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Plotting the Novel | Factsheets


Plotting the Novel

WritersServices Factsheet 6 by Michael Legat

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  • Plots begin when you decide to write a book of a particular kind, and often derive initially from a true-life story, a mental picture, a chance overheard remark, or something of that sort.
  • With your basic idea in mind, it is then imperative to begin seeing the story in terms of the leading character or characters. Plots develop from characters, not the other way around.
  • Research can often help in the construction of the plot by explaining the actions of the characters, and also by the influence which backgrounds have on the characters themselves.

Once you know who your central character is, and have built that person in your mind so that you know a great deal about him or her, the next step is almost always to give your hero or heroine an aim, a goal in life. Sometimes there may be two conflicting aims.

A formula which can in most cases be used for any novel is to:

  • Present your central character with obstacles which will prevent him or her from reaching that goal.
  • The main character’s secondary aim, misunderstandings, accidents, illness, death, the goals of subsidiary characters and many other possibilities will form such barriers,
  • And the plot then develops as the obstacle is surmounted or avoided in some way.

However, outside events, and the way the barrier is overcome will lead to another problem, and so on, with what might be called a rolling cause-and-effect development – because this happens, the result is such-and-such, and such-and-such leads to this-and-that.

A story without subplots will seem rather thin. However, it is essential that any subplot should be relevant to the main story and indeed should rise out of it. Again any developments in the subplots are brought about by the characters who surround the hero or heroine.

The more rounded your characters are in your mind, the more likely it is that they will begin to suggest various directions in which the plot might go. It is exciting for the author when the characters come to life in this way, but it is important to keep control so that the story does not veer off in a direction which was not intended.

If the plot gets bogged down, it can often be kick-started if the author bears two phrases in mind:

  • What if ...?
  • And so …

The former is an invitation to the imagination, and the author should continue asking that question until a satisfactory, credible answer is found. The latter phrase is a reminder that causes have effects, and sometimes several effects.

  • When working out the plot in full, it should be possible to see a shape to the story, which will be a gentle rise to its climax.
  • However, its upward movement will be intensified at intervals when the latest unexpected development or barrier is reached.
  • Any work of fiction should begin at, or immediately before, a moment of crisis.

This factsheet links to Plotting the Novel


© Michael Legat 2001