Structuring your novel when the plot’s the first thing you think of

Structure is everything for a novel these days, and one of the challenges facing any novelist is the need to align plot with character arcs.

Wright_BooksThey are inter-twined. The plot tension, with its rising and falling waves to the final climax of the story, has to align with the character arc. Ideally it should be driven by it.

The usual problem, though, is that authors often begin their stories with plot ideas rather than a character – you know, ‘it would be cool to set a story on some desert planet with two suns’, or ‘what would Earth be like after the zombie apocalypse?’, or ‘I’ve got a great idea for a story about a heist where the get-away vehicles are really small cars.’

On my experience few authors – certainly few beginning authors – begin with ‘I’ve invented character X, who has to learn something. How can they do this?’

I am not sure why. Possibly it’s the influence of TV and movies, and particularly the way specific – and dramatic – scenes capture the imagination.

At any rate, the challenge becomes turning that plot idea into something that is going to work with Character X, who learns something. Because the act of Character X learning something is the essence of the novel. Plot and setting is secondary, though in the best stories it’s integral with what the character has to learn.

Go read Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea for an example.

Of course it’s all very well to say ‘well, just do this’, but the issue is always how. My suggestions:

  1. If you’ve started with a great or inspiring plot or setting, jot down the salient points about what people do and need in it. What sort of things happen in this world? In our world, for instance, lots of things happen that are specific to the cultures and the way people live. If your story is set in the real world, which of those cultures is it set in, and when? If it’s in a fantasy world, how does your fantasy world match up to the real world? What are the differences?
  2. Now turn to the characters. What sort of character would inhabit this world? What would they need to learn? Is there anything specific about the world that they key into that informs this?

The intersection between the ‘things that happen’ and the way that emerging Character X keys into them is the start of the integration between plot and character arc – but only the start, because a character arc needs to have dynamic movement to it. So does a plot. And all those components have to align.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


One thought on “Structuring your novel when the plot’s the first thing you think of

  1. I agree — it’s much easier to make something substantial around a character who seems to the writer to be a real person than around a plot-premise. In the latter case, characters are often just ciphers or cardboard cutouts playing out the dramatic bits. The real test is the sections between those dramatic bits; fleshed-out characters can be made interesting in almost any situation, but the cardboard cutouts just stand there. In my experience a good dose of obsession with one’s characters can be excellent fuel for a novel. When you can’t stop thinking about them, stuff just bubbles up. Of course then you have the challenge of cutting it down and making sure the plot thread doesn’t get lost, but too much is almost always better than too little.

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