“I keep six honest serving men. (They taught me all I know.) Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.” Rudyard Kipling
And now for the story, the plot. Write out a loose map of the story for yourself. Why do I say loose? Because it will change as you write your first draft, and you also don’t want to feel you are writing a legal brief. Give yourself freedom to take unknown twists and turns but have a loose guide of events for you to follow so you don’t feel too lost in the storm of the story.
What must each chapter do? Each chapter advances towards your end game. Make sure each advancement is in a scene. Show people doing something together, betraying themselves. Make sure your plot is tight. You don’t need to add in the grandmother’s back story into your plot unless the whole thing hinges on that and then it shouldn’t come in as back story anyway.
As I’ve said, you don’t have to be exact about your plot plan as you write your first draft. “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E L Doctorow
But never forget that readers like to move forward in a story. Of course, people use flashbacks but they should not be a crutch. They can sometimes be a poetic support, transition, lyrical interlude but usually the readers are thinking, “Let’s get on with it.”
That said, your plot does not have to be hijinks and high speed car races. Your plot can be simple. As long as there is movement of the heart, you have a plot. So don’t feel, “Oh I have to do 10 thousand twists and turns.” Deus ex machina acts of god at the end are not plot twists. They will feel contrived. Don’t kill the main character off for no reason other than you don’t know how to end the book. Everything that happens must happen from the consequences of your character’s actions.
Time is always a safe plot because things happen with time. All books are about what the characters think their longings are and then the brutal discovery of what the characters are really longing for. This plot line is good enough if you have vibrant characters we care about.
Dostoyevsky, Balzac and many nineteenth century novelists wrote about money. How the lack of it or the abundance of it created a person’s circumstances, revealed character. Nothing revealed the baldness of character more than the grasping for money.
American literature of the twenties and thirties dealt with the hardship of living. The forties were how to participate in a mad world. The fifties and sixties literature became interested in the vagaries and loneliness of the mind. The seventies showed how family can stultify. The eighties became preoccupied with dealing with cancer and AIDS. The nineties became madly interested in people of different ethnicities. This next century begins a literature sustaining humanity as the antiseptic as technology takes over.
There are hundreds of ideas for plots although Aristotle I think said there are only 9. In a way that is true. We have relationships, we want things and if one was to put geometry to plots, they really are all about wanting love, freedom, making mistakes, and learning. We struggle for something and that journey/struggle is the plot.
Since no rules for a novel hold up (you can always cite a great novel that broke the rules) and since many great novels do break rules, I don’t want to set out a set of precepts for you. I am of the school that if you write from the heart and make sure the story advances, then you may have a novel. You do need an initiating event, as they say. Why is this day/hour/moment different? Some set of events are set in motion. But then we think of the book, REMAINS OF THE DAY, by Ishiguro and seemingly nothing is happening till we realize what is happening without being said. So, as I said, there are no rules.
But there must be a story. Somerset Maugham put it, “If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.” What he means is that everyone loves a story. Everyone likes to be subsumed into a narrative where the characters want to get somewhere or love someone or be someone and they have to deal with the vicissitudes of the responsibility of that desire. That is your plot. Along the way, the characters will be thwarted, they will be betrayed, they will be surprised by kindness but they will deal with issues as they go towards where they are going.
So write your plot out for yourself and look forward to the changes along the way. You may surprise yourself by suddenly deciding your character needs dogs and then perhaps a jealous boyfriend will kill the dog walker (that’s a bit much, I know, but I use it as mega-illustration to prove a point.) You may decide that you will get the main character back together with the man you originally thought would disappear. Or you won’t. That you might leave it ambiguous (which means the reader thinks they might get back together.) Ah, hope.
Some people can write a story without any road map at all. One things leads to another. This can be a lot of fun for the writer and it means that the editing process can be arduous because there will be wrong turns, but what is true is that the writer is trusting his or her unconscious to give the writer the story. It means the author knows that he or she is so in touch with the characters that the author knows he or she will choose the right next action. If you feel you are one of those people, then write that way.
One of the many interesting parts of writing a novel is discovering that what you thought you were writing about becomes something different. As an example, I have a student writing about a child and she told me that the father was a villain in the story. Once she finished the story, she discovered what she had written was a story about missing the father and almost a love story to a man who could not function as a normal person. She ended up making the father the hero, without knowing it.
Authors are just as surprised sometimes by what they write as the reader. You may not know what your unconscious is up to, but trust it because what you can be sure of is that your unconscious is honest. And a great assistant as you write your first draft.