Plotting a novel seems like a basic tool all writers must have in their kit. As I sit down each day and push my novel forward, I sometimes get scared thinking about the plot: Is it moving too slowly? Do I have enough texture, subplots, red herrings? Is it moving too fast? If I let it roll, is it going to end too soon? Once in a while I have to stop and read what other writers have had to say about plot for reassurance, or not. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot out there on the subject.
I always get bogged down when I look at plot diagrams like the Freitag Pyramid which looks like a triangle beginning with Exposition, rising through Complication to Crisis and then descending through Falling Action to Resolution. But that makes it seem like the crisis comes in the middle when, especially, in a mystery novel, the crisis needs to show up closer to the end — just a little denouement to the resolution. In Janet Burroway’s classic, Writing Fiction, she prefers to show story form as a check mark, like this:
And I’ve read The Writer’s Journey, which includes a table outlining the one true plot: The hero goes on a journey. Here, Christopher Vogler divides plot into three acts, each act having specific scenes: Act One: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold. Act Two: Tests, Allies, Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, Ordeal, Reward. Act Three: The Road Back, Resurrection, Return with the Elixir.
Whew, have your eyes glazed over yet? Mine too! Hold on, because here’s what I think, in my gut, about plotting. It’s pretty simple. I believe that anyone who is an avid reader has internalized enough about plot structure to understand it intuitively. You know that the story needs to have a beginning, middle and end. You know when the plot is moving forward nicely and you can’t stop turning the pages because you need to know what will happen next: How will she get out of this? or, Oh my god, I can’t believe that happened! or, Oh no, he’s not going to make it! Right? Of course, not all great novels are filled with straightforward suspenseful action. But those literary novels that compel us forward have enough psychological pull to keep us reading, it’s not just beautiful language or description but a question has entered our mind at the beginning of the story and we are willing to spend hours in the world of the novel in order to have that question answered. Sounds mysterious, right?
And that’s the bottom line. Writing is mysterious. In Write Away, Elizabeth George explains her well-honed technique which includes writing character sketches and outlines and lots of left-brained exercises which she needs to complete so that once the structure is in place, she can let her imagination go and get lost in the process of creating characters who begin talking to each other. Like Elizabeth George, I write character sketches and step outlines, but I can only take them so far. I compose them incrementally as I’m writing, not all at the start. Because, at the beginning of the process, I don’t know my characters well enough to know how they will all interact with each other.
When I really need encouragement to keep the creativity flowing and stop worrying about whether I’m at Plot Point Two or the Midpoint of my novel, I turn to my favorite book on writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There is so much wisdom packed into that slim volume. Here’s what she says about plot, among other things: Plot grows out of character. She suggests focusing on who the people in your story are. If you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen… Any plot you impose on your characters will be anomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are . . . and keep asking yourself, Now what happens? The development of relationship creates plot. She describes her own writing process, how she sits down in the morning, re-reading her work from the previous day, stares off into space, imagines her characters and begins to daydream about them. She tells me that my plot will fall into place if, one day at a time, I listen carefully to them, watch them move around, doing and saying things and bumping into each other. And I believe her because I’ve seen it happen.
I know that my writing will sometimes be difficult, that those characters will sometimes remind me of my daughter as a stubborn two-year old, Not talking! You can’t make me! And sometimes, when I get scared, I’ll have to go back to those diagrams and charts just to make sure I’ve got all the elements moving forward but I know, too, that if I just trust myself, if I listen to characters, the plot will follow.