Have you ever considered how the plots were constructed in your favorite novels? Do you look for formulas or plot structure in the novels you read? If you’re a writer, do you diagram your plots so you know when to focus on the main plot, character development, or your subplots?
I think most authors say they don’t use a formula or plan their plots out in too much detail. They say things like it’s too restrictive, limits creativity, even takes the fun out of writing. If it becomes overly structured it’s too much like writing a term paper or a book report instead of a novel.
Well, this may or may not be true. That probably depends on the writer’s personality, experience, talent, and so forth. One thing is for sure – the authors who churn out one novel after another have a structure they follow. It may be subconscious, but it’s there nonetheless. You can prove this by diagramming their novels. They follow a pattern that moves from main plot to subplots, back and forth, in such a way that you don’t get lost or forget what’s going on. The experienced writers just kind of know to do this and don’t need to diagram it. But the beginner or novice generally needs help keeping everything running smoothly. The good news is that it’s really easy to do and if you keep it on a high level it won’t limit your creativity. Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate the point.
By industry standards, a novel is 50,000 words or more. The page count in popular fiction varies tremendously but most popular fiction runs about 250 pages in print. That computes to roughly a 300 page manuscript. With an average word count of 250 per page in manuscript format this computes to 75,000 words. Obviously, these are rough estimates since these numbers can greatly vary depending on the amount of dialogue, descriptive content, paragraph length, etc. But these are good averages to work with. Plus, the math is easy.
Within all those words the writer has to develop his characters, throw them into some kind of situation or crisis, and add some additional material which will be one or more subplots. A good rule of thumb for allocation is 65-25-10. 65% devoted to the main plot (MP). 25% devoted to subplot one (SP1). 10% devoted to subplot two (SP2). If we continue with our math this breaks down to approximately 195 pages devoted to the MP, roughly 75 pages for SP1, and only about 30 pages for SP2. Character development occurs throughout and is generally not included as a separate word/page count.
The key is to concentrate on the MP while working SP1 and SP2 into the storyline without getting too sidetracked. You don’t want to be away from any of your plots so long that the reader forgets what’s going on. In creating the structure you can actually map it out, chapter by chapter. You want to loop back to your SPs every four or five chapters, depending on how long your chapters are. For example:
Chapter 1 – MP
Chapter 2 – MP
Chapter 3 – MP, SP1
Chapter 4 – MP
Chapter 5 – MP, SP2
Chapter 6 – SP1
Chapter 7 – MP
Chapter 8 – MP
Chapter 9 – SP2
Chapter 10 – MP, SP1
…and so on.
This not only gives you some direction on what you need to be working on next, it also helps you keep the action connected. In Consequences the MP was concerned with the mystery surrounding the death of Ron Maddox. SP1 launched FBI Agents, Trevor Washington and Betty Logan, into a separate investigation that took them to South Florida. However, while working on the case in Florida they uncovered evidence that pointed back to the Maddox case. SP2 followed the actions of Ron’s widow, Carol. This plot also provided information that tied back into the MP. To make it all come together at the right time in the MP I had to chart out what happened where and when in both SPs because it was very time sensitive. Without a detailed plot structure that would not have been possible.
One more point about structure. You can work on each plot separately if that helps. Then you simply go back and weave them all together. This is a great option if you find yourself with writer’s block. If you’re bogged down with the MP, write for a few days on SP1 or SP2. This also helps you come up with twists and turns and allows for foreshadowing and red herrings and all that other literary junk writers like to talk about.
The next time you read a novel, or watch a movie for that matter, look for the MP and SPs. The MP will be the major conflict that drives the story. Very likely one SP will deal with a relationship, usually romantic, in which the main character is involved. The other SP will be a device for character development, typically it involves a little humor and levity, and may not be directly tied into the MP. It will be very evident if you look for it.