The plot thickens: no spoilers

Tightly wound or free-flowing? Well charted or twists and turns? Jojo Moyes, Sam Lipsyte, John Connolly, Lia Mills and Tana French on plotting your book

Jojo Moyes, Sam Lipstye, Lia Mills, and John Connolly

Jojo Moyes, Sam Lipstye, Lia Mills, and John Connolly


For writers, plot is one of the most divisive components of a novel or short story. Some hew to the idea of a tightly plotted story, others believe the concept is far more intangible. In On Writing (a book every aspiring writer should own), Stephen King declares that he doesn’t trust plot, “because our lives are largely plotless . . . and because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”.

For such a story-focused writer, King’s aversion to plot is surprising. John Connolly recently published his 12th Charlie Parker novel, The Wolf in Winter (he also co-wrote Conquest with Jennie Ridyard last year) and believes that plot isn’t specific to genre. “One of the misconceptions about genre fiction is that it’s all plot-driven. All good fiction is character-driven, regardless of genre. Plot is determined by character – after all, it’s what characters do. We also read for character, not plot.

“If you get the characters right, then what they do will derive naturally from their actions. Otherwise, you’re shoehorning stereotypes into a preordained structure, and that’s a recipe for bad writing.”

Knowing the structure in advance works for some, including Jojo Moyes (bestselling author of Me Before You and The One Plus One) but she believes writers should run with diversions. “I’m one of those pre-plotters who uses whiteboards and post-its to check where I’m going. In nearly every book I’ve ever written, I’ve ended up somewhere a little different, because the characters have insisted on diverting it in another direction. If your plot deviates significantly because of your characters, it’s usually worth asking why. Am I actually working with the wrong plot?”

There is often an assumption that crime writers prioritise plot. From whodunnits to forensic thrillers, plot can dominate, but for Tana French – whose new book, The Secret Place, is out in August – there is no story without people to steer it along. “I plot as I write. When I start a book, I have a basic premise, a narrator, and a core setting, and then I jump in and hope there’s a book in there somewhere. I have to get to know the characters in a bit of depth before I can work out who would do what, and the only way I can get to know them is by writing them for a while.”

When things get unwieldy

Lia Mills’s just-published novel, Fallen, tackles the Easter Rising and Irish involvement in the first World War. She is wary of plotting in advance, but she doesn’t relax into a novel until she has “a fair idea” of where it might end. She does, however, have some practical advice for when a draft gets unwieldy.

“When I feel swamped, I write scene lists and timelines and try to work out who’s where, when, why and what happens next. File cards are great when you work in this disorderly way: one card per scene containing a very brief description. Then spread them out on the kitchen table or tack them to a corkboard and look at the order. Move them around to see if they fit better somewhere else. Shuffle them to see what happens. You can do this with scenes you haven’t written yet; just put ‘bandstand’ or ‘knife’ or ‘When they meet’ and fill them, or join them up later.”

Mills makes an important point: many writers get bogged down on the chronology of their book and in trying to write chronologically. By making notes on scenes, a writer is freer to move around within their story, and come back to relevant parts when they feel ready to write them. After 12 novels, Jojo Moyes has a handle on the intricacies of plotting. “The more books I write, the more I realise that those that work do so because something in the characters is compelling or universal, and that’s what people tend to remember long after they’ve finished the book. Plot is really important (one of my big complaints about a lot of ‘literary’ novels is that often the plot tails away) but for me, it’s not more important than character. However, it’s vital to have a few twists – there’s nothing worse than a plot that meanders from A to B or which is entirely predictable.”

A sense of momentum

Plot can seem essential to the longer arc of a novel, but less so for a short story, which relies on just a handful of pages to draw in the reader. American writer Sam Lipsyte (who also writes novels) published his latest short-story collection, The Fun Parts, earlier this year. He believes that, while plot is important for some writers, it is kinetic energy that will ultimately move your story on. “I’m more concerned with momentum generated through language and character. I want the reader to have the sense of moving through a fascinating, unpredictable world and a ‘tight’ plot isn’t the only way to achieve this.”

Defining plot can be as difficult and subjective as deciding what works and what doesn’t. John Connolly has just read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and says that, although the plot is “pretty straightforward”, what makes it engrossing is the characters. “Problems with plot tend to derive from problems with characters – get them right, and plot largely looks after itself,” says Connolly.

While it’s never as reductive as Raymond Chandler’s line “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand”, a deft plot can overcome a writer’s limitations with language or style. “There is nothing better than being in the grip of a writer who steers you in unexpected directions, while allowing you the confidence that they are going to tie up the loose ends in a clever way,” says Jojo Moyes. “If I have a structural problem, it usually requires what I call ‘big thinking’, ie thinking done in lengthy, uncluttered hours, where I go away and do nothing but write and think about plot problems and how to unravel them.”

Stepping back can help with spotting glitches, but be prepared to make changes, even if the story goes in a direction you didn’t expect. If Tana French tries to force characters to do or say something that’s not in their personality, “it means there’s something wrong with the plot. I fix it by letting go of what I had intended to happen, and figuring out if the character would actually do whatever it is I’m hoping will happen – and then see where that takes me.”

Books on the craft of writing can help if you become stuck. Lia Mills recommends Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers. “Torque, motion, and conflict – with regard to characters and language – are essential things,” says Sam Lipsyte. “Plots grow organically out of these elements. Otherwise they seem rather formulaic. I need to write a few drafts of something to even have an inkling of what I’m trying to do, and I’m constantly revising as I go.”

How to Write a Book continues every Monday in The Irish Times

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