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May 2009 Worlds Apart

The Work of Writing III


Over the last couple of months we’ve been looking at questions and issues covering what you would like to write, how you would like to write it and how to get started. It’s been quite general, but now I want to turn to more specific matters and look at things such as plotting, character development, point of view and so on. Remember we’ll be dealing with all these things within the context of creating historical fiction, which is what we’re all about here at Worlds Apart.


We discussed the question of choosing an historical period in which to set your story in a previous column, so we won’t go into that again now. Let us simply assume you know your historical context and you have at least a general storyline in mind.


Some people think it is only mystery stories that have a plot, but that’s not really the case. Adventure stories, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, all have plots because all stories, regardless of genre, must have a beginning, a middle and an end. That sounds simple enough, I suppose, but it’s really another way of saying that a story has to go somewhere. It has to show something. There has to be a line to follow. You can write a story about life in the British Navy in the eighteenth century, but how will you show that life? From what perspective? What will happen and who will it happen to? That is to say, what will the plot be?


Assuming, as we said, you have a general storyline in mind, you will probably develop your plot from that, but don’t feel you must have everything in place before you start. I know writers who lay out their plots and stories in meticulous detail and answer all the questions before they put a single word onto paper, but I don’t do that, and you don’t have to either, unless that is the way you prefer to work. That level of planning is not a requirement, although some will not agree with me.


So what is a plot?


For my purposes, I think of my plots as the structure of the story. The design construct that holds everything together. You could call it the roadmap. I write crime mysteries for the most part (there are other kinds of mysteries of course) and I regard the plot as the framework of the story. The story could be about the murder of a man, but the plot answers questions such as where the murder took place, how was it discovered, who investigates it, what clues appear and how are they recognized and followed up, what is the motive and, of course, whodunit? In some senses mysteries are nice and tidy in that generally speaking the crime is the beginning of the story, the investigation is the middle and the revelation of whodunit forms the end, but it can often be more complicated than that. There are usually subplots, red herrings that lead investigators astray and so on.


For those of you who do not write mysteries, the issue of plot is just as critical. Even if a crime is not being committed or investigated, the story must still develop according to a design, and one of the most fundamental elements of story design in all genres of fiction is conflict.


Conflict is critical in the writing of fiction, and it is sufficiently important that I want to devote an entire column to it next month. It is central to the issue of plot, character development and all the other elements of good story-telling.


See you here next month,