Starting Your Novel With Plot: 3 Strengths and 3 Challenges

Image: close-up of a clock tower in a miniature city
“Miniature World, Victoria, B.C.” by Ruocaled is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

In my work as a book coach, I’ve found that writers of fiction generally fall into three camps: those who start with character, those who start with plot or story concept, and those who start with theme. In part two of this three-part series (here is part one), I’ll address the natural strengths of those who tend to start with plot, along with some challenges these types of writers tend to face.

Plot people, generally speaking, are idea people. A new story may arrive in the form of a concept they’re fascinated by—say, the idea that aliens might be symbiotic beings, in much the same way that lichens are—or an intriguing question: What if two twins, dissatisfied with their lives and marriages, decided to pass as each other for a year?

Or they might be interested in writing a type of story. Say, a thriller that revolves around the trafficking of endangered species, or a story that combines elements of space opera and noir.

Either way, when that big idea arrives, it begins to take hold in the writer’s imagination, and soon begins to sprout into a plot, often one with fascinating twists and turns: Lichens here on Earth are actually aliens too. The switched twins are in fact living out the Welsh fairy tale of Prince Pwyll and King Arawn. The apparent trafficker of endangered species is in fact an undercover Interpol agent. The “woman in red” in that space opera/noir is actually an interstellar phishing scheme.

These types of writers often engage in detailed world building, discovering more intriguing ideas and story threads in the process, and what starts off as an idea for one book soon overflows into a trilogy or a series.

Writers who start with plot may struggle in academic creative writing programs, which tend to privilege character over plot, and literary fiction over “genre fiction.” But starting with plot is just as solid a strategy as starting with character, for the following reasons:

Strength: Plot is inherently high-concept

Those who start with character often wind up describing their book as something like, “a family saga set in Florida” or “a woman trying to decide whether or not to leave her marriage.” Whether such stories will appeal to readers (and hence, publishing pros) is almost entirely a matter of execution.

Writers who start with plot don’t face that issue. They can describe their book in a sentence or two that will get the attention of both readers and publishing professionals, because the story concept speaks for itself.

Strength: Readers love plot

Yes, there’s a solid market for character-driven fiction—but the market for plot-driven fiction is substantially larger, encompassing genres like speculative fiction and mysteries/thrillers.

Writers with an intuitive sense of plot don’t struggle to keep their readers turning the pages. In their stories, A leads to B leads to C, and D is that mind-blowing twist that keeps the reader up way past her bedtime. Such writers tend to have a lot of rabbits hidden up their sleeve, so to speak, and for the reader, there’s a real sense of delight when one after the next is revealed.

Strength: There’s no question of what happens

What happens in the story is what’s necessary to reveal the ideas the author is working with. I often use the metaphor of the field and the path: The field is the world of the story, and the concepts the writer is working with, while the path is the plot that reveals them.

Writers who excel with plot are really people who excel at ideas: they know the field they want to traverse, so they pick the path that hits all the vistas they want to reveal. That’s a very different—and easier—proposition than trying to figure out what a given character or characters should do, or what should happen to them.

Even so, writers who start with plot tend to face a particular set of challenges.

Challenge: Lack of character arc

For writers who start with plot, the characters often start as a means to an end, the who that will discover the what. In order for the story to develop a sense of meaning and depth, they have to dig deeper with their characters in revision, exploring who these characters really are, what makes them tick, and the emotional journey they’ll make over the course of the story.

Plot keeps the reader turning the pages, to find out how A will lead to B. But at the end of the book, it’s not the events of the plot that makes the story feel meaningful, it’s the characters, and the way they’ve either learned and grown over the story or, tragically, failed to. This is the part that writers who start with plot often have to figure out, and layer in, in revision.

Challenge: The incredible expanding plot problem

The thing about being good at plot is…it’s hard to know when to stop. One thing leads to the next, leads to another, leads to a fascinating subplot, and then another, and then, before you know it, you’ve got 160,000 words of something that may not in fact be publishable.

I call this issue “the incredible expanding plot” because I think plot has an inherent tendency to escalate, like a soufflé that expands first to fill the whole oven and then the whole house. Writers with this problem either have to train themselves how to outline in a way that addresses character arc—a key factor in limiting the expansive nature of plot—or develop an eagle eye in revision for what’s really important in the story and what’s not.

Challenge: Lack of a real ending

Remember how I mentioned that writers who tend to start with plot often find themselves writing a series? One pitfall of this tendency is that such writers often don’t know how to actually end their first book in a way that will be satisfying for the reader.

I find that such writers often want to hold onto some big development until Book Two, or even Book Three. My response to that is this: Don’t hold your best cards for some imagined future story, because if you don’t end Book One in way that’s satisfying for the reader, and brings all the major threads of the story through to compelling climax and resolution—even if that resolution is just the troubled situation that will begin the next book in the series—there won’t be another book in the series, because the first one won’t get published.

None of these issues are in any way insurmountable—it’s just a matter of understanding what you’re working with, in terms of your natural strengths, and then developing a set of tools to address your natural challenges, either in outlining or in revision.

Do you consider yourself a writer who starts with plot or story concept? If so, I’d love to hear about your process in the comments below.

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