But pinning it all together, propelling us through the novel, is plot: Franny’s hurtling towards her breakdown in the first half, and in the second half, Zooey’s trying – in his own pretentious, stumbling way – to help her recover. There’s the drama of each conversation, moment to moment, the shifting power dynamic, and the emotional reactions of the speakers.
I know F&Z may have been an infelicitous choice – the precocious, hipsterish, faux-Eastern mysticism wiseacring of Seymour et al gets a lot of readers’ backs up – but my point is, plot can manifest in a dazzling range of forms, some extrinsic, some hidden. Some central motivations may be opaque even to their owners.
As a writer, plot is a useful organising principle, a machete to slice through the dense-growing jungle of scenes and backstory and dramatic moments. It helps to lend your fiction a momentum, to draw the reader through that difficult mid-book slump.
I’ll do one more post on plot next week, then we’ll get back to dismantling some more first pages. Are you a writer? Would you like me to help you improve the first page of your novel or short story, here on this blog? Click on the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right and send me your first page in the body of an email, with the title and your name. No explanatory blather, please, and absolutely no more than a page. If I pick it, I’ll post your extract up on the blog, along with my thoughts.
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
If you’d like to know when I’ll be appearing live in your area, sign up to my monthly mailing list.