Thursday, March 13, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part Eight

There is still a lot to talk about related to writing a novel. But if you think about the basics, we've covered structure and characters, so now let's talk about plot. Is it entirely necessary? That is entirely up to you. There are people who believe plot is secondary to everything else. Usually those people aren't wildly successful writers, but occasionally they are.

Think about stories you read. Do you prefer to have a twisting and engaging plot, or do you like to see the characters studied in great detail? I'm not saying that they are mutually exclusive, but too much of either can crush a reader's interest. I've often heard people talk about "literary fiction," as a story without much plot. I'm not going to get into that debate.  I don't care if you graduated from an Ivy League Masters of Fine Arts program or if you're just some dumbass attorney who stumbled onto an undiscovered talent to write excellent legal thrillers, you’re the one who has to make the choice of how complicated and what direction your plot takes.

The dictionary says this about plot:
The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

There are sites to help you generate plots like this one in the UK: 

Writing Exercises from the U.K (This is a nod to Jackie)

There are dozens of different theories about a limited number of original plots.  This number is anywhere from 3 to 21. The claim is that every plot has been done over and over and over throughout humankind in all forms of literature. One example is from Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots.

Overcoming the Monster
Hero learns of a great evil threatening the land, and sets out to destroy it.

Rags to Riches
Surrounded by dark forces who suppress and ridicule him, the Hero slowly blossoms into a mature figure who ultimately gets riches, a kingdom, and the perfect mate.

The Quest
Hero learns of a great MacGuffin that he desperately wants to find, and sets out to find it, often with companions.

Voyage and Return
Hero heads off into a magic land with crazy rules, ultimately triumphs over the madness and returns home far more mature than when he set out.

Hero and Heroine are destined to get together, but a dark force is preventing them from doing so; the story conspires to make the dark force repent, and suddenly the Hero and Heroine are free to get together. This is part of a cascade of effects that shows everyone for who they really are, and allows two or more other relationships to correctly form.

The flip side of the Overcoming the Monster plot. Our protagonist character is the Villain, but we get to watch him slowly spiral down into darkness before he's finally defeated, freeing the land from his evil influence.

As with the Tragedy plot, but our protagonist manages to realize his error before it's too late, and does a Heel-Face Turn to avoid inevitable defeat.

Personally, I don't subscribe to the limited number of plot theories. I prefer to think more about my characters in a specific story and how their interactions propel the plot and resolve the central conflict in the story.  Every scene that I write and every character that appears in a novel has to have some effect, no matter how minimal, on the outcome of the story. This is a question I think too many new writers don't ask themselves after writing a scene. Is it necessary? If there is even a hesitation in the answer, the scene should be cut and you should move on with the story. You can justify it a thousand different ways if someone questioned you about the scene, but you know in your heart whether the scene is necessary to resolve the plot. 

I often point to Michael Connelly when I talk about writing, because frankly, I feel he is one of the finest writers working today. Please don't tell him I said that. Please don't tell any of my fellow Florida State alumni that I am praising a graduate of the University of Florida. Luckily, he's generally drunk by this time of the day and I doubt he would be able to comprehend a blog like this if he stumbled upon it. That is, when he's not stumbling down the street after one too many dirty martinis.

Anyway, Connelly is a master of intriguing and compelling plots. The two books that stand out in my mind are The Lincoln Lawyer and Echo ParkThe Lincoln Lawyer is such a maze of ingenious plot constructions that it is virtually impossible to stop reading until you know what happens. Part of this is because the characters are so fully fleshed out and part of it is because of the thought Connelly put into the plot and its outcome.

Echo Park is a slightly less intricate plot that shows such a deep view of the main character, Harry Bosch, and his experiences both in Vietnam and growing up in an orphanage, that it feels like the book is only fifty pages long. When people ask me what my favorite police novel is I pick Echo Park and Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions. Both are genius. Connelly’s is the more impressive because he was probably impaired when he wrote it.

If you don't believe he has a problem, watch this video:

Now that I'm done with my fan-boy rant of books I wish I’d written, I’ll state again that I like a strong plot, coupled with well thought out characters. You won't lose anything by not writing for a few days as you consider the ramifications of your character's actions and where they might end up. In other words, how your plot unfolds. This is the part of writing I love. One of the reasons it ranks high on my list is that I can do it any time. I can think about the plot and how it might unfold while I'm going for a run, riding my bicycle, listening to my wife tell me about her day or just driving to the store. 
There is no time that is not a good time for thinking about plot.

Our quotes of the day are:


  1. I recall that Michael Connelly was one of Caste's poker buddies.


  2. Loved the plot generator link. I've tried this sort of thing before but they always end up confusing more than helping me. I'm still drawn to them because I love tools and formulas.

  3. Loved the plot generator link. There is also the character generator link and the name generator link. So much fun creating stories from these links. Coming up with ten truths, ten lies, ten bizarre facts and the back story gives me ideas.

    Like Patty, I love tools and formulas.

    ~ DT

  4. "Overcoming the Monster" has another meaning for me. I am the monster. I battle with myself to write the best book I can. Sometimes, I win. Other times, the monster raids the refrigerator and says, "screw you."