Monday, 10 October 2011

Don’t Lose the Plot

Creative Writing with Sarah Bower

OK, it’s a hint on the imperial side, but Rudyard Kipling inscribed a little ditty to define plot. Plot, he said, was a band of ‘six honest serving men’ and
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

I dare say most readers of this magazine live perfectly adequately without any serving men (serving women, on the other hand, raising a whole new argument which has no place here). There are contemporary writers and theorists of the novel who would contend that the novel can live equally well without a plot. David Markson, for example, famously wrote non-linear, discontinuous narratives which are classified as ‘postmodern novels’. However, he entitled one of these This Is Not A Novel, thus begging the question, however ironically, whether or not a plotless narrative can be defined as a novel.

That said, however, the popular novel remains a predominantly plot driven form. The extraordinary success of a novelist like Dan Brown illustrates the pre-eminence of plot over skilful characterisation, atmospheric scene-setting or plausible dialogue. Plot, therefore, you must, if you wish to sell books. Kipling would have found it difficult to conceive of civilised living without servants. The novelist who wants to make any kind of living at all must learn to plot.

Plot is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it is something we do almost intuitively. We are hard-wired for storytelling. From the point in our distant past when we first learned to make fires and gather round them to cook and keep warm, we have passed the time by telling stories. The hunter arrives home as darkness falls and what he narrates, while the meat is roasting, is not that which is mundane or reflects badly on his prowess but the exciting, the dangerous, the heroic. It’s not the humble creatures he caught and killed that count, but the battle he had with the sabre-tooth to get them or the big fish that got away. From the outset, we have reordered and edited the facts to improve the story.

On the other hand, as Guy Saville, a recent interviewee in this magazine, has written, ‘writing is as much to do with logical deduction as it is with inspiration’ . New students frequently come to my novel writing classes saying they have a great idea for a novel, they have written maybe ten or twenty pages and then run out of steam. This is almost always because they have failed to appreciate the importance of planning. Unlike a short story, which tends to be an examination of a single theme or situation, a novel is a complex structure involving many characters, multiple storylines, an extended chronology and a range of different settings. It is absolutely impossible for the writer to hold all this in her mind without mapping the novel out so she knows where she is going.

This is the process we know as plotting, and, as it is the least conventionally ‘artistic’ part of the creative work, it often frustrates the beginning novelist. The conventional novel is constructed around a spine of Aristotelian causality. As E. M. Forster puts it in Aspects of the Novel , ‘the king dies, then the queen dies’ is a story; ‘the king dies, then the queen dies of grief’ is a plot – the king’s death causes the queen’s death. This is where you need to begin when devising a plot. Its spine will consist of a series of causally linked events which carry the principal characters on their journey of discovery and self-revelation.

On its own, however, this kind of structure would quickly become boring. The next phase of the plan must be to set up obstacles which will throw the characters off-course and delay, inhibit, or even reverse, their progress. Now you are beginning to introduce narrative tension to your work. You have shown what your characters have to achieve, and then blocked their path so readers become anxious as to whether or not they will succeed. As long as you have created engaging characters, this uncertainty will be a major factor in hooking your readers and keeping them interested.

At this stage, we are still working with a linear chronology. One event leads to another in a conventionally logical way, and the only disruption is a series of hurdles you have erected around the track to provide a bit of excitement. But the novel is more than this, surely. The novel is an illusion, a sleight of hand whereby the reader is duped into believing mere words on the page constitute a concrete world. To succeed in creating this illusion, we must add a depth of perspective to the narrative. We achieve this by devising minor characters and giving each of them a storyline which feeds into the main spine of the story. Imagine a fish skeleton, with the fish’s spine being your main plotline and all the smaller bones feeding into it being the sub-plots which you build around the minor characters, gradually bringing all these together as you approach the novel’s climax.

According to Robert McKee , a plot consists of five parts:
•      The inciting incident
•      Progressive complications
•      Crisis (the DECISION which brings about the climax)
•      Climax (brings about IRREVERSIBLE CHANGE)
•      Resolution

To a greater or lesser extent, you can break down each chapter and even each scene in the same way – as if your plot was a verbal cauliflower! The inciting incident is that which radically upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life. The rest of the novel charts her/his struggles to regain that balance. The climax is the major turning point, induced by the crisis. The resolution can involve either the balance being restored or the protagonist coming to terms with a changed environment. Whatever the resolution, the protagonist must have gone on a journey. This may be physical as well as intellectual and emotional, but need not necessarily be so.

How you plan your novel is your choice. There are writers whose plans are so detailed they are virtually précis’ of the finished work, with only the creative ‘gaps’ (dialogue, scene-setting, description etc.) to be filled in when they begin to write ‘properly’. Others use timelines, spreadsheets, index cards or brainstorms, all tools we tend to associate with activities such as manufacturing or accountancy rather than creative writing. Whatever approach suits you, once you have made a plan, it is a good exercise to test it against McKee’s analysis. If any scene doesn’t contain these elements, you need to ask yourself if you really need it. Will it hold the reader’s interest and carry the action forward? If not, cut it – and you will find this a lot easier to do at the planning stage than when it is a complete and polished miniature masterpiece.

Even if you choose to explore the less-travelled road and challenge the conventional wisdom that the novel is a plotted narrative, you will still need to plan. It is impossible to reveal your intentions to readers unless you can create a pattern for them to interpret. So, however strong the inspiration with which you start, be prepared to plan if you want to be able to carry on past the first wave of enthusiasm and work through those difficult, mundane stages in the process that are the vital mortar between the big, exciting set-piece ‘bricks’.

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