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Novel Plots: Answering the Plea

By Brenda Brooks

Novel plots often worry writers. Plots alter themselves mid-manuscript, or at the end of the first draft, or anywhere they please. This capricious, seemingly uncontrollable behaviour is stressful, unless the writer knows that however the story plots out in early stages, everything may well be unfolding exactly as it should.

Novel plots may be broken down into two styles: Page-turning stories with a protagonist who faces obstacles and conflicts that eventually lead to a climax, and then a clearly defined resolution. Or, plots where the emphasis rests on a character and the energy of the story relies on the development of that character, through language and style, to carry the story along.

Mystery novels provide an example of the first style, such as those written by Agatha Christie. In her novels we are riveted by the unfolding events, and by the intricacies of the crimes and how they are eventually solved. A poignant example of the second plot type might be The Good Soldier , by Ford Madox Ford, where we are beguiled and held by the beauty of Ford's language.

There are potential drawbacks to each of these novel plots. The plot-driven format might focus so intensely on the story's inner workings and theme that it becomes flat, stilted and predictable. On the other hand, where the focus is fixed steadily on character, rather than story, the plot can lose its thrust if not enough happens to keep the reader engaged.

Once a writer sits down to begin the actual writing, the possibilities and combinations of novel plots may seem endless. Some writers begin with a specific idea or outline for a story and the characters develop accordingly. But even then, nothing is written in stone. (That would add a whole new twist to grinding away on your first draft.) As the character develops, alterations to the plot may prove necessary, and the flexible writer allows the novel to plot itself out around him.

Other writers begin with a character description, or a bit of dialogue, and the novel plots forward from there. Here again, one cannot afford to become so enamored of plans for the protagonist that change is impossible. As the story unfolds, the nature of the character will unfold as well, giving rise to additional changes in plot, and so on. This is undeniably harrowing to the author who wants to "stay on track," but such changes may well turn out to be the life-blood of the story.

There is no one way to create novel plots. Thrash around every which way you can, from plot to character and every combination in between until you arrive at the most vital point of all: The voice of the story. This is paramount, because once you have discovered the voice that your story pleads for, the characters, style and plot will follow. All you must do is answer the plea. And continue to grind away.

A Selection of Books about Plotting:

Plot & Structure: Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish , by James Scott Bell

The Plot Whisperer , by Martha Alderson

Blockbuster Plots, Pure & Simple , by Martha Alderson

Related Links:

How to Plot a Novel

Create a Plot Outline Easily with What If? and Why?

Plot Your Stories

Andrew Piper vs. Sheila Heti on CBC: To Plot ... Or Not.

Plot & Structure from The Writers' Workshop



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