A Novel Observed #3 – Plot

The Planning Stage

The Planning Stage

I’m aware that a number of authors (even those on the bestseller lists) do not draw up a plot before they start writing a novel. Stephen King is probably the most famous such author and he says this in his book On Writing:

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere … I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

Being Stephen King, he is, of course, correct… but only half correct. Again we come back to the distinction between story and plot. Plot is, at its most basic, a list of the events that take place throughout the novel – the objective facts, if you like.
Story is the way in which the characters react to and are affected by these events. No one’s life is ‘plotless’, not even ‘largely plotless’. We all have plans, hopes, dreams, routines, appointments, meetings, tasks and a host of other things that together create our daily plots – many of which are planned out in advance. The story of our lives, then, is how this plot affect us, and how we (and others) affect our plots in turn.

For example, yesterday I had a plan (or plot) for my day, which went something like this:

  • Get up
    • Don’t have breakfast (first fast day of my 5:2 diet)
  • Assemble frames for additional supers to go on beehives
    • Open up hives, remove queen cells, add supers and generally check everything’s okay with the bees
  • Have lunch (one slice of bread + two pieces of ham)
  • Writing work
    • Work on second Montgomery novel
    • Update blogs on website
  • Drive to the farm where my boat has sat for two years
    • Decide whether it can be brought home easily
    • Drop in and see a friend on my way back
  • Look after the boys after school
  • Have dinner (see lunch)
  • Watch something with my wife
  • Read and check emails

That was it – my PLOT for the day. I wasn’t sure about the timing of all the various parts, but that was my plan, and as I went through the day, some things were moved around or even ignored entirely. But these are just the objective components of my day. The story of my day would read much differently. It would be built around this general structure, but would be far less about the items on the list than about how being involved in these activities (or avoiding them) affected me and my interaction with others. It would tell you about how the sweat dripped from my nose as angry bees tried to burrow through my bee suit and the disappointment at finding the boat trailer in ruins, about the agony of watching my friend eat a piece of cake and the satisfaction of setting about a tiny ham sandwich before going to bed. It would tell you all such things and more, and this would be STORY. I say ‘would’, because I’m not about to write the story of my day – it wasn’t that interesting! You’ll just have to imagine it yourself.

So, 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 – and it will be ‘real creation’ regardless of Mr King’s thoughts.

This doesn’t mean there is no sense of how the characters’ emotions and opinions will be shaped during the novel, and some of this will be included in the plot, but for the most part, it is made of objective events.

Enough putting it off! Here is the first draft of the plot plan for No Time To Stand And Stare (or NT2S&S for short).

  • Friday
    • Opens in Sebastian’s flat, as he packs for the week
      • Focus on the view from his window – a brick wall – which he adores
      • Emphasise his love of the city and fear of the country
    • Flashback to Sebastian being issued a challenge by his friends to prove he is a ‘real man’
      • This takes place the night before, at his birthday celebration
      • They give him a pair of wellies and train tickets to Barnstaple
    • Sebastian is waved off by his friends (checking he really leaves!)
      • The view from the carriage window alarms him as it is increasingly ‘countryside’
    • He arrives at Barnstaple, where he is met by Neil, who drives him through increasingly narrow lanes in a 4×4 to the smallholding
      • At the farmhouse, he meets Virginia
      • They have an uncomfortable dinner together and Sebastian goes for the wine… before finding out he has to set up a tent!
    • It is dark as he tries to set up the tent in the garden
      • As it starts to rain, Neil (amused) invites him to sleep in the farmhouse
  • Saturday
    • On waking Sebastian finds the house deserted
      • There is a note on the table asking him to collect the eggs from the hens and take them to the village shop up the hill
      • Kitted out in his boots (and Marigolds) he collects the eggs, terrified of the chickens
    • He carries them (in his arms) up the hill into town
      • As he passes the butcher shop, he peers in at the darkness through the window and finds the huge butcher, brandishing a large cleaver, staring back at him
      • He hurries up to the shop where he meets Emma
        • She is amused to see him carrying the eggs by hand (and his gloves)
        • They talk a little and come to conflict over their opinions of the village
      • They are interrupted by the arrival of Neil, who wants Sebastian to give him a hand with the pigs
        • Sebastian has to ride on the back of Neil’s quad bike, with dirty sacks etc.
        • On the farm, Neil shows Sebastian how to feed the pigs
          • While attempting to copy him, Sebastian gets tripped by the pigs, muddying his hands and trousers and grabs hold of the electric fence as he escapes the creatures (which he finds even more terrifying than the chickens)
          • The experience is traumatising and he just wants to get back for a shower
      • That evening Virginia shows Sebastian how to bake bread
        • The feel of the flour and the sticky dough appalls him
        • He remains unconvinced of the need to bake bread, when it is so cheap in the supermarket
  • Sunday
    • Sebastian opens the curtains and is struck by the view across the smallholding
      • Having collected the eggs – and getting chased by the same hen as the previous day – he goes to the village church with Neil and Virginia
        • Though he finds the service a bit dull, he is pleased to see Emma there and they speak briefly afterwards
    • The Symes and Sebastian have lunch in the pub, where Sebastian meets Donald
      • He notices some iciness between Donald and Neil, but doesn’t comment
      • There will be some other ‘eccentric’ locals in the pub talking about how it used to be much better
        • Donald whines about the failing pub and how nothing seems to work to get people to come in
    • 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
      • Sebastian feels faint at the idea, especially after Neil demonstrates by killing another chicken
      • After some discussion and encouragement, he kills it, pulling its head off in the process (I’ll try not to make this TOO gory!)
      • He is further upset at having the pluck the bird, especially since it seems to keep flapping for ages!
    • At last, when they’re done, they head back to the farmhouse, where Virginia shows him how to draw the chicken and prepare it for dinner.
      • With much complaining and hand washing, the chicken is ready for the oven
    • As a treat, Neil takes Sebastian shooting with an air rifle
      • This he enjoys far more than anything else he has done so far, despite the fact he is an awful shot and shoots nothing
    • Back at the house the chicken is ready, but Sebastian cannot eat it
      • In the end, Neil takes him to the pub instead
    • Leaving after Neil, Sebastian walks back to the house, stopping outside the shop to peer in through the window, where he sees Emma turning off the lights ready for bed
      • He is startled by the presence of the butcher, who is also hanging around near the shop
      • The butcher challenges him, and Sebastian challenges him in return.
  • Tuesday
    • He collects the eggs, now more used to them and sad about the one he had to kill
      • Dropping them off at the shop, he sees Emma and they talk briefly
        • She informs him he’s going to be learning to butcher a pig today
    • Sure enough, Virginia takes him up to the butchers after breakfast and leaves him with Victor (the butcher)
      • At first things are a bit awkward.
        • Victor is suspicious of Sebastian’s presence as he comes from London
        • But the two soon start to get used to each other as they butcher first a lamb and then start work on a pig
      • Sebastian is less disgusted by the feel of the carcasses as he was with the chicken and soon enjoys the work
        • Making sausages proves to be the most enjoyable
        • As he and Victor talk, the butcher accidentally reveals his attraction to a woman in the village, which Sebastian deduces must be the shopkeeper
    • That evening Sebastian and Neil head to the pub where they, together with a handful of others (inc. Emma) brew some of their own beer, while sampling past batches
      • Sebastian chats with Donald about some marketing ideas, which might help the failing pub (mostly internet based)
      • Fascinated by the process and the different flavours they have achieved, Sebastian ends up drunk and staggers home with Neil, dropping off Emma on the way
  • Wednesday
    • Heavily hungover, Sebastian collects the eggs and drops them at the shop
      • When Mrs Standfield is out of earshot, Sebastian mentions Victor’s revelation and says he has a plan
      • They agree to meet that evening at 10pm by the war memorial
    • Having forced down a cooked breakfast, which he is surprised makes him feel much better, Sebastian helps Neil to muck out the horses
      • This is his first encounter with the large animals and, though they make him nervous, he is not as afraid as either of them expected. Also, he has come out without his Marigolds for the first time!
      • As they clean, the two guys discuss the differences between their lives and Sebastian finds himself envying Neil’s hard, but idyllic, lifestyle
    • That evening, as Sebastian is preparing to head out to meet Emma, Neil bursts into the house to say the sheep are giving birth
      • Though it means missing his appointment, he heads to the barn to help with the lambing
      • They continue quite late into the night, but Sebastian is awed by the experience
  • Thursday
    • Virginia and Sebastian head to the farmers’ market early in the morning, meaning he can’t take the eggs to the shop and explain his absence to Emma
    • At the market (which needs to be Thursday, despite the fact Barnstaple farmers market is on Tuesday and Friday – ah well) they are selling the bread and cheese that Sebastian made, together with the eggs and meet etc.
      • Virginia decides to buy a couple of geese that someone is selling, though she is sure Neil won’t be happy – he isn’t
    • Back in the village, Sebastian hurries to the shop and he and Emma go for a walk around the village
      • They hatch a plan to get her mum and the butcher together, and they decide to put it into action that evening
        • Emma takes a request to join her mother for dinner tomorrow evening to Victor
        • Sebastian takes a request to join Victor for dinner tomorrow to Mrs Standfield
        • He also goes to arrange the dinner with Donald and covers the cost himself
  • Friday
    • Having collected the eggs and dropped them at the shop, Sebastian heads to the smallholding where he is to help worm the pigs
      • This involves injecting the animals, which he does, despite his concern about needles and hurting the animals
      • They then feed the pigs, with Sebastian narrowly avoiding falling over and grabbing the wire again
    • Back at the house, the preparations for the village party on the green are underway and both guys help Virginia with her prep
    • When they arrive at the green together, the place is already buzzing with people, though Victor and Mrs Standfield are absent
      • When Emma arrives, he checks that the couple met up at the pub
      • The party gets underway with a barbecue and a band and Sebastian mingles with people
      • He and Emma talk about his return to London.
        • He is sorry to leave. She is sorry he is going to leave
        • As the band play in the background with people dancing and enjoying themselves, the pair of them sneak along to the pub to peer in through the window
          • Victor and Mrs Standfield and sitting together, talking. Both are smiling
          • Emma starts to cry and Sebastian hugs her. They kiss, but so briefly that it was almost over before it began
        • They head back to the party to join in the celebrations
  • Saturday
    • Disappointed that he is not required to collect the eggs and take them to the shop, Sebastian departs for the station in Neil’s 4×4
      • Victor and Mrs Standfield come to wave him off, but Emma does not
        • Victor thanks Sebastian for what he did and Sebastian pretends he has no idea what he’s talking about
    • Back in London, it is raining.
      • He is met by his friends, but declines their invitation to dinner at a classy restaurant, preferring to be alone
    • Back at his flat, he gazes out of the window at the view of the brick wall, thinking back over his week
      • He misses the smallholding, the countryside and his friends in the village
        • He focuses on his reflection in the glass and the rain running down the window makes it look like he is crying
          • Maybe he is…

This is by no means set in stone, but it’s the plot that unfolded as I did a walk through of how I imagine Sebastian’s week to have gone.

Instead of trying to slice it up into chapters at this early stage, I’ve just gone with days of the week. Chapters will emerge naturally as the novel is written. Having done this first draft of the plot plan, I’m going to spend a few days thinking about it – basically sitting around daydreaming and calling it work – to see if it grows and changes shape at all.

In the meantime, there is one more character I needed to add to our list: the village. Although it’s not a human character, the village is going to be an integral part of this novel and needs filling out a bit. More on that later…

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