Disclaimer: As a scientist by inclination, I found this a tricky post to write in tone, as I felt myself drifting towards un-sourced generalisations (these are always bad). Hence, I shall disclaim now that what I write in this post should be considered more as my opinion and (in)experience, and that it may not hold true for all, or even most, writers.
Thus, inspired heavily by the excellent (if not slightly irritating, as all good advice is…) book by John Truby, I have been considering the stages that are required to plan a story.
It is my personal belief that in order to tell a tale, you first have to suspend the readers’ disbelief so that they’re receptive to your work, and are ready to be informed or entertained by it. In order to achieve this suspension, it is consistency rather than realism, that is key. In a logical sense, it should be valid even if it is not sound. The inferences you make in the story should all be self-consistent, even if the premises it is built on are fantastical (such as in most speculative fiction).
Above this, though, the work must be interesting. It’s fine if it makes sense, but if there’s nothing to draw in the reader, even if it’s utterly believable, it’s not going to be read.
Thus, in generating a storyline that will satisfy credibility and still be interesting, there are several ‘pillars’ that have to be considered. I present them here as separate strands, they are crucially interlinked. I find usually that picking at one gives me insight into how the others will shape out. I list these components in the order I think most important.
The meat of the novel are the characters that are in it. For example, in Harry Potter, I am more likely to remember the cloud-headed Luna Lovegood than what happened 2/3rds into The Order of the Phoenix.
Characters can give real texture to a work; but if you’re trying to tell a tightly crafted tale, it’s important that you generate a character who is going to contribute to the story in some way. Here, I recommend the advice put forth by Truby: know what your characters want.
If you know your characters’ desires, then as they act to obtain their desires, your story will pretty much generate itself. It is particularly useful if you can generate conflict by giving characters opposing goals, or even better, having two characters compete for the same goal, so that you can create a morally grey rivalry rather than a total black and white opposition.
By giving them their own agency, this makes the characters useful to the story (and they will practically write themselves once), but how can they be made interesting to the reader? This can be achieved by heeding the old adage about giving your hero a “character flaw”. This doesn’t mean all your characters have to be tortured Byronic heroes (such as Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre), or haunted by their mysterious past. Rather, it should be some kind of psychological problem your character needs to address before they’ll be able to achieve their desire. Usually (unlike the clichéd tortured hero with a dark past), the character is initially blind to their flaw, even if the rest of their world can see it.
A character without such a flaw will drift dangerously into Mary Sue territory; but a ‘fake’ flaw which causes them no real disadvantage (and hence having shallow effect on the plot) is just as bad. For your protagonist, it is good if they also have a moral shortcoming, which causes them to hurt those around them in some way.
Trudy recommends that the character’s greatest flaw should be realised by the protagonist in the final confrontation with the opponent at the climax of the story (although they can be confronted with it earlier, and shrug it off, if they want). This is usually the most major portion of the character development, and if the flaw is resolved too early in the plot, the character’s development will be halted and make them boring.
For example, in Iron Man, Tony Stark’s character development happens entirely in the first thirty minutes, and after this, he becomes a collection of witty quips with no real substance. His own shortcomings are not tied into the conflict in any meaningful way, and I can’t even remember who his opponent was, as there was no real tension to their clash. Contrast the ensemble work The Avengers, where it is obvious to everyone but the heroes themselves that they need to work together to be victorious, and this revelation only comes to them in the last quarter of the film, allowing them an excuse to step things up a gear and start kicking ass.
If there is some moral point you’re trying to make in your story, or some theme you’re trying to explore in any depth, if you just tack it onto the end, it will feel trite and contrived. Thus, at an early point of the planning stage, I think it’s important to consider the underlying message you’re trying to tell.
This one may be controversial to some authors, who would argue they’re just trying to tell a good story, and that morality or social influence has nothing to do with it. These people need to realise that their gut feeling of what a ‘good story’ to them is the sum of their upbringing, social interactions and stories consumed to date. If you attempt to write ‘without moral consideration’, all that will happen is that you will unwittingly and uncritically propagate the morals you have previously had thrust on you by others. You will not end up putting forth an amoral work, but rather one with a confused morality not of your own choosing. It’s always best to ask yourself ‘what are you trying to say?’
Beyond the social obligation, I think being aware of your theme is important to give a sense of narrative continuity through the story, and a good theme can be used to make your story interesting and coherent.
There are many ways this can be played. A moral dilemma can be explored by having the protagonist and their rival take opposing viewpoints to the same problem. Or, if the story has side-plots that not critical to the series of events in the main story, these can be made to feel more integral to the narrative if they explore another aspect or variant of the same dilemma as the main plot.
Plot is the backbone of the story: the ‘what happens, and how?’ It’s crucial to have at least a minimal level of plot, as otherwise nothing will happen in your tale. However, the reason I put this relatively far down the list is if you know who your characters are, and what moral dilemma they’re going to face, your plot has practically written itself already.
It’s always good if your plot contrives to put your characters into as much conflict as possible, as then the characters will drive things forward. If the plot is not driven by characters, I believe there is an increased danger that you will fail to suspend disbelief, as for anything to happen, it will seem to take a series of ridiculously unlucky world events, or your characters will have to act out of their usual personalities. In both of these cases, the authorial presence forcing the plot along will be detected by the reader, and the story will feel contrived.
Furthermore, the plot should surprise the reader when it happens (as if it’s predictable, there’s no point in reading).However, after the event has occurred, it should seem inevitable to have happened. This is a fine line, and I personally believe it’s easiest to stay on the right side of it when the plot advances result from a conflict of interests and personalities. The element of surprise from these interactions comes by not having all your characters reveal everything about themselves in their first introduction- you should allow them to keep secrets which are revealed at a point where they’ll have maximum impact (it’s a waste of a good secret if it’s told without any drama!)
Although I utterly love a good setting, this strand I have ranked the lowest in importance in terms of forming a plan, simply because the world must fit your story. The setting should always play as a foil to the characters and story, or even as part of the theme (see China Miéville’s City and the City, which is definitely secretly about gender).
This perhaps seems like a solipsistic view to take, but unless the moral purpose of your novel is to reflect upon the insignificance of a single person, your entire world will only be given meaning in the context of your characters’ interactions with it. Thus, you are allowed to ‘cheat’ and make things in your world the way they are in order to maximize the interactions and conflicts between your characters and drive forward your plot.
Creating a good setting is what I think makes writing good speculative fiction much harder than literary fiction: you have to make your setting consistent. Your world must abide by its own rules. To come up with rules that both apply consistently and also allow all your plot points to occur is very tricky. In fact, it will almost certainly not work the first time round, and the process of adapting the plot and setting must be iterative, tweaking the two strands until they make sense together. However, I would say it’s not worth sacrificing an exciting plot for the details of setting- if the setting clashes with the plot, no matter how cool it may seem to you, it will only be remembered by the reader as something that didn’t make sense in the story.
This applies also to setting your story in literary fiction. For example, if your story has two characters who always argue, and your plot contrives to make them live together, then at a setting level, you should make it that their house is very small, or only has one shared bathroom, or a cramped kitchen, so that the characters have no choice but to continually interact and wind each other up. Here, you may have to sacrifice the ‘most realistic’ for the most interesting (as opposed to the ‘most fantastic’ for the most interesting)- but the point is the same, your world must bend to make your story work.
Finally, the presentation of your setting should also be considered. One must work out where in the story the reader is likely to learn a particular fact about your setting. In speculative fiction, fantastic worlds have always captured my attention- but for them to really stick, you can’t just describe a series of cool things. The reader will not take it in if it’s not relevant. The world has to be discovered through the hero of the story, and be revealed such that the reader is introduced to new things (or has older things explained) at a pace that controls the advancement of the plot.
If you tell the reader everything there is to know about your world in the first chapter, speed-readers will skip over half of it, and whatever we did ‘take in’ will have been forgotten by the next chapter. Slower readers won’t even bother finishing the first chapter. If your plot can have the character discover a few new things at a time, you won’t totally overwhelm the reader. This is why memorable stories have the main-character initially as an outsider to the world they discover (e.g. Harry Potter is as new to the wizarding world as the reader), giving a non-contrived excuse for new things to be explained or even noticed. If the hero has been in a fantastic world all their life, it will jar the reader if he notices every little detail. This, by the way, also holds true if the character meets a ‘best friend’ who they’ve known forever, and for some reason describes every minute detail of their physical appearance. It does not make sense!
I hope this gives potential plotters something to think about. I’m eager to hear about any other experiences people have had with coming up with storylines- what works for them, and what’s tricky. Hopefully my next writing post will be shorter, and more to do with what I’m actually working on…