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:
- Is challenged
- Refuses the challenge
- Accepts the challenge
- Goes through the adventure
- Fails to meet the challenge
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?