Hi Folks. Here are some notes from my “Plotting the Novel” seminar at Boston’s Grub Street. Grub Street is truly leading the way in teaching the novel, and you can find out more about their courses and other offerings at www.grubstreet.org. The course has four parts: Yearning, The Launch, Conflict, and Consequences. I will be posting each part separately over the next few weeks.
Note: Each section includes an in-class exercise under the “how,” though I often alter these exercises as we work. I’ve tried to synthesize terms since the writing community as a whole lacks such synthesis. A list of articles by the named authors follows this post. I believe students need to be able to identify the heart of these various writing elements no matter which labels their past or future teachers attach to them. Ok, here we go:
1. Character Flaw
What: The personality trait that has held your Protagonist back or frustrated him/her most of his life. Can be external but should correspond with, cause, or be caused by an internal trait.
Why: Protagonists are flat without weaknesses and strengths, but writers often ignore weaknesses because they identify too easily with their novel’s “hero.” Without a Flaw, however, a Protagonist can easily become a hapless victim or robot-like victor, and either oversimplifies our true relationship with others and the world. Without a complex understanding of your Protagonist’s internal world, your novel will lack dimension and you may find your plot dragging your character around by the collar.
When: Whether you state your Protagonist’s Flaw directly or not (preferred), your readers won’t believe in or even remember it if they don’t see the Flaw at work in a scene. Therefore, you should establish a character’s Flaw from the very first pages, keeping in mind his/her limitation in every action, interaction, word, and gesture so that the Flaw reveals itself organically.
How: Freewrite about your Protagonist’s Flaw. Think about the actions he/she has taken so far in your novel. Beyond external pressures, what causes your Protagonist to act this way? Though people in reality have many Flaws, characters in fiction are often more simple. You can think of many, but determine ONE overriding Flaw. Remember as well that a character’s Flaw might sometimes be his/her strength and vice versa.
2. Desire (Sexton)
(Butler refers to as “Yearning”; Aristotle as “One Action)
What: Your Protagonist wants one thing, and this Desire should be both abstract and concrete. For instance, your Protagonist wants love/power/safety/certainty (abstract) and therefore wants his girlfriend Jane to marry him before she begins graduate school (concrete). Abstract Desires are ephemeral, psychological, and difficult to name. They might come in complicated combinations. Concrete Desires should be specific, clear, and singular. Your Protagonist wants something specific to happen, wants to escape to a specific place, or wants to obtain a particular object.
Why: Without a specific concrete Desire, you have no plot. There is no reason for your Protagonist to do anything. Without the abstract component of this Desire, the concrete Desire will have no deeper, relatable meaning for your reader.
When: In his idea of One Action (motivation and action toward a particular concrete Desire), Aristotle claims that a well-made drama begins when the Protagonist’s Desire is launched and ends when it is achieved. The One Action therefore creates the arc of your entire story. For example, the Odyssey begins when Odysseus decides that he wants to go home. Even though a whole bunch of stuff happens to Odysseus before he makes this decision, these occurrences are relegated to backstory or flashback once the play begins, to be filled in once the story has really got going. The Odyssey ends when Odysseus reaches home. In contemporary fiction, most readers want this Desire established in the first five pages, or at least in the first chapter. As a writer, you will want this early revelation as well because it will focus the rest of your book for you.
(Note: for subplots, each of the main characters also has a One Action. In order to create unity, Aristotle claims all these actions should correspond metaphorically, thereby creating a unified One Action. For example, in the Odyssey, Penelope is trying to save her home from suitors while she waits for her husband Odysseus to return home. Essentially, she is also trying to go home or at least to retain that home. For Aristotle, a Protagonist’s abstract Desire is his/her Passion. A Protagonist’s concrete Desire is his/her Purpose.)
1. Flaw and Desire:
* If you do not know your Protagonist’s Desire (concrete or abstract)…
How might the Flaw lead you to your Protagonist’s primary Desire? For instance, most characters wish to rid themselves of their Flaw or overcome it. Some characters might Desire some event/person/object that their Flaw has constantly kept them from attaining. In other cases, the Desire is the epitome of the Flaw. For instance, a superficial character may Desire an expensive dress. A weak man may wish to be taken care of.
* If you already know your Protagonist’s primary Desire (concrete or abstract)…
How is this Desire connected to his Flaw?
2. If you already know your Protagonist’s Abstract Desire, freewrite to determine the corresponding Concrete Desire. If you already know your Protagonist’s Concrete Desire, freewrite to determine the corresponding Abstract Desire.
3. “Signature” (Gerard)
What: The cable that hauls the roller-coaster cars. The Signature may seem to oversimplify your novel, but this is the nature of the beast. The Signature will also likely become your novel’s “pitch” when you’re ready down the line for such things. Examples:
Why: Helps to propel the novel from beginning to end, holding up the “roof” of what lies in the middle. A strong Signature will help you decide which scenes to include, which characters to keep, and where your novel begins and ends.
When: Established in the first five to fifty pages (preferably early) by either the “Inciting Incident” or “Point of Attack” (or both at once). See next section.
How: Once you’ve determined your Protagonist’s Concrete Desire, you already have your Signature. Write it out for yourself like those examples above and be prepared to share with the class.
Barth, John. “Incremental Perturbations: How to Know Whether You’ve Got a Plot.” Ed. Julie
Checkoway. Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the
Advanced Writing Program. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Butler, Robert Olen. “Yearning.” From Where You Dream. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 39-61.
Gerard, Philip. “An Architecture of Light: Structuring the Novel.” Ed. Julie Checkoway. Creating
Fiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Advanced Writing Program.
Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1999.
Sexton, Adam “Story Structure: ‘Araby’.” Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: