What is plot, anyway?

23 Jun

Plot is what happens when and how and why, and usually to whom! And then – what happens next?

There are a few rather simplistic definitions of this. For example, the long-time romance novel plot was: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. In this case, the ‘get’ meant a marriage was on the very near horizon. In the last few years, however, that ‘get’ has found another meaning. The couple doesn’t necessarily have to be heading for a wedding, but they will definitely be making a commitment to each other. And no, in this case ‘wedding’ and ‘commitment’ are not synonyms.

In a mystery, someone does something they shouldn’t have done, but they will get caught, and they had better suffer punishment for their dirty deed. And of course, the detective—whether professional or amateur—will seriously consider those three indicators of guilt: motive, means and opportunity.

But even so, there’s more yet to plotting a successful mystery novel. I came across this the other night, from a slightly elderly book. It’s The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough, who wrote several Nero Wolfe books after the death of Nero’s creator, Rex Stout. I’ll paraphrase his brief essay about plotting rather than use the entire thing. The trick is to give each suspect – there’s usually five or seven of them – a motive for having done whatever was done. Each suspect must get more or less equal play, and the author needs to distribute a few red herrings along the way, as well. The puzzle needs to be hard to solve, while at the same time playing fair with the reader. The clues need to be well-hidden, but still be there to see. (the italics are mine.)

I’m not overly sure about science fiction or fantasy, but I think perhaps the plot for these books depend almost entirely on the writer’s imagination. More so than the other genres, that is. Think Isaac Asimov, for example, certainly one of the most prolific and perhaps even the most creative writer who ever lived. John Creasey is another such, but primarily in the mystery field. Next to these two gentlemen, the ‘queen’ of mysteries – Dame Agatha Christie – was a veritable non-starter with 80-something or thereabouts. A quick check discloses that Asimov is credited with 500+ novels, Creasey (with his 12+ pseudonyms) 564, and America’s own possibly most prolific author, the very popular Nora Roberts (also writing as J. J. Robb) with (so far) nearly 300.

I decided to check on this concept, and found an interesting site that nearly blew me away! Talk about prolific! Wow. The notion of anyone writing 900 books is simply mind-boggling!

All that only proves I don’t always know as much as I sometimes think I do! I’ve not read anything by most of these folks, so I don’t know if they were repetitious or clever or great writers. Comments welcome.

On the other hand Margaret Mitchell wrote one book – Gone With the Wind, and Harper Lee wrote only To Kill a Mockingbird. Wanting to know more, I found this blog. http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2009/03/one-book-authors.html Very interesting.

But back to plot.

Probably no two authors approach writing a book in the same fashion, and that’s okay. If you follow the conventions for the type (or genre) of book that you want to write, that’s a great first step. Some years ago, there was a philosophy that every chapter should have three distinct scenes. And there should be a ‘major’ event every five chapters. In a romance novel, for instance, by the end of the first chapter the boy should have at least met the girl, and by the end of the fifth chapter they should be getting along rather well.

By the end of the tenth chapter, perhaps things are starting to fall apart, with a great deal of angst on either side. If they are meant to be together, they’ll start thinking and wondering ‘what if? Or ‘if I did that, would he/she do this?’ all of which soul-searching should eventually bring them together again. By the end of the fifteenth chapter this should have happened, with the happy wedding or commitment ceremony taking place (or about to) in the sixteenth chapter. Of course, your book (just like mine) might refuse to follow that path. So let it go – see where it leads you. Unless, of course, you’ve already sold the book, based on just a synopsis or partial submission. In that case you will definitely need to have a chat with your editor! Sooner rather than later.

My book Windsong was a prequel to Secret Shores. Although written later, the action takes place some 24 years earlier. This was a complication I’d not intended. I dutifully concocted a dandy synopsis of the action for these two people, and how they would eventually get together. It was a truly good synopsis. I thought so then, and I still think so, even though the finished book bears almost no resemblance whatever to that synopsis. Hah! The two characters met for the first time on page 6, and took off from there, blithely doing their own thing—to my surprise and that of my editor at the time. To her credit, she agreed with me that the book I ended up with was better than the one I’d intended to write. C’est la vie.

All that means is—there is more than one way to write a book. You won’t know what your best way is, until you try. You might make a list of things you mean to incorporate into your story, and then sit down to write it. In my mind, characters are more important than plot, because if you don’t know your characters all that well, they may well refuse to do what you think they should. If that happens, you could all too easily end up with an incomplete book taking up space in your computer or your desk drawer. It might take years for you to figure out the right solution, but I’d bet you’ll give in before your characters do!

Happy Writing! Please feel free to share this blog with anyone you think might like to know about it. If you have comments or questions, please ask! bookmechanic@gmail.com


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