I’ve just returned from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, where I taught a workshop in the art of the novel. So much of writing a novel involves the shape we find for our material. I’m sharing this post from two years ago in hopes of helping those of us who are wrestling with this form of storytelling, a form Henry James called a rough, shaggy beast.
A friend of mine, an excellent poet, was talking to me recently about plot. He didn’t understand, he told me, how we fiction writers did it. It was beyond him how we string a series of events together into a story.
So here are ten tips for constructing a plot.
1. Plot always begins with character, and the two can never be separated. Henry James said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” In other words, people make choices. They create actions based upon their own characters—what they want, what they fear, etc. Those actions—events, if you will—put pressure on the people who created them. Put enough pressure on a character and some aspect of that character that maybe he or she doesn’t even know, rises to the surface and becomes a memorable shift in the plot.
2. Plots are often built from ordinary things. The scale can be small. John Updike said, “Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.” In the true writer’s hands, the small action can speak more loudly than the large action in the wrong writer’s hands.
3. The inner lives of characters matter. Again from Updike: “The substance of fictional architecture is not bricks and mortar but evanescent consciousness.” The important thing is for the writer to make something of either small or large events by showing how they affect—how they shift, disturb, change—the characters and their worlds.
4. Empathy is tantamount. Empathy on the part of the writer who must know what it feels like for his characters to have the lives that they do. Not to judge, not to condone evil or wrongdoing, but to understand the sources of a character’s behaviors.
5. Plots must convince. No event should seem unbelievable to the reader. Each turn of the plot must belong in the specific fictional world the characters are creating.
6. And yet, plots must be surprising. Events must come together in a way that will seem fresh to the reader who must never be able to predict their arrangement. I remember a Charles Baxter story called “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” As I recall, the story opens with the protagonist walking down a city street on his lunch break. It’s a windy day, and a piece of paper blows up against his leg and sticks there. On the paper is a crudely drawn map of the downtown area with one building marked, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” The story opens with an event that is out of the ordinary, and the way this map enters the protagonist’s consciousness, not only arouses our curiosity about what will happen next, it also makes us wonder about the interior journey that he will take through the story’s plot.
7. There are two narrative arcs in any story: the arc of event, and the arc of character.
8. A plot is made from a chain of cause and effect. One event creates another. The writer stretches the chain as tightly as he or she can until it nears the snapping point.
9. That snapping point is the moment the narrative has been leading to all along, the moment beyond which nothing will ever be the same. Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy, for instance, in The Great Gatsby, leads to Gatsby’s death at the hand of George Wilson. Each event has caused the next in the chain that brings us to this end.
10. We can think of the construction of a plot in utilitarian terms. Which is to say, fiction writers, in their early drafts, can pay attention to the details that appear and how they can use those details to good effect. Sometimes it’s as simple as this: plant a detail, use that detail. When I was drafting my latest novel, Late One Night, one of the early scenes involved one of the main characters carrying an old stuffed chair out behind the trailer where he lived with his family. When it came time to reveal the truth of what eventually happened to that family, that detail was there to use in the service of the plot.
Now the final words of this post, these from Ray Bradbury: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. . . . It is human desire let run. . . . It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”