It’s really difficult to start a novel. Where do you begin? How many pages should be in a chapter? Should you outline? Should you just go for it? What about chapter titles? Chapter titles or numbers, which should it be?
Eventually these questions turn into extreme procrastinatory measures (if procrastinatory is not a word, consider it invented), such as a search for the perfect quote to put on its own page at the start of the novel, endless adjustment of margins and formatting, and “research” in the form of checking one’s e-mail.
Having worked with many authors in the past, it’s fascinating to see how many different styles there are. You have the planners, who outline every last detail ahead of time and churn out an almost-perfect first draft, and then you have the revisers, who write their way to what the novel is about, figure it out around page 150, and then go back and scrap the first 150 pages and rewrite them.
But in my opinion, there is absolutely one thing every writer should start with before they begin writing. And that’s a plot.
And do you have a plot? No really, do you?
Multiple choice quiz! Hope you did your homework.
Which one of these is a plot:
- Four women find redemption and love on a trip to Italy
- A young man comes of age in an unpronounceable kingdom
- A man and his video game collection discover the true meaning of love
- Four friends realize they hate each other
The answer: none of the above!
These are not plots. They are themes. (Or at least what I call themes.) So many times when I ask people what’s the plot they tell me what the novel is about. “It’s about a young man who comes of age and discovers the meaning of life!” (note: also not a plot) All of these themes are descriptions of what is happening beneath the surface of the novel. It’s what the novel is about. When I ask for the plot I don’t want to know what the novel is about. I want to know what happens.
So let’s try that again. Spot the plot in these:
- Snakes get loose on a plane
- A cat with a hat arrives to entertain children
- A crazy general is hiding out in the jungle
- The world is going to end when the Mayan calendar runs out in 2012 (because the Mayans were right about EVERYTHING)
Which is the plot?
Also none of the above. (I’m so predictable.)
These are not plots — they are hooks! Or premises! Whichever label you prefer! They are a starting place. Also not a plot. A premise is just that — a starting point. But where does the novel go from there?
What makes a plot
Ok. So. Enough quizzes. What makes a plot?
Think of a book like a really big door, preferably one of those Parisian ones that are thick and heavy and last hundreds of years. Here’s how it breaks down. Bullet point time!
- The premise, or the inciting incident, is what happens to knock the door ajar. Something sets the protagonist’s life out of balance. Preferably something really intriguing or like totally deep man.
- The climax is when the door closes. Maybe the protagonist made it through the door, maybe they didn’t make it through the door but learned a really great lesson about door closing, maybe the door chopped them in half.
- The theme is how the person opening the door changes along the way.
What’s the plot? The plot is what keeps the door open!! Why can’t that person close the door?
So basically, plot is a premise plus a major complication that tests the protagonist. It’s what opens the door plus what’s keeping the door from being closed.
Gilead: An aging man writes a letter to his young son (premise) because he doesn’t think he’ll live long enough for his son to really know him (complication — also don’t you want to cry already?)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A young orphan in Paris wants to repair an automaton because he thinks it will give him a letter from his deceased father (premise — also tears), but in order to do so he must avoid the Station Inspector and enlist the help of a mysterious toy store owner (complication).
A good plot starts with an interesting premise and an interesting door-block. A great plot also implies a quest and a resolution, which is what makes the reader want to read more. We don’t like chaos, we want to see order restored, we want an interesting journey along the way, and we want to see the ways a character changes after facing these obstacles.
So when you’re starting a novel, don’t just think of a theme and leave it at that. The complications are everything.
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Art: Tagebucheintrag by August Müller
As a wannabe writer from my early teenage years I had lots and lots of started themes and stories but I could not finish them because somewhat they became watered down at some point. But this post pointed some stupidities I made while writing. The finished story arcs rushed to my head now, so clear easy write.
So thank you, Mr. Bransford, words cannot express how grateful I am. Thanks again, and If I ever get published I promise to put dedication to you as the person who opened my eyes for the great fun that writing is.
Everyone has said, "Thank you." I want to say, "THANK YOU!" I'm a beginning writer and so far I have idea #1, idea #2, idea #3, and so on.
Your blog has given me tremendous insight. I appreciated the analogy about the door and now I am anxious to scrap ideas to come up with a plot.
Again, thank you.
I'm still struggling with how explicit the conflict has to be in a one or two sentence summary of a novel. If I say "An unlikely friendship between a squirrel and a talking peanut leads to the discovery of a lost Confederate treasure and a gang of pirate chickens" would I have to spell out "the chickens are out to find the treasure for nefarious reasons and our unlikely duo has to save the day" or is that understood from context? Do you have to say "and therefore there will be conflict" or can it be implied?
Rachel Berkowitz says
Nathan — just wanted to say thanks so much for this post (and for the rest of your blog)! As a new writer, your tips have been so incredibly helpful and I really appreciate you providing such a wealth of knowledge for aspiring writers. The way you explain things is super intuitive (and funny), and learning from you has been really enjoyable so far. Thanks a million! So glad I happened to come across your site 🙂
Nathan Bransford says
Thanks, I appreciate your comemnt!
Gladys Bauer says
Thanks a lot for the “plot jewel” that has reached me while plotting another story, even though simultaneously working on the query letter for the first. Now, my hands are full of priceless advice on both endeavours.
Thanks a lot, Nathan.