No Plot? Big Problem
Inventing a Plot
by James Thayer
An entry at a writing chat board: I’m writing a novel that takes
place on a tropical island, owned by natives. The prologue is about
how the tribe was created. Then I’m stuck.
Stuck after the prologue? Uh oh.
But we can sympathize. A successful plot for a novel is a rare
thing for many writers. Where do plots come from? How do we know
if we have a plot that’s good enough?
Beats me. But here are some thoughts on plots from the experts.
What is a plot?
to E.M. Forster in
Aspects of the Novel, a plot is an
organization of events according to a “sense of causality.”
Encyclopedia Britannica says a plot is “the structure of
interrelated actions, consciously selected and arranged by the
What isn’t a plot?
Forster says this isn’t a plot: The king died and then the queen
died. But this is a plot: The king died, and then the queen
died of grief, because of the causality.
For some writers, coming up with plots
“Some of my clients tell
me that they have more ideas for novels than they can use in a
lifetime,” the literary agent
Donald Maass says. John D. McDonald,
author of the Travis McGee detective novels, said that a novelist
has far more ideas (which he calls the fun part) than the time to
write them. And that must be true for writers such as Erle Stanley
Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, who wrote a dozen novels
But for others, plotting is hard.
Novelist Carolyn Jewel speaks for many writers when she says,
“Plotting is hard work and there isn't any way to make it easy.”
There is no secret place we can go to get bestselling plots:
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we?” Stephen King says.
“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried
Some plots are tried-and-true.
Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots: overcoming the
monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy,
tragedy and rebirth. Others think there are only five plots: man
against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against
society, and man against God.
Don’t worry about finding a truly
Donald Maass says, “There
are certainly no new plots. Not a one.” The legendary Simon &
Schuster editor Michael Korda says, “In books, as in other things,
there is nothing new under the sun.” The fear of imitation is
immature, according to Edith Wharton.
Kurt Vonnegut plots our novel for us: “Somebody gets into trouble,
and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back;
somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the
skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each
other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person
is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be
virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails;
a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits
fornication . . . . I guarantee you that no modern story scheme,
even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless
one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere.”
Make sure the plot is big and bold.
Most of us are happy if our lives have a nice equilibrium. We
don’t want a life that’s a county fair ride. Not so for our plot,
though. Novelist and writing teacher Sol Stein says a reader
“is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than
his or her everyday experience in life.” Stein compares
readers to sports fans: “The spectator seeks the excitement that
does not usually occur in daily life.” Erica Jong says a novel
“must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.” Kurt Vonnegut
agrees: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life,
but as ways to keep readers reading.’’
What can we do to help our plotting?
Authors use different means to come up with plots. Orson Scott
Card advises us to always be open to discovering a plot: “Ideas come
from everywhere, provided that you’re thinking about everything that
happened to you as a potential story. I like to think that the
difference between storytellers and non-storytellers is that we
storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’
along with us. Other people pass through their lives and never
notice how many stories are going on all around them; we, however,
think of everything as a potential story.”
Illustration by Jennifer
Paros - Copyright 2010
Tom Wolfe uses settings to suggest plots. “I look for milieu
first: the setting of a story before the story itself.”
Research for a prior novel may suggest the next plot. Novelist
Jack Bickham says, “Medical research done for my novel Halls of
Dishonor gave me considerable additional information about the
medical setting, which was one of the inspiration for a later book
Or maybe games can tease out a plot. "Sometimes I sit down at
a typewriter and go through a word-association game,” Ray Bradbury
said. “I write 'door—coffin—attic' and so on, and then I bring
people into the story and get them to talk about it. It's a
great way to do things.”
Our own experience or a family member’s experience might suggest a
plot. Orson Scott Card tells how he came up with the plot for
Ender’s Game: “I was sixteen, and my older brother’s
girlfriend (now his wife) had urged me to read Isaac Asimov’s
Foundation trilogy. . . . . My older brother, Bill, was in the
army, having just returned from a tour of duty in Korea, and so
military thoughts were on my mind. One day as my father was
driving me to school through the bottomlands of the Provo River in
Utah, I began trying to imagine what kind of war games would be
developed to train soldiers for combat in space.”
Try jogging or biking to rattle loose a plot idea. The British
Journal of Sports Medicine reports that exercise can boost
creativity. Many amateur athletes say they get their best
ideas while exercising, according to Kevin Hellker in The Wall
Street Journal. Or talk to intelligent people, which
historian John Keegan says is his key to creativity. Or do the
dishes. Agatha Christie plotted her novels standing at her
kitchen sink, where she said she did her best thinking.
Work at plotting:
For most people, a plot won’t spring into our minds on its own.
It needs to be developed by purposely thinking about it. Roger
Ebert notes that “The Muse visits during composition, not before.”
Orson Scott Card agrees: “Don’t wait for a muse to strike and force
you to your typewriter. Such events are rare—in my experience,
muses tend to strike those who are at the keyboard typing their
brains out, not those who are playing video games in the basement.”
How do we know if we have a workable plot?
If we can reduce our story to one or two sentences—called the
pitch in the movie industry and often called the handle
in publishing—we may have a successful plot. And if we can’t,
something may be missing.
The pitch will force us to trim our idea to its essentials, to a
plot. David Morrell points out, “There’s a huge difference
between having an ‘idea’ and elaborating it into a plot.”
Publishers don’t want an idea. They want a plot. As
Gerald Petievich says,
“If you can’t tell yourself what
your story is in one or two sentences, you’re already running into
trouble.” A story has certain elements, and if your pitch
doesn’t have those elements, you don’t yet have a story.
Petievich adds, “As complex as your novel might turn out to be, it’s
essential you be able to state clearly what your basic story is and
where it’s going.”
What are the elements of a pitch?
Donald Maass sets
them out: “1.
Where is your story set? 2. Who is your hero or heroine?
3. What is the main problem they must overcome? 4. Where do
you think this novel fits in the marketplace?” If our novel
can’t be pitched in one or two sentences, we haven’t thought about
it sufficiently. We may be missing some ingredients in our
plot, or your story may be too rambling.
But, more specifically, how do we know if we have a plot a publisher
will buy? Sydney Pollack, director of the wildly successful
Tootsie and Out of Africa, and also the director of the
bomb Havana, has said, “Oddly enough I really can’t
distinguish the difference between what people will like and what
they won’t.” We hope his words don’t apply to novels, but
maybe they do.
Thayer’s thirteenth novel,
The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a
was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches
novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and
runs a freelance editing