We’re excited to announce a series of posts on the craft of writing, written by the Authonomy team. These will cover a range of themes, from plot and characterisation, to pacing and narrative mode. They’re not exhaustive guides but hopefully you’ll find them a really helpful resource with lots of tips and tricks, whether you’re completely new to writing or have a bit more experience. We hope these guides will not only help you hone your own writing, but also help when critiquing others’.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on these topics, too, and any suggestions for subjects that you’d like us to cover, so please feel free to comment with your own opinions and advice.
Plot - ‘Chronology and Change’
Plotting was the obvious starting point for this series. It’s often the root of an idea and always the backbone of a story. Of course, you can’t completely separate the different aspects of writing; you can’t talk about plot without touching upon characterisation or pacing. It’s often the characters themselves that seem to dictate the course the story will take and it’s a sign of strong characterisation to have one’s characters rebel against the plot’s predetermined course, so listen to them closely. Your characters and plot should be natural products of each other.
“What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
Henry James, The Art of Fiction
While flexibility is vital, it’s wise to consider the course the story might take before undertaking too much writing. You might be desperate to get words on the page, but taking the time to plan the story will help prevent pacing issues, aimlessness, and contrivance. (Note that I’m not necessarily suggesting you write a full plan. Too much planning can make the writing stilted and mechanical, where the characters are forced to fit the story.) You also shouldn’t underestimate the work your subconscious does in shaping a narrative. Plans aren’t for sticking to, they’re a means for allowing your subconscious to mull ideas over and gift you those eureka moments. Think of any planning you do as a trellis on which the vine of your story can grow. You don’t set the course of the vine, you merely enable it. Once you have a good situation and setting for a story, you can then set your characters free within it. If those three elements are strong, your story will grow organically and be more authentic for it.
A good story is a significant and coherent series of incidents viewed in isolation of its narrative continuum. That is to say, there is a ‘before’ and often an ‘after’ too, even if they aren’t included in your novel (or whatever it may be). A good writer knows what happened before their story’s beginning and how it has shaped the characters and their contexts. Determining the points on that continuum where your story should begin and end is vital to creating a compelling and cogent read. If you find that your story is getting a little lost or lacks impetus, consider starting or ending it at a different point. There are no rules as to where those points should be but they are often significant events in the narrative or important thematically. A common and effective method is to frame your story with two similar scenes but have them differ in some significant way: two weddings, deaths, journeys. This lends a satisfying sense of closure and fittingness, and highlights the changes that have been wrought in the protagonists or their contexts.
This concept of change is another vital aspect of plot. There needs to be a feeling of progression as the reader is led from one incident to another. A good story will see the protagonist(s), their contexts, or both, change. Stories throughout human history have been about our interactions with change. From ancient biblical narratives and Greek tragedies, to modern day science fiction, the authors are addressing what it means to be human in an ever-shifting world and how that shapes us in turn. Whatever your plot may be, be sure that this sense of transition, this struggle between protagonist and environment, is conveyed to the reader. And be aware that what you’re capturing is a portion of a constant narrative.
Of course, the way you present the story needn’t adhere to its natural chronology. By all means, begin at the end, with a mysterious discovery or a poignant moment. Then give it meaning by stepping back in time and progressing to that point. Or run the stories of two protagonists in parallel and have them intersect down the line. However you choose to present your plot, understand why you’ve done it that way. Has it maximised the drama of the story’s central incidents? Does it give meaning to its messages and themes?
Plot is not a linear march from one point to another, nor simply a series of incidents. It is the meaningful progression of character and subject. Consider the significance of each moment and how it affects the reader’s perception of your characters. After all, it’s the characters we’re interested in. They carry the story and are often the lenses through which we view the world.
Therefore, it’s essential that your characters are convincing and compelling. Which leads nicely on to the next post in the series, where we’ll be exploring characterisation.