Plotting is a Seven Letter Word
by Alex KeeganI write literate short fiction and mystery novels. Almost by definition, my readers must presume I plot my mystery books. Indeed reviews seem to suggest I do a good job of plotting. eg: "Plots and sub-plots are excellently paced."
So how in this article can I say I don't believe in plotting?
It's the words. Plot is a noun; plotting is a verb. A plot is an end-result, a thing, the structure of a story, the beginning-middle-end, with crises and resolutions, characters moving through time and space. Though there are very rare exceptions, all good stories have a plot and I would never say don't have a plot. This article will discuss how I end up with a plot, but without overt plotting. It will also add that I believe deliberately plotted books are weaker works of art.
There are four important people in a book: writer, narrator, character and reader. Of course "character" may be plural. As I see it, the more we involve the reader, the more we use the characters, the more we hear the narrator and not the writer, the better will be the book.
Now a plotter plots. In the most extreme case of plotting, he decides on his beginning, a setting, a character or characters and an event to affect the character(s). Because the total-plotter plots he is planning the next event too, and plans, not just his character and the problem but also how the character resolves the problem. That is, from outside, the writer is imposing his will on the characters. In the most extreme cases -- Agatha Christie went so far as to say it was necessary -- the characters are cardboard, pac-men being belted round an arcade maze, wooden chess-pieces with no soul. Worse, the author's own personality is less removed and we may feel more talked at and less involved, not as immersed as we should be in a dream-like series of events.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the world of experimental, often literary writing is the so-called plot-less book. I have no time for these and believe that there is probably more artifice in being plot-less than in overdoing the plot control.
What I advocate instead -- I'm a believer in theme (knowing the essence of a story) -- is a strong understanding of the characters, point-of-view, tone and feel of a piece, a certain signalling and directing opening, a powerful but maybe not articulated sense of the ending, (or at least the type of ending), and just a few incidents (plot islands) along the way. I think it was Rosamund Pilcher who likened stories to a clothes line. Her start and finish are strong stout poles and strung between them is a story; the fixed incidents are the hanging clothes blowing in the wind. She didn't say it, but maybe her theme is the clothes line. The thread and the sense of the controlling purpose of the story is what steers her characters with whispers.
Plotters decide for their characters. Plotters imagine they know their characters and they design the character's path, make the character's problems and solutions up for him. The plot's twists and turns are the author's: whether dispassionate, detached, intellectual, "clever", aware of the market, looking to be cute or different or to be unexpected and unpredictable.
But are they unpredictable? In fact, because 99% of our plot-driven ideas come from reading other plots and watching TV. We have come to expect the unexpected and we produce cliché and artifice to which the character has to adhere. Great writers can cover this up. Most of us cannot.
Theme and character-driven writers don't decide for their characters. They try not to interfere. They invest in the psyche of the character and their "plotting" is merely to occasionally invent obstacles, and present these obstacles to the character deliberately with no solution offered. Then, thinking as if they themselves are the characters, they try to work out a solution (the metaphor would be, they let the character solve the problem.)
Instead of imaging the character, the problem, the solution and the outcome, I make sure I know my character. I put her in a situation and then I imagine myself into the character's place, and as if I were the character, think, "Now how will I get out of this?" I don't care if the character's solution to the problem takes me a little away from where I intended. I welcome it. I may have lost a little bit of control, but I've gained immeasurably. My character behaves completely in character; I have removed myself, the author, and I've engineered freshness and spontaneity which simply can't be artificially imposed.
Of course, I have my few plot islands: the odd clothes on Rose Pilcher's washing line. Knowing my character very well, choosing (and only this) her problem (like God) I can guess, hope, and predict an outcome. Often I'm right, or am near enough so that it doesn't matter. Where I'm wrong, all I need to do is invent a problem to divert my character so she's back roughly on the path I require.
The way I might say I plot is that I'm a sneaky invisible character who you never see or hear. I'm like the Raven in The Stand or the bird in Willow. I whisper to the characters; I try subtly to persuade them. I come to them in their dreams and try to faintly alter their minds and hope when they wake up they'll do something a little closer to what I originally thought they would do. But I never twist their arms. They do their own thing.
A better analogy is that I'm a general. Before the battle, I tell the Platoon Commander that my intent is to capture a bridge. I drop my platoon 50 miles away and give them maps and arms, but I leave it to the platoon commander to find his way. Only if they radio HQ in deep trouble do I interfere at all. My basic strategy of knowing the end intended and choosing the right men and tools for the job, is enough.
Jack, my platoon leader, knows where he is and where he should be. I trust him. I can see him on my super-scope but I know he works better when I don't interfere... occasionally though I see Jack is heading towards danger. On the fly maybe I send a bomber in to remove something in his way or maybe I put some obstacle in his way that will force him to detour. But the decisions on the ground are made by Jack himself and not for Jack. I merely (rarely) alter the terrain.
If everything comes from Jack the whole mission will be a "Jack" mission, full of typical Jack things and Jack behaviour. It will feel "right" because the reader will sense, genuinely sense that Jack and not some puppet-master was making the decisions. If Jack was John Wayne we'd have a different execution to the one with Jack as Harrison Ford.
We learn about life from understanding actions and their results. We learn what cruelty is by seeing it or experiencing it, what kindness is by feeling it. The extra something that a story gives us, the residual meaning -- the bit that resonates and makes us want to read the book again or persuade our friends to read it -- that comes, not from the plot but from the behaviour of our central characters.
The meaning is in the people. Jack, the way he does things, has meaning and it's this meaning, done well that makes OK stories good and good ones great. That can only happen if the character is allowed to breathe and to act, to think and do things for himself. A plot imposed by the author stifles his freedom. Instead of seeing warmth and depth and colour we sense artifice.
James Frey said that the meaning of a story, what you want it to ultimately say (he called this premise), comes from your characters and how they solve their problems. Surely then we should let them solve their problems and not force solutions upon them?
Think of your characters: characters that ooze something, anything, whether they be evil or good, or hopeless in love, with dreams or cancer. It doesn't matter. People you can emote about, care about, empathise with. Imagine they are one-inch-tall. You're a giant. Let them play, but toy with them like the Gods on Olympus.
Give them something they want and need. Put them on the other end of the desk. Tell them they can have it. All they have to do is cross the desk.
Then put a small book in the way... then another... then a bigger book... then a really big one...
Then, three-quarters of the way across the desk, when they think they are are home free, smile, pick up the thing they were after, drop it on the floor and let the cat in. If they don't grow now, they die.
Send me the finished book and we'll get rich together.
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.