In Search of Lost Plots by Andrew Taylor
Recently [October 2011] the Cheltenham Festival of Literature asked me to run a workshop on plots, presumably on the assumption that I must know something about the subject since I make my living writing crime novels. But, as many novelists will confirm, the one doesn't necessarily follow from the other. You can drive a car without necessarily having the faintest idea about how to design and build the mechanics under the bonnet.
Still, the organisers had a touching faith in my powers so I did my best to assemble a few ideas that I and other novelists have found useful. But the hard truth is this: each novel is a different journey, and each author must make his or her own road map for it - and sometimes this can be done only afterwards, because we may not know our destination when we start.
Plot is a bugbear for many fiction writers, and a common source of writer's block. Characterization, theme, setting and dialogue seem to flow naturally and often enjoyably. But plot is where the process gets painful. There are no simple remedies - it's one thing to write a wonderful opening to a story but, to continue it and bring it to a satisfying ending, you need a plot. Your story needs a plot as your body needs a skeleton.
We are often told that there are only a handful of plots in the world - for example, woman meets man, they quarrel, they reconcile. But for a practising writer, that's just a formula, in this case for Jane Eyre and thousands of other stories...
E. M. Forster famously wrote that: "...a story [is] as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality." It's more complicated than that but Forster does suggest a useful distinction between narrative - i.e., how a story reaches its audience, and how its events are ordered - and the story itself. Most writers think of the plot as a combination of the two: it's the underlying sequence of events together with how you filter those to your reader. Of course it is inextricably entangled with the other elements in a story.
Some writers plan their plots in detail before they start writing. But too much preliminary planning sometimes sucks the juice out of an idea and results in a bland and flavourless book. Many novelists start writing with only the first few chapters mapped out in their minds and a vague idea of where the story will be going after that. E. L. Doctorow memorably summed up this approach: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
Even crime writers often work like that, though you'd think they of all people would need to know where they were going. But it can be easier to do much of the plotting as you write the first draft, allowing characters, setting and theme to develop a joint momentum with that of the story - and then tidy the result up when you produce the second draft. Reginald Hill, author of the intricately plotted Dalziel and Pascoe novels, once said that the plot is something he puts in afterwards. Some crime writers will tell you they have changed their minds about the identity of the murderer as they neared the end of the book.
Many first novels have overcomplicated plots because their authors are desperate to keep their readers interested. But a good plot doesn't have to be complicated. It doesn't even have to be fully resolved. Perhaps the best plots give you the sense that their stories continue beyond the covers of the book. Indeed, Chekhov said that you've written your story you should cross out the beginning and the end because "It is there that we authors do most of our lying."
Good comic writing, like good crime writing, needs particularly tight, careful plotting - P. G. Wodehouse wrote and rewrote his books until he felt they were right. Timing and misdirection are both crucial, just as they are for stand-up comedy and conjuring. A plot needn't be plausible but it does need to aim for internal consistency especially if you're writing for a print medium. (You can afford to be a little more slapdash if you're writing for film or TV because it's much harder for the viewer to pause to analyse what's happening.)
Memorable plots tend to have elements of surprise and originality. Once you've read Flann O'Brien's brilliantly surreal The Third Policeman, you are unlikely to forget how it ends. Readers like books whose stories come at them from unexpected angles. As John le Carré puts it, "The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat's mat is a story." A predictable plot is dull, however well constructed, which poses a particular problem for writers of genre fiction.
There are no hard-and-fast rules in writing fiction, only guidelines, opinions and suggestions. Few people turn to In Search of Lost Time or The Waves for the quality of their plots; Proust and Woolf provide other attractions. We read Chandler for his language, not his convoluted and improbable plots. A good publisher's editor would savage the plot construction of Wuthering Heights.
Genius can get away with anything, even technical incompetence. The rest of us need to remember the importance of plotting, where the art of a story becomes a craft. But the important thing that I and many other writers have found is this: that sometimes you have to write the story, letting it find its own rhythms and develop its own themes, before you can find the plot.
Some aspiring writers try to plan their plots beforehand with elaborate flow-charts with coloured felt-tips, or special computer programs (Plot Your Own Bestseller Today!), or meticulously organised leather-bound notebooks. If that works for you, fine. But all this preliminary "plotting" can amount to little more than an elaborate excuse not to sit down to the sheer hard graft of writing your story.
When in doubt, start writing and see where it takes you. Writers don't spend their time constructing plots. Writers write.