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

Plot, Characters, Homeland, and What You Need to Achieve to Keep Readers Engaged

Are you hooked on Homeland? Yes? Great, we’re on the same wavelength. No? Give it a go, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for the next episode as soon as you have watched just one. Try it and let me know what you think. There is a trailer at the end of the post. I love espionage and secret service dramas. I was hooked on Spooks, set in the UK and now Homeland, a US  TV series which was released in October 2011. I watched the latest episode last night and my final thoughts before I drifted off to sleep, and my first waking thoughts, were what makes it so gripping?

There are many good dramas, films, and books that will keep you wanting more – books that will keep you up all night, films that leave you glued to your seat long after the cinema has emptied, drama series that will leave you waiting for the next episode, but how and why does this happen? Like all of you, my life is full and busy, there isn’t much time to watch TV, get to the cinema often or read a book right through in one sitting. So it has to take a pretty good plot and compelling characters to make me want more. These are the two key elements of a good storyline. You can have a great plot with two-dimensional characters and the reader/viewer won’t engage or feel anything, apart from maybe the need to go and make a coffee. Similarly, you might have engaging characters but if nothing happens to them, then there is no tension or suspense, nothing to stay for, nothing to come back for.

I’ll fill you in quickly on the Homeland plot:

Homeland is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, following Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), an American soldier returned to the US from years of captivity in Iraq, and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer who conducted an unauthorised operation in Iraq and is put on probation. She is warned that an American prisoner of war has been turned by al-Qaeda. She believes Brody is not an American Hero, but part of a sleeper cell planning a terrorist attack. The only person she can trust is Saul Berenson. The two must now work together to investigate Brody and prevent another terrorist attack on America. Homeland was named Best Drama Series at the Emmy Awards, with stars Claire Danes and Damian Lewis winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series, and Lead Actor in a Drama Series, respectively.  The series also won Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series.

So, what is it that has made the series so successful, and why am I taking up your time in sharing all of this? Because it is important to learn what makes  the viewer keep coming back, and what keeps people reading.

Good Plot

A story has to have some element of conflict – conflict of desires, conflict of interest, conflict between characters. Without it there is very little tension. Not all books are thriller/espionage/action adventure, but even in a romance or historical fiction novel you’ll find some good areas of conflict which propel the plot forwards and drive the action. In Homeland you never really know which side Nicholas Brody is on. There are moments when you believe he wants the best for the US government and the country, and times when he wants to support the terrorist group who he became entwined with during his years in prison. He has allegiances to both sides for various reasons. As the viewer, you never know what he really believes.

Compelling Characters 

Sol Stein, author of nine novels, poet, screenplay and TV drama script writer, and creative writing lecturer, has said this of characterisation – ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’ He says that we are driven through life by needs and wants, that these desires are the driving force of characters. If a character does not want something enough, the reader or viewer will have a difficult time getting behind them, and will lack the emotional experience that they are looking for. Carrie, in Homeland, is constantly trying to prove her belief that Brody has been turned and is a ‘threat to national security.’ It is this drive in her, despite the obstacles, that keeps you hooked. You want her to succeed.

What have you seen, read or written recently that builds tension? Do you have any examples of good plot or compelling characters?

I’m off to see Skyfall on Wednesday! Enjoy the Homeland trailer…