A Novel Observed #16 – It’s Okay To Stray From The Plot

The Writing Stage

The Writing Stage

Now that draft chapter 9, ‘Little Miss Muffet’, is in the bag and we’re back on track with the plot, I thought it’d be a good time to consider the issue of going ‘off-piste’ (apologies – I hate skiing metaphors). Back when I wrote about plot, in the 3rd of these posts, I said, ‘my approach to plot is to lay out the events that will shape the novel, then, when I write it, the characters will create the story.’ It could be represented in the following equation:

Plot + Character = Story

And because of this, there will be times when the story wanders outside the plot. Those who’ve been keeping up with what’s going on will have noticed the whole of chapter 8 falls into this category. Here’s the plot surrounding that area:

  • In the afternoon, Neil takes Sebastian to milk the goats
    • Sebastian does not like their shifty eyes and their stubborn nature
      • The goats, clearly not impressed either, make the milking a misery, though they do get an amount of milk
    • That evening, Virginia shows Sebastian how to make a soft goats cheese
      • It’s another process Sebastian does not think much of – especially as he doesn’t care for goats cheese
      • However, he is surprised by the taste and grudgingly accepts that he likes it
  • Monday
    • Having collected the eggs and dropped them at the shop (slightly disappointed that Emma is not there), Sebastian heads down to the smallholding
      • Here Neil informs him that he is to kill a chicken – specifically the feisty one that chased him

The first three bullet points make up chapter 7, and the rest are chapter 9. The contents of chapter 8 are entirely absent from the original plot. Does this mean chapter 8 doesn’t belong in the book? But as the characters live out the plot, this sort of thing happens, because they are real people. Alright, they only exist in my head, but that doesn’t make them any less real or any less prone to stray from the script.

So how did this ‘straying’ come about?

Back in chapter 7, when Sebastian was in the pub, he complained about the lack of internet at the farmhouse and Emma piped up with, ‘There’s internet up at the shop. You’re welcome to come and use it once you’ve finished your chores this afternoon.’ This result of this invitation is Sebastian’s visit to the shop that takes up chapter 8.

This invitation arose primarily, because I wanted Sebastian to have an opportunity to hear from his friends in London, without the ability to keep in constant contact with them, and secondarily, because Emma and Sebastian’s relationship needed another little kick. In addition to this it gave me the chance to fill in some of Emma’s back story and introduce her mother, the dour Mrs Standfield, who had been little more than part of the background up to this point.

All of this, however, was in my subconscious, and it’s only really looking back at what chapter 8 achieved that my intentions become clear. At the time, I simply found Emma dishing out an invitation, after which I ended up with an entire chapter I hadn’t expected!

All this to say, it’s not only okay to stray from the plot, but it’s often necessary, since it’s not until the story starts to unfold that you really see the gaps in the plot that need filling.

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