There are so many choices for an author to make when embarking on a novel. What time period? What setting? What structure? What genre? What characters? What events? How true should it be to real history? What is the time frame? What is it all really about?
Many of these need to be answered before even starting out. No wonder so many potential novelists are put off at the first hurdle.
And as soon as you’ve made those decisions, (assuming you haven’t given up in despair,) another wave of questions immediately comes hurtling towards you.
How are you going to tell the story? Whose point of view? First or third person? What tone? What voice? Where should it start? What is going to kick the whole thing off? Where is it going to end? How are you going to layer in the clues to make that ending satisfactory? And, horror of horrors, what are you going to put in the middle?
Obviously there are even more choices to be made further down the line, about style, dialogue, punctuation, action versus exposition, amount of description, and what actual words to use, but for now I am going to focus briefly on the question of what to put in the middle. Or, as it is more commonly called, the plot.
Plots are tricky things to get right. But when they work, they engross readers in your make-believe world so effectively that they keep turning the pages, even at chapter endings, and finish up by feeling that their lives have been enhanced in some way, and best of all, eager to start reading your next book.
There are lots of things that can go wrong with a plot. The basic premise might be too weak. The concept may lack believability. The story might be too yawn-makingly obvious. The inherent conflict set up by the opening may not be sufficiently escalated. Readers also lose interest when crucial bits of information are missing, key scenes avoided, or if there is too much repetition. On the other hand there may be too many red herrings, inconsistencies or loose ends. As Chekhov said: ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.’ The ending should not appear random or insubstantial, or, as so often seems to happen nowadays, to have been plonked in by the author just to get the whole damn thing over with. In my view, the very best endings grow out of the story, giving the reader what they want, but not quite in the way they expected.
There is no magic formula for a great plot, and no quick fixes for a bad one. It is the individual decisions that writers make that are the key to success. So take time to ask yourself if your story is genuinely interesting. Are your characters’ quests worth pursuing?
If the answer is yes, then I reckon you are well on the way to a bestseller!
Helen Carey’s latest novel LONDON CALLING is now out in paperback.
All her books are available from good booksellers, or on line.