No writer of the first order needs the formula any more than a sound man needs a crutch. In his simplest moods, when he is seeking to amuse, he does not manufacture a plot, he tells a story. (George Bernard Shaw)
Writing a novel is about telling a story. This involves preparing a plot (storyline or sequence of events), setting the scene, creating credible characters and putting realistic dialogue into their mouths. When you are preparing the plot for your novel you should be planning not only the basic storyline but how to use characters and incidents to sustain the reader’s interest.
Some people might think there is a mathematical or magical formula for creating a good plot with plenty of excitement. However, such an assumption is misleading. I can give you guidelines but the rest is up to you. The rigid plotting devices that some books advocate are not satisfactory. Every author is an individual in the way he works just as every plot should be unique in its execution.
Where to find ideas
Initially, when you start to consider writing a novel you must decide whether you already have a plot in mind and, if not, how does one arrive at a plot? The seeds of potential plots are already within you and around you.
A writer’s childhood is his/her treasure-chest. Children are more observant than adults might realise. Things are seen and overheard as a child, which are not always fully understood. Questions may remain unresolved. If retrieved from the subconscious these memories, when considered with hindsight by an adult mind, may bring realisation that a drama (of which one was, at the time, not fully aware) was being enacted within one’s immediate orbit. Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The fact that you may never arrive at the truth of the matter only makes it more intriguing and allows your imagination to range unfettered.
Inspiration is all around you
Throughout your life things are happening to you and around you which are fodder for your imagination and speculation. These can include the adventures of friends; events at work; a holiday experience; something seen on television, in a newspaper, or heard on radio. Occasionally, something read in a book can trigger an idea, but do not plagiarise.
These are just a few examples and there are, of course, other sources of plots which you will discover. Nothing that happens to a writer, fortunate or unfortunate, need ever be wasted. Learn to be observant and vigilant, receptive to ideas and aware, too, of the natural world around you. But avoid taking too many details from real life. Get your basic idea by all means but then use your imagination. A novel should be an exercise in creativity.
Whether you are writing about something you witnessed, something that happened to you or creating an entirely fictional story, avoid too much unnecessary and mundane information. Sending a character to make a cup of tea is a well-known ploy of the writer who is at a loss as to how to proceed. If you find your mind idling and feel you can get closer to a visualisation of your character by following him or her through a series of routine activities then by all means do that – but be prepared to cut out the passage later, once it has served its purpose in assisting you to get into the swing of the real narrative. Of course the depiction of routine activities may well be relevant if it serves to demonstrate an aspect of the character’s nature.
One of the arts of writing is to know when to excise and condense. Bear in mind that everything which you permit to remain in your writing must have some purpose, some relevance.
Do not feel constrained by the frequently given advice to write only about what you know. Remember the acquisition of knowledge is a continuous process. If you wish to introduce into your story an aspect of living about which you are ignorant then research and become sufficiently enlightened for the purpose of your story.
A person you know and may have observed, however superficially, may trigger a process of imaginative speculation. An item in a newspaper may, similarly, set in motion a train of thought. Perhaps a woman has been reported missing, having left home on what appeared to be no more than a visit to the shops. Her family is apparently at a loss to understand why she would wish to leave of her own free will, but the fact that she was seen entering the local railway station alone, does suggest that is what she has done. That might capture your interest as you try to imagine what could have gone wrong within a family which causes the wife and mother to leave and the other members of the family to be, or at least claim to be, ignorant of the root cause of her action.
Tolstoy is reputed to have read a news item about a woman who had thrown herself under a train. That was the seed from which, years later, grew his great novel, Anna Karenina.
Seed thoughts & social issues
A story that your grandfather told you in your childhood concerning an incident in his father’s life might lodge in your mind and resurface many years later. It might spark off a novel. And although the story told occurred in the early part of the last century it does not necessarily have to be set in that time. You can set it in contemporary times, if it fits.
You may want to write a novel which will bring the attention of your readers to some human predicament about which you are deeply concerned. For example, what it must be like to be homeless, to suffer from physical disability, the effect the birth of a disabled child must have on parents, how a woman and her children cope when her husband, their father, is in prison and so forth.
Be subtle, resist pulpit thumping, which will only alienate the very sympathies which you wish to engage. Provide a good, strong story which will hold your readers’ attention and your social message, whatever it may be, will be absorbed almost incidentally. A well-written novel may be more effective in raising people’s awareness of the problems of their fellows than a dry, factual treatise on the subject. Just think of Charles Dickens and his compassion for the children and slum-dwellers of his time.
Go easy. Make sure you are not standing on a soap box. You may be saying something which really needs to be said, don’t fudge it by letting your concern outrun your control of what is primarily a novel to be read for purposes of enjoyment and enlightenment.
Developing your plot
When a plot begins to take shape in your mind, take your time. Make notes as your ideas become less shadowy. Sometimes the whole idea will remain too nebulous or fail to grip your imagination strongly enough to compel you to proceed further with it. There must be a sense of compulsion, a feeling that you will not be content until you have at least tried exercising your imaginative powers. You may not be ready to tackle it immediately but that seed may continue to grow in your subconscious for months, maybe even years, and the day may come when it bursts into life.
The seed of a story needs time to germinate, take root and bear fruit. But you should avoid procrastinating. Sometimes the idea cries out to be birthed after a sufficient gestation period. You may find that when the novel is finished there is little trace of the seed which first inspired it. That is not surprising. By the time a plant is fully grown the seed has been fully absorbed.
If you have a story inside you that is bursting to get out then it may be time to give it a go. That sense of compulsion, of being driven, is a vital ingredient in the life of the writer. Maybe you have told a story many times over to friends or perhaps there are family stories (and what family does not have stories) that have been honed by retelling over the years. There’s your material right there, under your nose. It might be time to put it under the noses of a wider audience/readership. Carpe Diem!
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.