Warning: Structural Work Needed – Plotting Your Novel

Dilapidated Room

I drove past a beautiful old building this morning with incredible detail around the windows. When I looked again, the inside had been completely demolished and was being gutted and restored. From the outside it was a beautiful picture of fine architecture and decadence, an eye-catching building which stood out from the rest, but from the inside there was nothing, just rubble and empty space.

It was a strange sight in some ways and it reminded me of building a novel and the differences in how writers construct their work. I have spoken to people who work in any one of the following ways:

Inside Out Model – Beginning with the bare bones, getting the story down onto paper, and then going back and layering it with detail and links, flashbacks and subtle hints of what is to follow.

Outside In Model – Constructing the outside, the look and feel, the genre, narrator, tense, style and character of the novel, and then working inwards to develop the structure, the chapters and the story arc.

Scatter Graph Model – Starting to write chapters, in no particular order, filling in the gaps as and when the inspiration strikes. This method is often discouraged by agents and editors as it is less structured but some of the most creative writers work this way.

Sprint Runner Model – Beginning in great detail with a clear idea of your central character, racing through the first 1,000 words or so and then drifting as you get further into the plot, not being sure where the novel will end. Instead of it being a slower and more steady pace throughout, the writing decreases in speed as the ideas thin out. 

Foregone Conclusion Model – Knowing exactly how the novel will end, much like a science experiment with an expected outcome, but struggling to begin or sagging  in the middle.

These are just some of the many ways in which authors work and there are many cross-overs in their method. I was impressed by Will Self’s ability to do away with chapters completely in his Booker Prize Shortlisted novel, Umbrella. He is not the first author to do this and I am sure he won’t be the last. Some authors prefer fine structure, plotting meticulously before beginning a single sentence, then there are those who are somewhere in between.

There is no right or wrong way to plot a novel and to construct a story, although there are books which tell you otherwise. You have to experiment with what works. Every writer has a preferred way of working and it changes and develops with time.

I’ll leave you with some interesting quotes from the various writing handbooks:

“A basic structural design underlies every kind of writing. Writers will in part follow this design, in part deviate from it, according to their skills, their needs, and the unexpected events that accompany the act of composition. Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.”  The Elements of Style, Strunk and White

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

“Writers of literary and much mainstream fiction usually begin by imagining a character…some writers can’t help starting out with a theme that obsesses them. They imagine characters whose lives might involve the theme, or they work out a plot first. If their allegiance is to character, their theme-based story has a better chance of survival.”  Stein On Writing, Sol Stein

“If there are no rules, or none worth [the writer’s] attention, where is the beginning writer to begin?”  The Art of Fiction, John Gardner

Zadie Smith on Macro Planners and Micro Managers as Writers

writing

To continue with Zadie Smith’s words on writing, I’d like to look at her breakdown of writers into two categories. They are a little over-simplistic but give a good idea of how differently people plan their writing.

Macro Planners

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its and notebooks. A Macro Planner organises material, forms a plot, and moulds a structure before deciding on a title for their work. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. Many Macro Planners, she states, begin writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices and they exchange possible endings for one another, take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

Micro Managers

Micro Managers, in great contrast, have no grand plan. Their novels exist in the present moment and are written line by line.

Smith says, ‘When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing?’

Opening a variety of novels, you can recognise Micro Managers – there will often be a block of stilted wording which loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. Yet while this is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. It is much like winding up a toy car and then letting it go. When you can settle on a tone, the rest of the book will find a groove. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, she says, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

 

Zadie Smith – Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:

‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’

Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:

You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.

By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.

Your views will change with time.

Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.

‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’

This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you  to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.