Yesterday I found myself trying to agree with/explain to a young man how to find the thread of a novel, and how to prune the parts that don’t fit.
I was doing this LONG before I knew why I was doing it, based it on a “gut feel” I couldn’t explain. (There are things I STILL do by gut feel, including finding the voice and setting the pace of a novel. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to control every detail of a novel RATIONALLY. Or at least not for a certain type of writer, which I’d guess I am, which is why I say “the thing isn’t exactly under my control.”)
The problem is this: the gut feeling can lead you astray and the thing it most often leads you astray on is plot, at least if you don’t figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s your world and your people; you love it like you can’t help loving it, and of course you want to spend way more time there just hanging out with your creations than anyone not invested in it is likely to.
My first book, I was painfully aware that I wasn’t getting “plot” at the level the pros did. Thing was, ever book I read said things like “Plot are the things that happen.” Well, thank you very much. And I suppose the white horse of Napoleon is white?
There are guides, of course, and you can find them yourself, you look for them. The W plot is a series of try fail sequences, in which the W tracks how well your character is doing at extricating him/herself from difficulties. You start at the top, the stable situation, but you want something, and you try for it, and when you end, you’re at a lower position. Then you try again, and end slightly higher, but there is still (the same or another problem) and you try again and–
It’s a mutant W as most of them have at least three try fail, even for short stories, and the low point goes lower and lower, until the climax, when the problems are solved, etc, and suddenly the leg goes shooting back up to where you started. It looks something like this, for a novel with multiple try-fail sequences:
This type of plot is particularly useful for thrillers, women in peril, hard boiled mysteries and other sorts of plot where your character faces the gates of hell and death is at his side.
It is less useful for plots of interior development, self-discovery or — as my novels tend to be — mixed.
The greatest danger with this peaks and valleys W plot is that you’ll end just having elephants fall from the ceiling at your characters. I.e. the character’s efforts make things a little better, you need to get him/her in trouble again, so you just have something drop on the character, unforeseen. That type of plot is tiresome and weirdly gets boring quickly. The rules of writing determine that your character trip over something the reader can foresee but which is invisible to the character.
Say your character is being chased, goes into an old house to escape. Things get a little better, the house is a place to hide. But he/she overhears someone plotting a crime. Worse, the criminals know someone is listening. Character comes out, into fog, and realizes he/she lost a distinctive, traceable piece of jewelry. Things get worse. Character is now being chased by original antagonist AND people who know they were overheard (they might be the same or not, mind you.)
So, why have things get slightly better? Why the respite of having a place and not being chased, before things get worse? Well, mostly because otherwise it’s incredibly tiring. I did this with a book of mind, Mirrorplay (whose title is now being used for something else) because I didn’t know any better. It was my first novel in a consciously created world, and I felt it was important to do this big heroic thing, and I just had things drop on my character, and he couldn’t escape. Round about the middle of the novel, that character was worse than dead. He was lifeless. And I had no more interest in him. There’s only so many walls you can drop on a character before he’s pancake-flat.
Turns out the best structure for a heroic novel is Campbell’s hero Journey. the best destillation of it is the one used by Disney (yes, Disney, deal) which is compiled in the book writers’ Journey. Your library probably has it, and if not, it’s NOT available on kindle, because eh traditional publishing. But you can find reasonably priced used copies here.
Thing is that the hero journey is very flexible. VERY flexible. And if you don’t have an internal compass to tell you when you’re going wrong, you’re going to get lost in your own head. So you’d better take some breadcrumbs.
What are the breadcrumbs you can take for this sort of thing?
Well, in my case… with my very first novel that was published, I knew I didn’t know how to plot, and I was sure there was some sort of secret to it, some thing that told you when a plot fit. I’d got enough rejections telling me I needed to learn to plot. (Actually they were wrong, I needed to learn to foreshadow. I had sort of an instinctive grasp on plot, but I didn’t know it and was overthinking it. (Thank you to Dave Freer who after I had about 8 books out, published, looked at my uh… oeuvre, and put his finger on the problem in a way agents and publishers had missed, and told me “You have to learn to foreshadow, Sarah. I can see the plot, but one experiences it like something dropped from nowhere.” (If you want a post on foreshadowing, which I had to learn hand over hand, by observation, let me know, will do that next week.)) So for my first book, I ended up — which was not… abnormal for me in those days — with a 350k word formless blob.
Now, you can publish formless blobs if you’re lucky — I’ve read a number of them, some in mystery — but a) I’m not lucky. b) unless you have a lot of promo to convince the reader you’re just too deep for normal humans, the reader will get to the end of it and go “now, what WAS the point of that?” which was not the reaction I wanted. c) even if you’re lucky and get some following there ain’t no way you’re going to appeal to a lot of people with your avant garde formless blob.
So I did what writers do when there’s a part of their craft that’s lacking: I stole it. Ill Met by Moonlight borrows a lot of its plot from Tam Lin.
Unfortunately I still had exactly clue zero what I was doing on the plot front, which means I was easily influenced, and my second agent convinced me my second book, as finished, had no plot. (It did. It NEEDED foreshadowing.) So, he made me rewrite it and superimposed what he seemed to think was the “one, true plot” which was a thriller plot. Since it sat very uneasily on an Elizabethan fantasy, that book — All Night Awake — traditional AND indie, is my WORST selling book out of thirty many (I haven’t counted recently, okay? Give me a break. Do you want me to count, or do you want me to write?)
I continued sort of blundering around, looking for a plot, before I developed my current philosophy of plot I THINK around the time I wrote the second Shifter’s book, Gentleman Takes A Chance. (Available as part of the omnibus Night Shifters.)
So, does that mean that my books up till then had no plot? Well… no. In fact Darkship Thieves was written before Ill Met By Moonlight and it has a plot, though it is arguably three novellas shoved together (the second half, the sequence of Thena waking up in the hospital was written first and I thought it was going to be a short story. When it became clear it was too large to sell anywhere, I wrote the two beginning sequences. In reverse order. Because the thing isn’t entirely under my control and also some assembly required.) BUT it has a perfectly functional plot.
The problem is after I started overthinking it, I had to think myself out of it. Because that’s how I work. And it took me to Gentleman Takes A Choice to take full hold of my plot philosophy.
It turns out all those people who told me the plot was that things happened, were right, if unhelpful.
The reasons I can’t tell you how to plot, is that IT’S YOUR PLOT. Plot is intimately bound up with who you are, how you think, and how you process information. Also, your objectives for your book. What I mean is there is no right or wrong way to plot.
Asking me what is the right plot for your book is like asking “Why is a mouse when it spins?” It can be asked, there just isn’t an answer in this universe.
As to what belongs in a novel and out, you get some useful answers — ahem useful — like “remove everything that isn’t advancing the plot” (which meant I used to cut things to the bone, including character development and leave the reader nothing to hold onto.) And “your novel must be x length, so cut what you need to cut so it’s x length and still a story.” The butchery done in the name of that last can’t be described.
Then there’s the slightly more useful — for certain writers — “follow your theme.” This is particularly useful to writers who first come up with a theme, say “motherhood” or “love of dogs.” You just remove everything that doesn’t enhance that, though you might end up writing a lot on the way there.
Problem is I’m not one of those writers. Oh, my novels have a theme, and it’s usually something I’m trying to noodle, because I’m brain is not very useful as a direct-thinking instrument. Sure, it’s okay if the theme is small enough. But when I’m trying to digest something big, like an emotional experience, the only way I can process it is by accretion and similarity. And sometimes I only realize afterwards what the “theme” was. (Sometimes when I get my first review and go “Oh.”) Sure, in retrospect it’s easy. And I know why I’m in that mental cull de sac. For instance, right now there’s a whole lot of mothering and motherhood in my books, because I’m at the almost-empty nest stage, and at a guess my brain is going “So, what was THAT all about?” about the entire “raising the boys” period.
At some point before GTAC I realized what I WANTED to do, which is part and parcel of what plots are in a book. Sort of the pointing arrow of the objective.
I realized this by trying to figure out why the nineteenth century novels a friend adores and tries to imitate no longer draw or hold (with limited exceptions.) Which led me down the path of the novels I studied in school, which often had a whole novella or unrelated sequences stuck in, or the path of why Jane Austen has almost no description (she was writing about a small set to that same small, homogeneous set. This means when she said “it was a handsomely appointed drawing room” to us it’s a puzzle, to them it was a vivid picture.)
This led me to what novels are NOW. Not all novels, mind you, and I’m not saying you can’t rationally start with theme and build a plot from there.
What I’m saying is that the novel these days has ONE great advantage over movies and games (besides being cheaper to create): it’s easy to create as a unit of emotion.
You can write things in such a way that your readers are ride-alongs in a plot that creates a complete emotional experience. Sure, movies do it too, to an extent, but it’s a little different, because seeing things happen is a distancing magazine. It’s harder to remember then as things that happened to you.
However a novel done right means the writer takes a ride-along in the space behind the eyes. For a time you’re someone else, and you experience something as intensely as if it happened to you. In fact, done right, it is capable of creating false memories.
This is a guide to the plot, because inviting the reader in is making him your accomplice/co-conspirator.
I was discussing with a friend collaborating on a book of how to write violence for writers (probably four actually and yes, more anon. We had one very long meeting, and then I left to to to Dallas, so I haven’t sent him the outline yet, and I’m the one supposed to write that.) And we came up with “when the hero kills the villain, if you’ve done things right, you’ve built the need for the villain to die to the point the reader is an accomplice before the fact. He’s going “KILLHIMKILLHIMKILLHIM.” long before the last bullet is fired/the sword is driven home, etc.
But it’s not just with violence. It’s with everything. If the writer has done his/her job and guided the plot accordingly, by the end you’re riding along with the romance, too, and you want the marriage as much if not more as the main character.
So, in every type of book, if your philosophy of writing is like mine (and I’m not saying it is) sure, use the W or the campbell, or whatever you want. But when you’re looking at your plot in the cool and dispassionate light of day, keep in what enhances the experience and invites readers into that ride-along, and discard everything that doesn’t.
It’s that simple. And I think it will take me the res tof my life to master.