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How to plot a novel

April 9, 2012

A preview of tonight’s Fiction Writing class.

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

W. Somerset Maugham

Notes on Plotting:

There is no surefire way to tell a writer how to plot a story. In fact, just as writers should let the story determine the form, the story sometimes also determines the plot. That being said, maybe the better question is how to come up with a story. The next question would then be: how do I plot that story?

Coming up with a story:

Every writer has their own way including:

Observation—i.e. On the plane I saw a man drawing a picture of a bomb. Creepy. This of course triggers the imagination. I tell myself stories like, maybe he was one of the survivors in the twin towers and now, in order to deal with the trauma of that moment, travels by plane to nowhere in particular because he would rather be in the plane than in the buildings. You then go into his home life, both before and after the trauma with the horrors of 9/11 the impetuous for change.

Real life—Think Ann Patchett basing Bel Canto on the newspaper accounts of the kidnapping in Peru. Read the newspaper, every day; see if any of the stories there turn into something else. See if you get a vision of the characters away from the details that the news story gives. For example, take the story of young Elian Gonzalez, the young boy found floating on a small raft between Cuba and the United States after his family left Cuba in a small boat with twelve other immigrants and the boat sank. This story is ripe with conflict, characters and themes.

Reading—often the reading of good books and short stories triggers the own stories you have inside you. Just make sure you don’t cut and paste.

Our own lives—seems to be the most popular, but also the most dangerous. And potentially boring. Our own lives are often not as interesting to others as we think they are. That is why we lie. Often. Each time I tell the story of almost sinking my old, wooden, $50 sailboat in the Chesapeake Bay at 16 with four friends and a case of 16 ounce Old Milwaukee’s, the story gets better. The reason it gets better is because it gets further away from the real story which is nothing more than four teenagers drunk on a really small boat way too far from shore. Over time, the story becomes how we clung for dear life around the cooler, while the boat slowly sank, each of us expressing our deepest sins, as if we couldn’t save each other now, as least we would be saved in the afterlife, until a man on a boat came to save us and told us stories from his own misguided youth and we realized that we weren’t nearly as bad as the psychopath who saved us. That being said, we can certainly be inspired by our own experience, as long as we are willing to embellish it beyond the point of recognition. I once turned in a story for a class about something that really happened. “It’s not realistic enough,” the professor said. “But it really happened,” I told her, thinking I really had her now. “Fiction needs to be more realistic than real life,” she responded. Back then I thought she was wrong. She wasn’t.

History—Study the history books. They are ripe with good stories, great characters and conflict. Use the history to trigger the imagination like O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka. History can also help us when plotting. How has the past affected our character’s current state and is that past worth a trigger and flashback?

Divine intervention:

Sitting there, staring into space and then the best idea for a novel (ever!) comes out of thin air. Write it down and pray for another one.

Then break the story down into the basic conflict.

Old man can’t bring in big fish. (Old Man and the Sea)

Japanese Business Man and Opera singer held captive by South American rebels. (Bel Canto)

Twin brother searches for schizophrenic twin. (Await your Reply)

Sea Captain wants revenge on white whale. (Moby Dick)

Someone is stealing the eggs. (Hard Times)

Then let the story determine the elements of fiction and how they interact. I think that is how we plot. Let’s look at The Old Man and the Sea as an example because it is the easiest to see how it works.

Characters:

Santiago, fish, boy.

Some writers do character sketches before they start writing. For example, write down everything you know about that character, even information you aren’t going to use so that when you write dialogue or action you really know where it is coming from. For the fish, I would do as much scientific research as possible.

Setting: Again some research, personal experience and observation can help here, as triggers for the imagination. Cuba, early to mid-1900’s, small boat, large ocean.

Point of view: since the fish is to be a character you have to go with omniscient. Other factors affect this choice as well. How would the story be different if it was told first person from Santiago? Would it be interesting?

Theme: Don’t worry about theme until it’s done. Story should always trump theme even if it becomes a theme you don’t agree with.

Plot: Now decide where to start. Often the story decides this. Here it starts with him going out in the boat. Flashbacks help explain why it is so important that he catch this fish. Of course other stories will start in the middle and some will start at the end.  Once you start and combine the elements let the story take shape. Sometimes it follows you, sometimes you follow it.

Revision: Show it to someone you trust and determine which parts of the plot work and which ones don’t.

That’s it in a nutshell and obviously there are as many different ways to plot a story as there are stories. If you find a new way, please let me know about it.

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