The Problem: Why Is Plot So Hard?
Lesson 2 Chapter 1 Module 1
Every fiction writer I meet has already studied the craft of fiction — extensively.
When I coach writers or give lectures, people almost always have heard about Freytag’s triangle, about the three act structure, about Point of View choices, about exposition...
If the only thing that this course taught was a run down of those familiar terms, I don’t think it would be worth paying for. You’ve almost certainly heard some version of those techniques before.
The trouble is this, however: you’ve probably discovered, just as I did, that knowing about the “three act structure” doesn’t necessarily make you a great novel writer.
Can we start with something UNCOMFORTABLE?
This lesson is about a tricky subject: what's the big difference between successful, published, famous novels — and the kind of novels that never get read? (P.S. Make sure to take a look at the action steps at the end).
There seems to be a gap, a big gap, between knowing about these plot and POV ideas, on the one hand, and actually writing a book that people want to read, on the other.
I’m going to describe the two reasons why I think that is.
First, there’s the simple problem that plot structure, as it is commonly taught and understood, tends to give targets for each story to hit: “this thing should happen by page five,” “that thing should happen by end of chapter one.”
And this kind of thinking can be really useful. Sometimes it’s inspiring to read about “the hero’s journey” and decide/discover that your hero should take a trip down to the underworld, or to learn about the Act One “inciting incident,” and how early it needs to arrive.
But even when you know about those “plot points,” the difficulty remains that fiction has to be written — and read — continuously. In order to get the reader to arrive on page three, we have to write page two. We can’t “write to” a particular target, because we have to catch the reader’s attention and keep it on every page we read.
(Don’t worry. I’m not attacking step-by-step guides. In fact, by the end of this course, you’ll have a process for planning a novel that probably will be even more detailed and comprehensive than the ones you’ve seen before.)
So that’s the paradox of plot. Plot advice gives us clues about how our story should develop, but it (usually) doesn’t tell us what to put BETWEEN those key points. Plot (in the normal sense) is like a map telling us where to go, but it doesn’t make us a better driver.
So really good writing, the kind of writing we want to do, must require an additional ingredient.
There’s something else that goes along with plot — and it’s that “something else” that makes our writing good. It’s that other thing that makes readers want to read to the bottom of page one, and then keep going on page two.
This other thing is, in part, what makes the story enjoyable between those key turning points and plot developments.
Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking:
“Well, DUH, Daniel. It’s obvious what makes a person’s writing good: talent. Or hard work. Or a combination of the two.”
I used to think that way, too. And talent is useful, and hard work is certainly important. But over the years, I’ve seen plenty of dedicated, talented writers struggle to make progress on their novels. I’ve watched good writers put in the hours and get nowhere.
So I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Tell me if you’ve experienced this, too, as a beta reader, a workshop member, or as an audience member in a public reading: it often feels like “aspiring writer fiction” is simply a different beast to “famous writer fiction.”
Usually, there’s a kind of richness and energy in “successful writer fiction” that is immediately bewitching, engaging, and welcoming.
It’s, in part, this strange sense of welcome, this odd energy, that hooks our interest. There’s often a feeling, when you read a great novelist, that each page is intensely captivating, that if you were marooned on a desert island, and inside a corked bottle, a single page of that novel washed up on shore, you would be impressed and captivated by what you could read.
(Before we go on: this “other thing,” this secret ingredient is not magic. It doesn’t force anyone to keep reading. What I mean is: even the most famous books, the best of the bestsellers, are not going to be liked by everyone. Some readers dislike Mrs Dalloway or Gone Girl, which I find hard to believe. Some readers claim to enjoy the novels that I find detestable. So this quality that great writing has, it doesn’t work on everyone. But it works on enough people.)
The good news: I think I know what this strange thing is.
I’m going to teach you how to write with this “secret ingredient,” and, just like many of my coaching students, you’ll be able to watch your work shift to much more resemble, in quality, the writers that you admire.
However, before I explain it, and show you how to start writing the kind of book you want to write, there’s one more complication.
There’s one additional quality, beyond a feeling of welcome and ease, that “richness and energy” I just talked about, that seems to separate “aspiring writer fiction” from “successful writer fiction.”
In other words, there’s a SECOND problem that we need to discuss. If you want to write a satisfying novel, you definitely need to find a solution to this issue.
And it’s a big, big issue. I feel like our craft talk is, much of the time, ignoring the elephant in the room. There’s something that I think is missing from the plot conversation, and it’s something big.
It’s a dragon-sized, Balrog-sized, Atlantis-sized problem.
Talking about fiction, without talking about THIS, would be like giving a craft talk about how to play basketball, but never mentioning that the aim of each team is to score points.
Here it is: I think we don’t talk enough — not nearly enough — about how WEIRD fiction is.
Often, our talk about “Structure” and “Plot” seems to conceal how odd novels and stories are, and how strange our reactions to them are. Morality in novels seems to work very differently to morality in the real world. It’s not that there’s one morality in our world, and another in the fiction world. It’s rather that each novel seems to have its own moral code.
I’ve read novels where the possibility that a character would kill someone was a huge moral, ethical deal, and it was clear that were they to do it, and obey their worst instincts, then this act of murder would be a life-long stain on their character, a lessening of their essential humanity.
Then I’ve read spy thrillers and fantasy novels where the main character shoots (or stabs) three assailants before breakfast — and neither the protagonist nor anyone else seems to care.
I’ve loved novels where the success of a dinner party seemed enormously important and significant; I’ve loved novels where a future galactic society was fighting for its life, and dozens of planets were in danger.
I’ve enjoyed novels where the language play, the texture of the text, the construction of sentences were rich, deep, perplexing; I’ve also enjoyed novels where few sentences were more than eight words long.
Something is odd here. How is it that in one novel, it takes two hundred pages for the characters to prepare for a party, and in another, such an event would barely warrant a paragraph? How is it possible that the success of a romantic engagement is so captivating in one story, and in another, the main character has no romantic thoughts and we feel perfectly at ease.
How is it that we can relish such utterly different moral universes, from novel to novel?
This is weird, right? Many of us enjoy things in fiction that, in real life, we would be horrified or disgusted by. Some of the most famous novels introduce us to protagonists or narrators who we find enticing, engaging, delightful — yet, were we to meet such a person in our job or at our child’s school, we would likely call the police.
I’ve cared more about a few fictional characters’ romances than I have those of colleagues and friends.
I’ve encountered aspects of life in fiction — the “happy every after ending,” for instance — that are (frankly) hard to detect in one’s real existence.
For readers, this isn’t a problem at all. They go one enjoying book after book. But for us writers, this is another reminder that the usual plotting advice may not be that helpful. Because how is our “three act structure” going to teach our readers to like the things they are supposed to like, and hate the things they are supposed to hate?
How can we write good fiction if we don’t even understand this basic problem?
How can we write a good romance, for example, if we don’t know how to make attraction and longing feel exciting and important (for the reader)?
How can we write a good literary novel if we don’t know how to make thoughts and reflections feel exciting and important (for the reader)?
This seems to be a like a big barrier for a writing course like this. It’s clear that successful novels do actually manage this — they make us enjoy the aspects of the novel that are supposed to be important in that novel’s imaginary world.
But how on Earth do we, when we sit down at our keyboards, accomplish it?
Fortunately, I have an answer. I think that the two problems are really the same problem, and they both have a single solution.
That’s the subject of the next lesson.
Here's how to apply this technique to your writing:
Step 1 - Think of a novel you love...
Note down at least one experience or person in that novel that, were you to experience them in real life, you would feel VERY differently about. For instance, someone who seemed cool and interesting in the story, but who might be scary and awful to meet in real life.
Step 2 - What should your readers care about?
Note down one emotional response that you REALLY hope your readers have when they read your book.
Step 3 - How did other writers do it?
That one emotion you want your readers to feel: have you seen other writers successfully evoke it for you, in their novels? How do you think they did it?