The Plot

I was thinking, the other day, about the process of developing a plot for a novel.   When I looked up the subject up on the Internet, I found all sorts of rules which struck me as simplistic.  These rules covered such things as structuring a novel like a three act play, with a beginning, a middle and an end.  The plot should have lots of action to keep the reader interested, and it should have a central character with whom the reader relates, and who has difficulty achieving his/her objectives. Also, it was pointed out that the tension should steadily increase.

All my novels started with an idea, rather than a plot.  Four of my five published novels started with a central character in mind, and in each case he starts out quite well toward his objective, but, at some point, disaster strikes.  He is able, by the end of the novel to recover from the disaster – more or less.  In the fifth novel, Sin and Contrition, there are six central characters who react in different ways to different human temptations. I, as the author, interview each of them as they reach advanced years, and ask them about how they have lived their lives.

There is the classical structure of a plot involving a central character: she/he:

  1. Is challenged
  2. Refuses the challenge
  3. Accepts the challenge
  4. Goes through the adventure
  5. Fails to meet the challenge
  6. Succeeds!

I have never actually written down a plot.  Rather the details of the plot tend to develop as the writing progresses.  Usually, I’ll write an outline of each chapter before beginning it, but I don’t stick religiously to the outline.  What happens for me is that the characters, themselves, tend to steer both the plot and the action which takes place in each chapter.  Not infrequently, when I wake up early in the morning, I’ll have a new idea about the evolution of the plot and its supporting action.  So, for me, developing a plot is an organic process.

More recently, I have begun to pay considerable attention to the ‘message’ or the point of the story.  For me, a ‘message’ is an idea: philosophical, spiritual, or social.  It shouldn’t be obvious; it may be controversial, but at least it should engage the reader at a different level than the story itself. The message tends to affect the action in the plot, and the characters themselves.

Some of my ‘rules’ about a plot are:

  • It has to be credible.  I’ve never tried to write science fiction or fantasy, but even in those genres, it seems to me that if the author steps outside the bounds of what the reader can believe, the reader is lost.  Credibility is a multi-dimensional measure: it applies to characters, to the setting and to the action.
  • Action is important, but it doesn’t have to be non-stop or physical action, only.  Action can involve emotional, intellectual or spiritual tension, as well.  In fact, physical action without an emotional response, may strike the reader as dry.
  • Characters need to have balance.  Good guys have to have defects and bad girls should have redeeming features.  We can relate to people’s redeeming features or to their defects.  All good or all bad characters do not exist in the real world.
  • Elapsed time is another vital dimension.  If events unfold too quickly they lose credibility; too slowly, and the reader may lose interest.  There are various devices one can use to slow down the pace of events: scene setting, inserting a new action that is minor but relevant, inserting a flash back, etc.

In looking over the rules on the Internet, there is one item worth adding: “Every scene and every chapter must keep the protagonist off-balance – things may get better for him/her, or worse, but they need to be constantly changing.”  (This from The Writer’s Workshop.)  This is a good point.  The reader is living vicariously through each page; if nothing’s changing, why read on?

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

My wife and I went to see The Wolf of Wall Street, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, last week.  While I have great respect for both Scorsese and DiCaprio, as artists, I found the film disappointing.


I’ve looked at the reviews in the main London newspapers.  The Daily Telegraph, the Independent and The Guardian all gave it good reviews, although The Guardian said, “The Wolf of Wall Street does not quite have the subtlety and richness of Scorsese’s very best work, but what an incredibly exhilarating film: a deafening and sustained howl of depravity.”  It is definitely is a deafening and sustained howl of depravity, and doesn’t have the subtlety and richness of Scorsese’s best work.  I think that for me, the problem was that I didn’t find it ‘incredibly exhilarating’.  The Wall Street Journal was somewhat more ambivalent, saying: “The film may well prove profitable: Lurid outlaws are always appealing, and there’s pleasure to be had in the downfall of slimeballs. But ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ demands a huge investment of time for a paltry return.”


There is a comment in my last post: “Moral lessons don’t belong in a good novel.  They can be part of a novel, but if that’s the focus, I put the novel down and read the scriptures.”  Of course, in this case we’re talking about a film, rather than a novel, but I think the comment is still valid.  One might well question whether a moral lesson is the focus of The Wolf of Wall Street, since DiCaprio’s character never shows a jot of remorse, and the focus is clearly on the depravity.  The character does end up in prison, but this seems to be more the result of bad behaviour, rather than any sort of moral judgement.


Several reviews take the position that the film is hilarious in its excess.  There is plenty of excess in addition to its three hours length: excessive drug taking (if this were real, the main characters would be dead within the first half hour), excessive swearing (the f-word seemed to be the adjective of choice), excessive group sex with hoards of naked women; and an excessively large trading room (densely packed and the size of a football pitch – if this were real, the company would have swallowed up all its competitors).  I didn’t find any of these excesses amusing.  I like naked women, but not so many at one time that no one can be appreciated.  And, I like sex, but for me it’s best as a one-to-one, mutually-enjoyable activity for consenting adults, not a crazed, grope-and-get activity.  So, I didn’t find any of these excesses funny; sorry, I thought they were rather sad.


When I left the theatre, I thought, “What was the point of that?”  Was it supposed to be a comedy?  If so, it wasn’t particularly funny, and even if I have a warped sense of humour, isn’t Scorsese capable of something better than a comedy?  Was it supposed to be a commentary on the excesses in America and the financial sector, in particular?  What was newsworthy or interesting in displaying those excesses?  Was it supposed to be a morality tale?  It wasn’t really pitched that way, and if it had been, who would have liked it?  I think it was just supposed to be a romp – a film about a bigger, more ‘grown-up’, less-supervised, fraternity party.


I have to say that the acting and the directing were superb.  The characters were all very real.  Too bad I didn’t like any of them!

What Makes a Good Novel?

In her blog, Words in the Kitchen Sink, Jane Heiress asks: What makes a good novel?

She got quite a few responses, some of which I have selectively included in quotation marks under the below categories.

Is it character development?  “This one is crucial. I tend to love characters that have similar personalities, ideals, or experiences as I do myself or someone I love. I don’t care nearly as much about plot or setting as I do about being able to love at least one character. Really, almost every other one of my preferences can be ignored, if an author can create a strong connection between me and a character. Maybe I’m narrow-minded, but I think most best-sellers find a trait or feeling that almost everyone can personally connect with.  Along the same lines, how does an author make me love a flawed character? One way is by giving him or her flaws that I have myself. I have many quirks that other people may see as “flaws,” but I consider ‘personality traits.’ Even when a character is truly flawed, I’ll give them more mercy if I can empathize with them.”

Memorable archetypes?  “I’m not too strong on archetypes, so I won’t comment on that one. I think the best fantasy novels use the archetypes in new ways, like what Tolkien did by making a hobbit a hero, or what Robin McKinley does with her awkward, misfit female warriors.”  Personally, I try to avoid archetypes.
Neat and logical plot?  I’m not sure a plot, to be successful, has just got to be neat and logical.  Slightly messy and somewhat illogical could make it captivating.  The plot is very important: it is the device which conveys the story and its meaning.  To my mind a plot should be believable, it should be original and it should be interesting.
Unpackaged realism?  “I think that realism has a place in a good novel, but to write a novel with the sole aim to expose reality is actually a very bad idea. If you want reality, you read the newspaper–though I guess it’s all about difference in taste, because journalists in general just can’t write, so if you want realism written in a coherent, logical, and truly unbiased way, you’re kind of up a creek. Anyway, the whole reason we read is so that we can feel like we’re not alone without actually surrendering our own sense of individuality (I stole that from C.S. Lewis). So there has to be enough of reality in a novel to help us feel that the characters might have the same sort of feeling we do when faced with tragic or happy life events.”
Societal issues?   “Societal issues are important if not too heavy-handed.  Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an expose on slavery in the South, and it was very effective, but have you read that book?  I would hardly call it good, except as an expose on slavery, and if you want that, you could read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or other first-hand accounts of former slaves.  Much more powerful.”
Moral lessons?  “Moral lessons don’t belong in a good novel.  They can be part of a novel, but if that’s the focus, I put the novel down and read the scriptures.”  I agree except that I think that ethical dilemmas have a place in a novel.  Ethical issues are more uncertain than moral issues, and are more subject to interpretation of the situation.  They therefore tend to involve the heart and mind of the reader.
Richness of setting?  “Richness of setting is very important.  Novels with a strong sense of place and circumstance are usually good.  Even though sometimes reading through the descriptions can be tedious.”  I’m not convinced that a setting has to be ‘rich’ to add importance.  In my opinion, it is more important for a setting to be both credible and interesting.
Quality of prose?  “Quality of prose is essential.  I mean, really, the only reason anyone reads The Great Gatsby is because the words are sparkly and fluid and they practically float off the page.  Jane Austen has beautiful sentences; Charles Dickens plays games with grammar as part of his subplots; Chaim Potok paints murals with words, so reading one of his novels is almost like going to an art gallery; Geoge Eliot uses such quality of phrasing that you can’t help loving the words she chooses to describe something.
Suspense?  Dramatic intensity? “Suspense is important, but I get bored if there’s too much of it.  I don’t guess ahead, and if you pack in the action and tension too heavily, I disengage and go on to something that unfolds more gradually.  I’m going to combine this one with dramatic intensity and use a movie as an example.  I don’t like action flicks because sometimes they go too fast and too much happens at once.  It’s not that I’m too dumb to follow it, but the high-speed car chases and stuff are not the substance of a story for me, so if there’s too much of that, I’m finished. There’s also a book out now, by James Patterson, a new series for teens, that is non-stop action.  Kids like it, but I thought it was second-rate, just because there wasn’t any good character development and his sentence structure was severely lacking in quality.  Robin McKinley sometimes goes the other way and tries to turn her high-speed moments of tension into epic poems.  It doesn’t work either.  J.K. Rowling’s action scenes work very well, mostly because they’re short.”
Comedy?  No one commented on this. I think that if one is writing a serious novel, rather than a comedy, comedy can have a place: either as a device to relieve tension for the reader, or to shed light on a character.  If suspense goes on too long, as the comment above suggests, the reader can lose interest.  Or, if a character says or does something funny, one sees a new dimension of him or her.
Emotional response?  “As for emotional response, if you can’t get emotionally involved with a book, it isn’t worth reading.”  Agreed!
Expanding intellectual horizons?  “When you’re trying to expand someone’s intellectual horizons, that’s tricky.  Any book worth reading will not do that on purpose, because no-one likes to feel dumb, or to feel like they’re being taught something.  A book that expands your intellectual horizons will do it in a painless way–too many new ideas too fast will not make a lasting impression.  The important thing is that a book will set itself up on familiar turf, then take your ideas to the next level.”




Award: Sable Shadow and The Presence

Sable Shadow and The Presence has been awarded runner-up in adult fiction at the London Book Festival, 2013.

London Book FestivalOver 3,000 books were submitted to this contest, and there were about 130 books awarded honourable mention in fifteen categories.  Full details are available at

I decided to attend the awards ceremony which was held at the British Library in London.  There were about twenty-five people in attendance, half of whom were authors who came to collect their awards.  The event began at 7 pm with drinks, heavy hors d’oeuvres and mingling.  At 8 pm the ceremony began with an introduction by a representative of the festival, who then introduced each of the wining authors.

Thankfully, the acceptance speeches were (with one exception) mercifully brief, and we were all homeward bound at 9:15.

In my comments, I mentioned that my original idea for Sable Shadow and The Presence was to write a novel in the first person (which I had never done before), and that my key idea was that the central character would, as a child, hear voices which he did not recognise, and which he came to know as Sable Shadow (a representative of the devil) and The Presence (a representative of God).  I produced about three chapters and sent them to my friend, Peter, who is an avid reader of quality literature, and why says exactly what he thinks.  About three weeks later I got an email advising me that the work I had done was ‘boring’.  I had to admit that the book wasn’t fulfilling my expectations,either, so I put it aside, and in the meantime, I wrote The Iranian Scorpion.

But, after a year, I felt that the unfinished work deserved attention.  I had some additional thoughts: that Henry, the principal character would reveal the relationships (both good and bad) that exist in large corporations, and that he would begin to hold an existentialist’s view of the world.  (I think that Existentialism is wrongly thought of as anti-Christian.  In fact, I think it has much to recommend it as a way of understanding human life.  Besides, I had some concepts to add to the existentialist portfolio.)  So, I went back to work: re-writing much of the work I had done, and writing more.  The novel was finished, edited and published.  I gave Peter one of the first copies.  About three days later, I got an email from Peter in which he said he couldn’t put it down, that it was a fascinating book, and he thanked me for writing it.  I closed my talk by thanking Peter for his reviews – particularly the first, and thanking the Festival for selecting the novel.