The Art & Science of Plot-Writing
A wonderful blog with writing tips by ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂
Anyone who has read my work will know that I’m not big on plot – whatever I try, I end up writing something bland and tedious that is all about description and characters. However, I will do my best to shed some light on the best methods for creating a plot.
Firstly and probably most important, you need to keep in mind that plot happens when characters meet, not when they sit at home alone. I know I sound like the biggest hypocrite as I am guilty of having characters sitting at home alone all the time (and, as with any ‘rule’ in writing, there are exceptions where stories like this have been successful) but this is a pretty helpful thing to remember. A long and beautifully written piece on a character contemplating the view from their bedroom window is unlikely to advance the plot in any way. Sure, establishing setting and character is key, but the story is the unfolding of a plot and plot cannot happen until your character does the dangerous business of stepping out their front door.
Find ways in which your characters can meet each other – consider for a moment how many people’s paths you cross every day and now realise that characters meeting can be a simple and perfectly natural affair.
Apart from arranging your characters’ lives to overlap one way, you can be sure that generating an interesting plot is to follow the ‘what if’ route. It might seem a little puerile but it’s a failsafe way to make an interesting story. More than that, it can even make us question how we respond to the world as it is by showing us what might have been. E.g. “What if the race-based hierarchy that has haunted our history was reversed...?” and then ‘Noughts and Crosses’ was born
Your ‘what if’ doesn’t have to be anywhere near as big, the simplest changes can have big implications, drawing on the example given half-jokingly in ‘The History Boys’ that Halifax was thought the more suitable candidate than Churchill to be Prime Minister in 1940, but he went to the dentist on the day that the decision was made – “If Halifax had had better teeth we might have lost the war.” The character in question goes on to say “It's subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.”
Another way to create plot is to consider the butterfly effect. Even the smallest of actions have consequences and so you start by pushing over the first domino – give your character one action which has some sort of consequence on another – and track the others as they all fall, one after the other.
The Balancing Act
Writing advice is difficult to give because there is no set way of writing, there is no finite answer the way that 4 + 5 = 9 however, I’ve noticed that we’re all torn between two major divergences in opinion. There is the approach to writing that is that everything must be entirely believable in order for the reader to relate to and therefore feel empathy for the protagonist, that characters must be as real as the man sitting opposite you on the bus and that the reader therefore will understand everything that the characters experience because it is so firmly rooted in reality. There is the other approach that says that there is a difference between real life and literature and that literature is escapism for most people and that, should you want to see real people, you should take a bus or sit in your favourite coffee shop and people-watch, rather than read.
This leaves us apparently with an ultimatum in which we must fall on one side or the other… not so.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that the characters themselves must be rooted in reality and that they must not simply be pastiches, stereotypes, or stencils but rather PEOPLE. What happens to these characters, however, is completely un-set and pivots upon your imagination. I once read something written by Meg Rosoff and, although something on the same page made me extremely angry with her, this particular piece of advice is, in my opinion, important:
“Lie about everything but emotions” – it is the emotions that make characters relatable, their circumstances less so. Have any of us been tasked with taking an evil ring of power across merciless terrain, through extreme danger to drop it in a volcano? No. Have any of us experienced dreams, fear, desperation, helplessness, perseverance? Of course we have, and so Frodo’s story works.
I agree, it is possible for far-fetched plots and situations to seem ridiculous and implausible, but the truth is that we do not lead interesting lives every day but maybe, every so often, remarkable things happen to us and it is these remarkable episodes that would make good stories, not the daily slog of school and homework (as I’m sure many of you have discovered while trying to write diaries for the competition this year!) Sticking with Lord of the Rings for an example, there is a reason why the novel follows three particular years of Frodo’s life, rather than the thirty of his youth and childhood. Maybe right now you are waking up to a plot-less day, but today is a remarkable day for someone else, the kind of day that makes a plot, the kind of day that is the first domino in a line of consequences and interactions that will ultimately weave a story.
Sorry that this was perhaps not as helpful as it might have been, if you’ve got any questions please leave them in the comments!
A big thank you to ᙢᗴᖇᙓᑕᗩ☂ for writing this blog post and designing the banner