How to write a novel: Creating a plot

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A plot is the first thing that one has to think about, before writing a novel. You will say, characters are equally important.

Sure.

But what will your characters do without a plot to lead them?

Will you enjoy flipping through the pages of a book with a barely existing plot? Will you pray, “Oh Almighty, please let the plot thicken by the end of this chapter”?

Must you need an engaging plot to write a good book? Are strong characters and good writing not enough?

I was doing some background research for my novel and took notes on how to structure plot, character, etc. besides exploring the genre. In a series of posts, I am going to share with you some of the important steps any new writer will need to know.

Readers, please remember that I am not writing a guide for you. I am merely presenting the lessons learned while going through the journey of writing a book.

If you find this post helpful, share, like and subscribe. Please check the links for expert guidance. If you have any questions for me about this post, please ask in the comment section. Enjoy!

What is a plot?

Experts say that the strength of the characters is as important as planning and executing an engaging plot. I agree with them, totally. So what is this plot thingy?

Link of cause and effect

Harvey Chapman gives us a nice description of plot in his website Novel Writing Help:

A plot is a series of linked events about a character who urgently wants something important that won’t be easy to get. The events should reach a satisfactory conclusion.

An unbroken chain of events link the characters to their goal, for e.g. Event A must cause Event B, and Event B must cause Event C.

A plot is a roadmap

Whaaa?
A plot is where you build your house. A roadmap tells you how to go there. Simple, isn’t it? How do you relate that to novel-writing? Let’s see.

Creative Writing Now describes a roadmap as the concept of a collection of events leading to the goal.

A basic roadmap can be as follows:

Character → conflict/climax → resolution

Here resolution (post-climax stage, goal achieved) is your house; the character is you, trying to follow the path of conflict management to reach your destination. Savvy, matey?

How to Create a Plot Outline

Now that we understand what a plot is let’s think about how we can create an outline for one, with least hassle.
Gustav Freytag, a German writer, advocated a model based on Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. His work on a dramatic structure is also used in plot structure.

Freytag’s pyramid, divides a drama into five parts and provides a function to each part. These parts are:
exposition (introduction of characters), rising action (starts with conflict), climax (turning point or highest point of the story), falling action (leads to end), and denouement (resolution or official end of conflict).
Same is often used for Plot structure.
freytags_pyramid

Glen C Strathy offers a detailed outline for plot creation.

Story goal (What happens at the end of the story? An achievement or a solution to a problem.)

Consequence (Ask the questions ‘What if’? How does the end affect the characters or an idea that we found at the beginning of the story? What happens if the lead character cannot solve the problem or achieve the goal? This point creates drama and tension in a story.)

Requirements (What must be accomplished to meet the story goal. e.g. Learn magic in fantasy novel. )

Forewarning (Negative incidents countering the requirements and slowing down the process. e.g. magic not working or something stops the magic from working)

Costs (what did the characters give up or sacrifice, to do what they wanted)

Dividends (Rewards that counter the costs during the journey towards the story goal)

Prerequisites (subplots or sequences that make the requirements happen e.g. undergo training to learn magic)

Preconditions (balance the plot outline with stipulations laid down by characters, act like minor level of forewarning)

Good plot bad plot

Based on Laura Whitcomb’s article about plot pitfalls from writer’s digest, the below list shows the ways a plot becomes weak.

Lacks originality

Your story, ergo your plot. Not a good idea to copy someone else’s work, is it? It doesn’t even have to be a copy. Too much inspiration or influence can do the trick too. That’s why a rough outline on a paper by your side (or desktop, if you must) etc. is so important. It keeps you in touch with your schematic for the story.

Predictable

When is a story predictable?
When the author follows a genre formula.
When we run out of ides, because we didn’t have a solid one at the beginning. We wanted to write a book but didn’t have a story.
What can we do to become unpredictable?
We innovate, we question our actions, we change our thought process.
Wait, can we do all that?
Not always, not every day, not everybody can do that. But you and I are writers. We must be able to adapt, change and evolve better due to our creativity, isn’t it?

Sometimes, we lose ourselves in character and world building, happily forgetting any/all the conflict, cause of conflict or the end goal. That’s also what makes us predictable.

No matter how many twists and turns we add, our focus never leaves the character, and the plot suffers. Clothes, food, an environment should hog the author’s attention for a lesser time than the struggles (emotional or otherwise) and natural behavior of the characters.

So what do we need to write a great plot?
We need conviction.
I have to believe in my premise, the goal I have set for my character, and the possible conflicts, to be able to convince my readers about how and why what is happening in my book.

Boring

We are boring when we are predictable, or we drag the descriptions too much. We need to let go of our babies i.e. characters. A character free from the author’s strict hands is capable of creating the story and allows the plot a natural grow. A character’s internal conflicts often give us the idea of an external one, and vice versa. So instead of limiting a character to a plot, we can let the plot depend on the character (again, focus on the conflicts, not insignificant details)

Too much action, little opportunity to breath

Have you watched the Hobbit movies? As for books, LOTR had a more complex plot, number of characters, subplots, locations, etc. Hobbit was far simpler.

The movies went round and round about the Goblin and Warg attacks. There was little opportunity to sit back and enjoy any other aspects of the story. I loved the part with Necromancers though :). That’s how a great book became taxing on my attention level.

If you compare the Hobbit movies with the LOTR group, I am sure you will also see the difference between the two film series on the balance of action and narration.

Too complex

Game of Thrones? I love that series (my favorite is the first book) so…
A lot of subplots leading towards the goal can make the main plot complex. Good writing, clear and organized chapter sequence can beat that.

Too shallow

A hasty plot by a lazy author is a shallow one. Harry Potter kills Voldemort. What if J.K.Rowling had decided to compile the seven books into one. Raised by muggle parents, poor Harry never went to Hogwarts, and had to kill You-know-who with a rusty kitchen knife? What if there were no school stories, no Snape, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Hagrid, (most hated) Dolores Umbridge? Awful, right? Ms. Rowling endured much while writing the seven books for a long time. She could’ve done it in one, though.

Lacks reality

Even fantasy novels must have some reality in imagination. To avoid plot holes, one needs to keep in touch with one’s common sense and logic. You cannot make your character wear Platinum jewelry in the stone age. You can, in your head, but not on paper, please.

Continuity

You were born yesterday, and today you are a teen. You are not Ghatotkach from Mahabharata.
That was an example of aging error.

Another example is a mix-up of the timeline.

Wikipedia defines continuity as

In fiction, continuity (also called time-scheme) is consistency of the characteristics of people, plot, objects, and places seen by the reader or viewer over some period of time. It is relevant to several media.

A character who died in the first chapter can’t be alive to see his grandson in the last chapter.
Names and physical attributes of characters, their native locations, site of action, these should undergo a scrutiny for continuity.

I had completed three chapters of my book and decided to read the thing again. I found that my main character, who had started as a seven-year-old boy, became a thirteen-year-old girl by the third chapter! Yep, that’s what I am talking about, got it?

Premise not compelling enough

Jane Friedman, who has a much experience in the publishing industry, has a helpful blog where I found this interesting article on Crafting a Compelling Novel Concept by Larry Brooks. A note from Jane says that this post is an excerpt from Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant by Larry Brooks (Writer’s Digest Books).
Larry says:

A concept can define the story world itself, creating its rules and boundaries and physics, thus becoming a story landscape. (Example: A story set on the moon is conceptual in its right.)

In short, a concept is simply the compelling contextual heart of the premise and story built from it. It imbues the story atmosphere with a given presence. It elicits that sought-after response: “Wow, I’ve never seen that before, at least treated in that way. I want to read the story that deals with these things.”

Unsatisfying Conclusion

The end.

Yes, it is the most important part of a book, which makes you want more from the author, and take that journey with your favorite character over and over.

I came across this fantastic article by Lee Rourke about weak conclusions in this article that had appeared in the book blog from The Guardian.

Lee says,

Tidy narrative closure may be entertaining, but loose ends and ambiguity offer a truer sense of real life

Lee has provided us with Viktor Shklovsky’s excellent quote:

“A novel can come to an end, but has no ending […] because finishing [a] novel would mean knowing the future, and we don’t know the future.”

How true. If you think about the great books you have read, you will never find a definite statement by the author about the future of the characters/story. The end always is the beginning of new possibilities.

Lee further says,

The author fears ambiguity, but more importantly the author fears the reader’s fears of ambiguity, and this double-edged event makes for a rather predictable read.

The conclusion gives us a sense of completion, yet leaves room for more in future. In a fantasy novel, the hero and villain fight for a goal, collective or personal, but at the end of the fight, there is the endless possibility of new protagonist/villain/ personal losses/sequels, etc. That was just a typical example.

I found this article in Writer’s Digest by James V. Smith Jr..

To plot or not to plot

This topic deserves a standalone post. As a pantser, I find it difficult to work on a strict plot outline. My story runs with the pen and brain connection. I do create a plot outline but stay flexible. In fact, I did that seven times before I started writing the book, and my story still drifts away from the original schematic. I am on my first draft, so I have time and opportunity to check and recheck.

Chuck Wendig says

A plot functions like a skeleton: it is both structural and supportive. Further, it isn’t entirely linear. A plot has many moving parts (sub-plots and pivot points) that act as limbs and joints. The best plots are plots we don’t see, or rather that the audience never has to think about.

So yes, an invisible skeleton supports our body. Similarly, a plot carries the heavy burden of a great novel.
The NY Book Editors say:

Your only task is to create. The less you know before you start, the more you stand to uncover as you write.

As you see, a rough plot can take you a long way, but you have to let your creativity and imagination lead the way. After the first draft, you can check your plot to tie up the loose ends.

Till then, friends, readers, and fellow writers. Let the novel-writing begin.

A note, dear readers, a synopsis, is not same as plot outline though contentwise they might be similar. We will talk about synopsis later, once we have covered the grounds of novel-writing.

So what say you?