We had a full house for our plotting workshop on Guy Fawkes Night, though luckily there were no miscreants armed with gunpowder (or at least no more than usual) lurking round Max Gate with malice aforethought.
We first tackled the difference between plot and structure. Plot is the events which make up your story: structure is how you arrange those events. Often the two are more or less synonymous, but there’s also plenty of opportunity to play with fractured structure, whether by using multiple viewpoints and/or rearranging events into non-chronological order.
The question of how many different basic plots there are has vexed writers for centuries. Some say there are three, some seven, and you can also make a good case for several other numbers, but fundamentally there’s only one plot – conflict.
Someone wants something, but has to overcome an obstacle to achieve it. As Albert Einstein said, ‘nothing happens until something moves.’ The conflict can be between different characters, it can be internal, or it can be between characters and an impersonal force – but one way or the other, it must be there.
So how to best plot your work? We drew up a (hopefully) handy mnemonic from the word PLOTTING.
P is for People. Character and action aren’t separate. You can’t just have your characters alternately sitting around talking about themselves, which will somehow reveal their character, and then running down the street, which will show nothing about them. Character is action. What people do usually tells you more about them than what they say (though of course if they say one thing and do another, that too can be very telling).
L is for Layers. Plotting is like painting – you start with the basics, and then you go back over it again and again, each time refining, deepening, complicating. Have some subplots branching off the main plot, but make sure they don’t take over: or, if they do, consider making one of them the main plot.
O is for Organisation. Make sure everything fits. Bernard Cornwell talks of putting ‘the door in the wall’ – if your hero escapes through a door in chapter 12, make sure you put that door in somewhere in chapter 5. The best-constructed plots, such as those of the movies Chinatown and The Third Man, are like a house of cards – you can’t remove any single thing without collapsing the whole lot.
T is for Twist. Keep your characters (and your readers) off-balance by twisting and turning the plot. At the end of every chapter, your protagonist’s situation should have changed from the one they were in at the start of that chapter. And when it comes to the ever-popular twist endings, make sure that yours work both technically and emotionally. A good twist ending allows your reader to have an entirely new experience when they re-read your book. Don’t just put in a twist ending for the sake of it: a bad one can ruin the entire narrative.
T is for Themes. Work your themes beneath the narrative rather than vice versa. Let your plot and characters show these themes through their actions – if you want to make a point about environmental destruction, for instance, show the hero’s fight to stop a dam project rather than have him standing around making long speeches about it. Don’t have scene after scene which illustrate your theme but don’t move the plot forward. Themes are patterns for the readers to notice, but if they don’t notice then it shouldn’t spoil their enjoyment of the story. I loved the Tintin books as a child. When I was an adult, I saw all the things I’d missed before – wartime collaboration, the Cold War, colonialism, the author’s own depression. But the books were still great stories.
I is for Information. It’s very tempting to put in as much of your precious research as possible: since you’ve found it so interesting, surely your readers will too? Well, probably not, especially if you dole it all out at once in the dreaded ‘info dump.’ As with themes, make the information fit the plot. You’ll probably never use 90% of what you’ve found out. So be it. Your book will be better for it.
N is for Nonstop. Raymond Chandler said ‘when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’ It’s good advice, though usually metaphorically rather than literally. Keep things moving. Don’t slacken, don’t meander. Spend time away from your story and your reader will want to do so too. And as the narrative progresses, always be building – gradually make things more intense, more important, more urgent.
G is for Grease. This is something a little more intangible than the others. It’s when a plot runs so smoothly that you can’t see the joins, that it all feels very natural, elegant and well-crafted. Grease is like a duck: it looks placid and easy on the surface, but the reader doesn’t see how much frantic paddling you’ve had to do to get there…
We then opened it up to a general discussion about how these points could help the attendees. There was certainly plenty of variety among the works in progress, which included a three-generation family saga, a semi-autobiographical book about Thames lockkeepers, and a crime thriller. Can’t wait to see how they all turn out.