4 min read

Plotting Your Novel

Plotting Your Novel

Dear friends,

One of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction is plotting. It’s not surprising that most literary novelists would rather skip it. As a reader, however, I have always, instinctively, loved a powerful plot. My first “books” were strongly plotted; I still feel like a historical novel about Laura, the daughter of a Venetian glassblower, whose family who flees Napoleon was a pretty worthy project for a fourth grader.

In middle school, I read John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist many times and continued rereading it once a year until I was thirty and had already finished drafting and revising two novels. This book has been on my mind again lately. Gardner says,

“real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another.”

Often beginning novelists struggle to craft events that are causally related or write passive characters. I struggled, at eighteen, with both, but especially the latter. My tendencies were exacerbated by binge-reading 18th century British novels like A Sentimental Journey, ‘90s short stories, and experimental novels.

But there are also writers for whom plotting appears to be second nature. One is Emily Holleman. Emily is the author of the feminist historical novels Cleopatra's Shadows and The Drowning King, which tell Cleopatra's story from the perspective of her forgotten siblings.

Most recently, The Cut ran Emily's moving and harrowing personal essay on giving birth when evacuated from her home in the Santa Cruz Mountains during a wildfire and learning optimism as a new parent.

In the speculative novel I’m drafting, the personalities of the two main characters are fused with the plot, and it's mostly being written for me, dreamlike, but over the last weeks, I've been questioning my use of event: Why is this important? What does it advance? Emily agreed to talk to me about plot and she has great observations:

I admire your immense talent for plot and storytelling. Having read earlier drafts of both your fiction and nonfiction, it seems like plotting probably comes naturally to you, but when and where did you learn how to plot?

Plotting does feel “natural” to me—I learned a lot through osmosis, by reading and consuming different stories across genres and media. But I’d also point out that historical fiction gives you a huge crutch—you get the bones of a plot for free! You just need to decide where to begin and end, and you can build your story arc from there.

On my most recent project, which is speculative rather than historical fiction, I had to toss the first hundred pages I wrote, because my characters just kept moping around and never actually did anything to push the story forward. So, on the advice of an editor friend, I begrudgingly did a full TV-style “beat sheet” to outline the entire plot. Even though the story evolved dramatically during the writing process, it was useful to have a roadmap to make sure that some story actually happened.

Which comes first for you, assuming they don't come fully formed, plot or character?

I almost always start with characters. Usually, they appear more as ideas for people rather than fully-fledged ones. What draws me into the writing process is discovering who they are, what makes them tick, and most crucially how they change over the course of the story.

Your novels include such compelling conflicts involving power. How do you heighten drama in your own fiction during revision?

I start by asking myself what’s at stake for each character in every scene, and I think about what elements can be tweaked to heighten those stakes. What is each character carrying into this scene? What is the emotional match that makes this tinderbox explode? Is there a more resonant setting for this particular scene? What changes if this argument between two siblings shifts from a take-out restaurant to the rundown interior of their childhood home?

What are the earliest stories you can remember telling?

When I was eleven or twelve, I spent months and months writing this epic fantasy story full of magic and curses and forbidden love (because, apparently, who doesn’t love a good sibling incest plotline?). All the characters died at the end, because at the time I was pretty sure that was what made something “good literature.”

You write well-researched fiction both about the deep past and the near future. What’s your process for weaving your research with an original story?

I flip back and forth between the generative and research processes. When I feel really sparked by a moment or character, I often jump right into writing, even if it’s only exploratory stuff that doesn’t make it into later drafts. When that initial creative energy ebbs, I flip back to research again. On historical projects, I usually try to get some sense of overarching chronology and main players before diving too deep into the drafting process. The more sensory details of a time and place, I often return to again and again as I’m writing and rewriting. That’s both the blessing and the curse when writing about other worlds—you can always return to the well.

What are you reading now that you recommend?

I was in a bit of a fiction rut, so I returned to Ishiguro's quiet and devastating The Remains of the Day, which always teaches me something new about how subtle revelations can be used to shape the meaning of a story.

A note: I'm trying to gather stories about the Bay Area from people who lived here prior to 2010. If that's you, please contact me — I would like to briefly interview you.  anitafelicelli AT gmail.com. Feel free, too, to send me your questions, if you'd like advice about writing, reading, or the lit world —I will keep inquiries anonymous, unless you'd prefer otherwise.  Thanks for reading!