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? According 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 author.”
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 is easy. “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 a year.
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 Bestseller.”
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 fresh plot: 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.”
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 called Miracleworker.”
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 pitchin 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.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com)