How do you think up your plots?
If I was paid a quid for every time I’ve been asked that …
I wish I could think of a pithy one-line answer. I usually begin with ‘Hmm. Not sure. Actually, I often just begin with a name, then go from there.’
Plotting is imbued with mystery. It’s organic, yet it is also technical. Fuzzy and functional, if you like.
For me, plot is the engine of a book, possibly because I cut my reading teeth on detective novels. Having exhausted Enid Blyton and pony books sometime during primary school, I graduated to the Agatha Christies that lined the bookshelf opposite the loo at home. My mother would bring home armfuls of crime novels from the library. Their names are long forgotten, but those canary yellow covers and slanted purple titles are an icon of my childhood. Reading while we ate, our books propped against the teapot, mum and I would often converse in short bursts: ‘Ha, I knew that was coming …’ or ‘I thought all along the parlour maid had done it.’
So, if you’re thinking of embarking on a novel, where do you start with plot? Now, I’m assuming any aspirant writer has done loads of reading and has absorbed the grammar of plot and story into their bones. I always presume writers exemplify the quote; ‘I never manage to read because of all the ironing.’ ‘Really? I never manage the ironing because of all the reading.’ I rarely express shock as it’s too much effort and gives you wrinkles, but I confess to being mildly perturbed when I come across people determined to be writers who simply don’t read. However, this is not a lecture. Let’s talk plot.
For me, plot starts with a sense of a world I want to create.
Let’s use as an example a book not yet written, which lodges in the hinter lands of my brain, waiting its turn. This phantom novel came into being while I was walking across a flat East Anglian landscape with the wind biting, an icy rain of razor blades reminding me that on this coast, we get much of our weather courtesy of Siberia. In the course of this walk, I see a stretch of ancient laid hedge. A beautifully crafted twenty feet or so of bent and woven hawthorn, hazel and blackthorn. The hedges either side of it are a sad sight, chewed and stripped by macerating tractor jaws. I’m struck by the blunt contrast of old ways and new ways. Craftsmanship versus get-it-done-fast-from-a-tractor-cab.
Creating walls of slanted stems that kept livestock safe in fields used to be a full time job. The artistic operative of hedging and ditching was called a Tranter. (Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree for more on that subject). These days, you couldn’t afford to pay a man £15 an hour to do it. So here I am, freezing and wet, struck by small, bleak details of my landscape.
But this isn’t a plot. It isn’t even an idea yet. I’d call it a mood and for me, books begin with moods. This putative work – and let’s give it a title – let’s call it ‘And the wind blew east’ is now forming into a narrative that explores a clash of worlds, of cultures. Old farming, new farming. In East Anglia, with its prairie landscapes, its marooned oak trees marking long-gone hedges, its silted ponds reminding lonely walkers that this was once rich, beef and dairy country … you can see where I’m going. By the time I’ve got home and got the kettle on, I have begun to envision a small Suffolk or Norfolk farmstead, perhaps in the 1940s-50s, battling to keep old traditions going in the face of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Milk Marketing Board. The great plough horses have been sent to slaughter, the farm-hands’ cottages are empty because a tractor does the job of five labourers, and it’s time to begin grubbing up the hedges and the apple orchards. A sadness has entered my heart, as well as images, ideas, snatches of conversation. After more days of walking, of thinking, of doodling on a pad, I have a family, the Bryentons. I have a lead character, Joanna, who is twenty and the farmer’s daughter. Joanna is moderately well educated, practical and loves her farm. She’s the woman of the house, mum having died, and does a huge amount of practical labour because her two brothers see her as a dogsbody. She is cast as the peacemaker in a family that is breaking up, as the father is at loggerheads with his sons over the direction of the farm.
It’s still not a plot, but we now have a ‘world’ with an authentic reality. I have somebody I can start to care about, and whose character I can start to draw. And most vital of all, I have a central conflict that will drive narrative. But I’m not going to write a lengthy episode of the Archers. I still want plot.
This is where I turn to the book’s conflict. I have people who want something dearly and must fight to have it, and their struggles are mutually destructive. Joanna wants to keep the world she loves, to please her father yet placate her brothers. Being the best educated in the family, she takes on the looming Ministry Men. Her pain is inevitable, but is this enough to hang a plot upon? It could be. Themes of loss, and the battle between the small person and the mighty State are strong ones. Themes of nature persisting in violated corners gives the story a power and optimism. So, it could be enough to write a lyrical anthem to a forgotten age, to consider what we have lost, and what threads of our former selves we retain. And let’s not forget, human relationships are ageless. Pick any time in history, and the hopes, loves and sorrows of humanity are pretty much universal.
Or will I throw myself into a garden of plotty delight? Probably, as I doubt I could get Joanna past chapter three without her finding a decomposing body in the pond (the Man from the Ministry?) or an Anglo Saxon golden hoard uncovered by the blades of a violating plough. I like things to happen in books and films. ‘People walking about thinking’ isn’t enough for me, but that’s just my taste.
I once read a book about plotting (whose name I have forgotten) which suggested that there are but two plots in the world, and they are either ‘Force’ or ‘Fraud.’ It’s an interesting idea, and worth dissecting. Force, meaning outside, moral, unstoppable influences such as religion or politics. ‘Force’ is the family that doesn’t want its children to be educated or leave home. Or, ‘Left wing, arty young man finds himself living among fundamentalist Christians. What effect does he have on them and they on him.’
‘Fraud’ deals up material action,’things happening and people doing things to others.’ ‘Honourable man, needing to pay for his wife’s urgent medical treatment, decides to rob a bank’ is Fraud. Or, ‘Ten hand-picked men and women must save the galaxy from alien invasion, just three days left to do it’. I don’t say that Force and Fraud are mutually exclusive, but I think that one tends to dominate.
Having established your story’s mood, setting, period, characters, themes and conflicts, you settle down with a notepad and a pack of new biros and scan out your story. Beginning, middle and end. Some people write an exercise book detailing every chapter. Some fill card indexes detailing every segment of every chapter. Other people get going and keep writing till they’ve finished. My own experience tells me – do some skeleton writing, but don’t go mad. We all over-plot when we start to write. We can get very frightened about setting off on a journey without signposts, so give yourself signposts. But don’t write down every event because the minute you start to write, the story will take over. All that micro-plotting will probably be wasted, unless you are stunningly self-disciplined.
Know where your story is going, even if the ending is a mystery to you until you get there. In my novel, ‘It’s Six O’Clock Somwhere’ I genuinely didn’t know, when I started, the answer to the book’s pivotal question; how did one women kill 57 people? I knew she did, I knew why, but the process of story telling led me to the ‘how’ and keeps it fresh for the reader.
So, get your biros out and describe your novel’s first point of change, right at the outset. What is this ‘point of change’? It’s the moment your character’s world alters inexorably. In ‘And the wind blew east’, Joanna gets off the country bus, home from her part time job in a solicitor’s office, to find her father standing in the apple orchard, silent and still. Her father never stands still. What’s wrong? A man in a town car, a clipboard on the dashboard, has just bumped down the track, passing her without slowing down. He didn’t nod hello, and he was a stranger. Her ordinary world, established in the first paragraphs, is about to break, even though doesn’t know why or how.
What’s going to be your dramatic first climax? The moment that takes everything your protagonist is striving for and rips it away without apparent hope of repair. A bit over dramatic? Well, plot is drama, and begins with establishing a goal, a desire, and placing obstacles in the way. Plots are vignettes of life, made rational and tied off at the end. Let us say that in the first third of the book, Joanna has joined forces with her father to save the farm from the machine age. She’s given up her job in town, and is working full time on the land, while her brothers are doing all they can to obstruct. It is hard labour, she has so much to learn, she makes terrible mistakes … it may be hopeless … and indeed it is as Joanna goes into the barn one afternoon and finds her father has hanged himself. It was bad to start with, now it’s dreadful. How does she pull out? Well, that’s the rest of the book. You will have an ending in mind, happy or sad, but a resolution for sure.
A balanced book will be like a symphony, starting with a hook, with the middle movement swelling to a climax, the final movement getting underway subtly, then growing bigger, louder, to an ending that is more mighty than all the earlier climaxes. Don’t let your ending tail off, all soggy and disappointing. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre demonstrates this three-part structure masterfully. It starts with poor Jane bullied and abused, then sent away to dreadful Lowood School. Her life has changed, ordinary world shattered. She experiences misery, some joy, Gothic spookiness at Thornfield Hall, love, disappointment, but the next big ‘drum-roll moment’ comes with her ruined marriage to Mr Rochester when she discovers he already has a (mad) wife, and she runs away. Big scene. After this, the third cataclismic, and final, scene had better ring out like a brass band in a thunder storm. Well, Jane dithers over accepting marriage with a reverend gentlemen, when a discarnate voice calls to her across the moors. She runs, literally hurtles back to Thornfield Hall – and finds it a smoking ruin. It is an unforgettable moment. In each of these three major plot points, Jane’s life alters dramatically. Each time, she’s thrust back into conflict, while actually being drawn towards her final resolution. It’s sleight of hand, and the trick of plot writing.
Can you state the three peaks of your own novel?
Yes, plot needs thought and slow nurturing, but don’t get paralysed with fright. Just start with ideas and let them grow in the mysterious way that they do. Good plots arise from subconscious ingenuity, as well as from the character and the mood of a book. They don’t always respond to blood, sweat and endless chewed pencils, though you can’t avoid an element of that. Final thought; some great books are not complex in plot because their writers have recognised that a simple desire to be loved, safe or warm can be as powerful as the need to save the galaxy from alien invasion.
Copyright, Natalie Meg Evans 2012
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