If you already have the book, or part of it, in mind (and it sounds like you do!) then you probably already know a little bit about what happens inside it. But as I thought about this question (and bearing in mind that I’m coming from the perspective of a genre fiction writer), I started to wonder if this is really about the distinction between plot and story? Perhaps you have a story in mind, or parts of one, and are wondering how to turn that into the plot of a novel.
I was first exposed to the plot/story distinction through the wisdom of Teresa Nielsen Hayden. She, ““Plot is what maintains a decent separation between the front cover and the back cover of a book. Story is what gives the readers the incentive to read all the pages in order. Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” (The full discussion at that link is worth a read.)
Another example I like to quote has been attributed to E. M. Forster, author of A Room With a View, Howards End, and A Passage to India (although I think I first heard this example from Teresa as well). At base, a story is a sequence of events arranged chronologically: “The king died, and then the queen died.” (A good story is what makes the audience ask, “What happened next?”) A plot, on the other hand, is a narrative of those events focused on the causality: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.” (Sometimes a good plot is one that has you asking, “But why?”) Story tells you, “And then…” while plot tells you, “Because…” That’s probably a criminial oversimplification, but oh well.
But maybe you already know this, and are wondering just how to cobble together a plot. Maybe the book you want to write is about certain characters, or a certain setting, or a little bit of both. But what happens? When I’m in the planning stages of a new novel and asking myself this question (and actually this question can pop up throughout the entire writing process), I lean on the casuality that Forster talks about. What causes events to unfold? Often, it’s the characters. (Which isn’t to say that an earthquake isn’t also a perfectly viable way to kick things off.)
So I like to start with a group of people and give them the most interesting (preferably difficult) problems I can devise. Usually those problems are intrinsically linked to the setting and or each other, literally or metaphorically. These people might not know each other; they might not even live in the same country or time. But each of them has something they want, and something they need (though they might not know or realize it). Those wants and needs are misaligned to different degrees for different people. And between each character and her goals stand obstacles of varying difficulties. (The desires and goals need not be grandiose. They don’t have to be on the scale of world domination. A very compelling story is simply that of somebody trying to reunite with their family. Sometimes the obstacles are literal — for instance, the bars of a prison cell — and sometimes the obstacles are more ephemeral — for instance, a magical injunction that revokes Free Will.) Then I ask myself, “What would this person do to overcome this problem? What would she do to achieve this goal? What decisions would she make?” That isn’t to imply that every character has to be ruthless and psychotically determined to get what they want. Some characters will give up more easily than others, or change their minds, or take a smarter path. Some characters will do really dumb things in the service of their desires. People are complicated. And sometimes they change along the way.
Next, I ask myself, “How will doing that complicate matters? What new problems will this create?” And that’s where the fun begins. Because when it comes to plotting a novel, I am a big fan of the Law of Unintended Consequences. It’s my crutch, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. So this character inadvertently creates a new problem for herself, or for somebody or something she cares about. Well, OK, what does she do about that? And what new challenges does that create? And so on and so forth — that causal chain of responses to unforseen consequences can stretch as long as you want it to.
If you have multiple characters, or multiple settings, you can repeat the cycle over and over again for the various elements of the book you envision. Eventually, but sooner than you might expect, you’ll find you have braided chains of consequence and reaction that look, quite a bit, like a plot.
When I’m going through this process, I usually work with index cards. The plotting gives me insights into scenes — sometimes just simple images, or a single line of dialogue, or a piece of description — that I jot on the index cards. I think of the cards as the highlights of the writing journey, the stuff that will be fun to execute. “Dorothy dons the ruby slippers.” “Philip Marlowe finds a dead body.” “Aragorn stands atop the wall of Helm’s Deep and gazes out; he is so noble and valiant the besieging army falls silent.” (I realize that first two of my three examples are snippets of story, but not actually snippets of plot, if we go by the above definitions!) Over time, I have a little stack of cards that I can shuffle and rearrange and pin to the wall and tear up and rewrite to my heart’s content. There’s never a card for every single thing in the book (if I had that I’d already have the book!), but eventually there are enough that I don’t need any more.
And I keep those cards close at hand as I go through the rest of the process, as I turn that plot into a book.
Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He is the author of the Milkweed Triptych, Something More than Night, and the Alchemy Wars trilogy. His most current novel is The Rising (Alchemy Wars #2). His short fiction has appeared at numerous venues including Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Popular Science. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other disreputable types.
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