Losing the plot?

September 26, 2014 | By | Reply More

When readers – and especially critics – get together to discuss a novel, it will be hard to get to the end of the discussion without the dreaded ‘P’-bomb being dropped at least once. Plot! We’re not talking about secret conspiracies to assassinate a world leader – although some novel’s plots will definitely feature those . . . yes, Dan Brown, we’re looking at you.

This is about the other dictionary definition of the word – “The pattern of events or main story in a narrative or drama.”

To put it even more plainly, plot is simply what happens next in the story, and then what happens after that. Before a publisher decides to publish a new book, they will, at the very least, ask for the first few chapters of the novel and a plot outline before they commit to buying it. Famous authors tend to get very annoyed about this. Famous authors believe submitting a plot outline is the equivalent of asking Bill Gates in to interview for a computer store job, then demanding he sit an I.T. literacy test to prove he understands computers. It’s insulting! It’s degrading! Don’t you know they’re a best-seller? Of course they can write a book from start to finish.

Harry Potter and the Extra Planning.

Harry Potter and the Extra Planning.

They might have a point. Horror super-author Stephen King when asked to submit an outline for his next novel by a foolish editor turned in a 100-page long document which read . . . “Words, words, words, words. BOO! Words, words, words, words. BOO!” (Copy-paste-repeat for the next hundred pages). I think he actually meant something a lot ruder, but was too polite to say.

Now, there are two approaches to writing a novel, which I shall call gardening and architecture. Gardening is where you enter your plot, push a few weeds about, dig a little soil, see what grows, and then sit in your chair and ponder the lawn for long periods. It’s also known, especially by Indiana Jones-types, as ‘Making it up as you go along.’ Interestingly, Stephen King is a famous proponent of this seat-of-your-pants method. You get to know your characters as you write them. You may not know yourself what happens at the end of this chapter, let alone at the end of the book, but you’re determined to find out.

Gardening has one main advantage and one big disadvantage. First, the advantage. You’re never going to be bored. It’s actually more interesting for you as a professional author to come to work every day because you have no idea of what’s going to happen today. Plans are for wimps. You’ll pull a plot bunny out of the hat, and none of that tedious colouring-in-by-numbers stuff that minor less creative authors have to put up with you. Let your genius superpower shine! But there is a disadvantage. When you don’t know where you’re going, you can find yourself writing yourself into a deep hole. You might need to go back and delete entire chapters or characters, to reshape the book into something a reader (not your mother) will want to read. It’s all part and parcel of the gardening metaphor, you see. If the potatoes don’t grow in front of the fence, dig them up and plant tomatoes, and write off the month of work that went into nurturing them.

Then there’s the opposite method. The Lex Luther to Superman. You’ll be the (wo)man with a plan. The plot plan. It might even be almost as long as the book itself. Every twist and turn in the plot will be detailed. Analysed. Examined. A famous proponent of this method is J.K Rowling. She is the architect personified. Not a nail in a room in her mansion is hammered down before every detail is on paper somewhere. Not just the plot, but her entire world planned in advance – vast card files filled with character descriptions, maps, races, spells. Timelines of when Harry stubs his big toe on a stone step in Hogwarts and a to-scale school model of exactly where that step would be placed. The advantage and disadvantage are swapped. You’ll certainly end up where you were aiming, but you may feel that by crushing spontaneity the journey was a little, shall we say dry. Or boring. If your book reads that way, too, you’ve written a novel that not many readers will embrace and rave about.

Of course, many writers sit between these two types, gardener and architect. The creative free-spirit versus the overscheduled organizer. They’re not so much set in stone methods, but moods that you will switch between.

In my own personal case, I start with a fairly detailed plan, but, as the book develops, and I’ve established a better understanding of the characters, I usually find I’m working on an alternative plot that bears little relation to the original outline. This is what’s described as the characters taking over, and dictating to the author what happens next. It does happen, sadly.

The trouble really starts when readers demand more and more of their favourite character – James Bond, Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, and the author wants to feel excited by writing something that feels fresh and new to them. The new books don’t often sell well, and the author feels they’re being dragged back to a chore, to pen new adventures that feel too much like the old ones rehashed, not a fresh plot they’ll love writing.

You can ignore your uppity characters and write new plots. You can kill them off (Sherlock Holmes shoved over a waterfall’s cliff). Or you can sit in your castle, write nothing, exist as a hermit and live off your royalties.

I guess it’s a nice problem to have.


Category: Writer's Dojo

About the Author ()

I have been working as a full-time author publishing fantasy and science fiction novels for HarperCollins for the last seven years.

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