In an early episode of A Game of Thrones, Old Nan says that old stories are like old friends: we need to visit them now and again.
Certain favourites keep cropping up – Beowulf, Cinderella, Perseus, Jonah, Noah, for example – stories that go back thousands of years across countless cultures. The best stories feel as if they meet a need beyond entertainment and escape, and bring us in some mysterious way a sort of psychological ‘retuning’. They bring a sense of satisfaction and wholeness.
Why study plot?
Now and again in my writing groups, somebody will say that this plot stuff doesn’t apply to them because they don’t want to write to any formula. That’s understandable – we all want our work to be fresh and original, we want it to be us. I agree that copying other people’s work has limited value if you’re already sure of your own voice and intention. Even if you haven’t.
Besides, studying plot can feel as if we’re trying to put into boxes things that shouldn’t always be in boxes. So I ask you, as I ask everyone in my writing groups, to treat this post as a bit of fun. Read it lightly and then forget it. Let it circle in your dreams along with whatever else you’ve read and found about our writing craft over the years. If you ever need anything from it, it will come to you in its own time. For example, if your draft’s finished but there’s a vague sense of reader (or writer) dissatisfaction, or you feel that it’s somehow fallen apart and you are not sure why, you just might find a solution here…
A man walked into a bar … and found the ingredients of a good story. Good stories usually have:
- A hero or heroine or both. Even the humblest joke has a man walking into a bar or a chicken crossing the road. Story-making starts with character, which is why character has come before plot in this blog.
- An imaginary world: the chicken’s road, the man’s bar, Cinderella’s kitchens, the Starship Enterprise, Lizzie Bennet’s home full of sisters. Non-fiction books (even cookery and gardening) set out to lure readers into their world too.
- Something that unsettles the present and has to be acted on. Mr Darcy arrives in the shire. A quiet housewife is invited to join the French Resistance. Lucy Manette must set off to Revolutionary Paris to recover her father after his release from the Bastille.
- Now for the exciting bit: a series of conflicts, obstacles, uncertainty, thrills. The rollercoaster middle part. Non-fiction is not exempt: The Double Helix and Longitude are excellent examples. Check their sales figures if you would like proof.
- Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood magnate who put the G into MGM, used to say, ‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis’. There is usually some sort of climax where the story’s obstacles are at their most extreme. The main character faces her biggest possible choice or test. This does not have to be an epic battle with thousands of auks – Mole, Ratty and Badger find their own challenges in a comic battle against the weasels in Toad Hall. In one of my favourite novels The Descendants, a peaceable sort of guy discovers that his dying wife was having an affair, so he tracks down his wife’s lover. Another writer might well have written a round of fisticuffs in the street. Kaui Hart Hemmings is more subtle than that.
- Somehow (more about this later) the tussles resolve into an ending and a new beginning. If things come to a sudden halt on the battlefield, readers tend to feel as if they’ve been left dangling – they long to be settled into a sense of life going forward again.
Is there such a thing as a formula for surprise? Can be. Quite often actually and I’m sure you’ll recognise this one:
- The main character is shown in his normal world.
- Something is unsatisfactory, hurting or threatening him and other people. It can be external danger or an inner dysfunction whereby the hero is doing the hurting.
- ‘The inciting incident’: something happens that forces change. The bandits have become so dreadful that the peasants persuade the cowboy to help them and Yul Brynner sets off to find the other Magnificent Six. Mole drops his paintbrush – ‘Hang spring cleaning’. A digger is heard in the distance, coming to destroy the rabbits’ warren. There’s no turning back.
- The main character realises exactly what it is he wants and forms a plan to get it.
- Forces of opposition gather (and those who help Our Hero to resist them). One obstacle can be that the main character himself refuses first of all to take up the challenge. (The ‘Call to Heroism’ was not invented in Hollywood, by the way – Homer’s Odysseus tried to avoid call-up to the Trojan War by sowing salt into his own fields, pretending he was mad. It didn’t work.)
- The succession of conflicts ensues. The stakes rise and keep rising.
- There’s a climactic crunch scene where the main character is forced to crack wide open. To get what he wants, he must do the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do. The emotion is overwhelming for character and readers.
- The battle brings an epiphany to your character, an insight about what sort of person he really is. He is forced to recognise his greatest need (ta-dah, something you know about from your work with the character questionnaire). He acts on that insight …
- The worst is past and life can return to normal. But it is a new normal, things have irreparably changed. The character ends at a higher or lower level of fulfilment, depending on how far he’s changed and accepted the insight.
In my many years of attending writing courses here and there, I have come across many of these formulae. There’s usually something useful in each one. I have no interest in taking you through the Hollywood screenwriters’ usual five-act structure with this particular encounter required on page 13 or that on page 42. If that appeals to you, I wish you well with it but this blog is about novels, and novelists are freer. We can take the best from all these options and make them our own.
This last one, I will call the problem-solving formula – I came across it on a course many years ago about writing for children:
- life is unhappy for the main child character and/or other people;
- the main difficulty gets worse and worse;
- until we reach (the tutor called it this, I kid you not) the ‘plateau of awfulness’;
- this goes on until everybody’s in tears and it all looks hopeless;
- somehow the main child character (nobody else) solves the problem from their own resources;
- everybody’s happy and grateful.
This problem-solving formula has the virtue of simplicity – you can develop it any way you like. It’s the backbone of children’s classics like Black Beauty and The Hunger Games to the adult worlds of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Does it fit any of your favourites?
Sometimes people start taking written notes in my sessions but this is not about studying or taking tests. It’s about developing a feel for the shape of a powerful story arc, for who drives the story forward, about pace and stakes, and how a story comes to a close. Read plenty, short stories and long, think critically about what you’re reading and feel how these templates described here might have a part to play for you.
These lists are no more than the scribbled drawing to guide paint onto the canvas or the invisible armature that supports the clay while a sculpture is being made.
EXERCISE – 10 minutes
To save you from feeling that too much analysis is going on, choose one of your favourite themes: love, death, fear, life, happiness, sadness, joy, grief, birth, greed, peace etc.
Treat yourself to ten minutes of free writing about what it means to you, utterly privately, just for you. You can imagine you’re chatting with one of your characters about it if you like, or just let rip. For as long as you want.
Between now and the spring, we will look at a series of classic plot structures – love stories, thrillers, rags to riches, rite of passage, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, and epics – starting next week with one of the oldest of all, the quest.
Have a happy writing and reading week!