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Plot Development When Writing A Novel, by Stephanie Cowell

I am not a writer who plots first: I develop characters who tend to wander around the chapters as if they were out for an interesting stroll and might or might not be home for supper. So I am writing about a subject that is a struggle for me: the rising plot line.

I think of a rising plot line as leading the reader up a path on a gently ascending hill, stopping to look around from time to time and finally, a little breathless, coming to the top to look back at the way we have come. The problem is, lives aren’t like that. Lives meander. And so I use many tricks in my story which seem artificial but when I print out and read I can feel the rising momentum, the gathering of strength and interest.

A novel is a subtle manipulation of real life within planned structure; we climb the path, diverted for pages sometimes by what is lovely or perhaps daunting around us, and then continue upwards.

Where is your novel going? What are the small crooked signposts under the trees? Life meanders; a novel is composed of living but carefully chosen scenes.

One signpost I use in writing is to end every scene with a question in the reader’s mind of where the next chapter will take the character. I try to remember the old writers’ adage, “What does the main character want?” And how does he or she get it or not get it?

The easiest novel I ever wrote was Marrying Mozart, which had the simplest question: Which one of the four sisters will marry Mozart? They all had problems that sent them in many different ways, and Mozart had family problems and work problems and might have ended up not marrying any of them. The title was proposed by my filmmaker son and when I had it, I knew where I was going.

Though I write on the computer, I can’t really see how my work-in-progress is moving on the screen. I have to print it out and sit on the sofa, coffee cup close, pen in hand. What are the themes that move the characters forward? I know them when I feel a sense of anticipation in my chest. I scribble, “Develop this!” Sometimes I have to find a café or park bench to reread, to focus my mind on what is really there and how it mounts.

My novel, Claude and Camille, has two major goals for the young Monet. Throughout the book they rise and when we reach the conclusion we find one has been fulfilled and the other lost. This seemingly simple thing took five years. Occasionally a writer will manage it quickly; most of the time it is a long process of throwing scenes out, focusing more on others, and giving up in despair, deciding that everyone else knows just what they are doing and we have no idea.

When we manage to calm down, we realize that to keep all those scenes is lifelike but a novel is not life. A novel is an artfully arranged picture of life which, if done well, will make it seem realer than life. I am always amazed at the skill of Pride and Prejudice. The story is such a wonderful clutter of sisters and society and loves and vanity and joy that you hardly see the major plot line coming until Elizabeth and Darcy take hands and confess their love.

But how do we do this? How do we shape and hone to make the plot compelling, deep and yet clear? Revise, revise, revise. I learn a lot from movies and even more from the wonderful DVDs where we can view the outtakes. They are fine scenes in themselves but would pull the plot a little out of focus from where we want to go. I am always in despair of all the stuff I have to cut. It stays in my heart.

So we construct the plot, and tell the reader where to glance and where to look deeply. Stopping by the signposts on the hill, we are enriched by moments of great beauty or sadness. “So that is what life can be like!” we say.

As authors we put our deepest hopes and fears in our novel, our most personal memories and choose the scenes and the sentences carefully, leading the reader through a world that she may cherish for several hours or perhaps all her life. What a difficult job and yet what a privilege.


Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

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Marrying MozartClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     Send Me Safely Back AgainNapoleon's Pyramids (Ethan Gage Adventure)Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    An area I fear I’m struggling with at the moment. Sounds so simple and easy yet it’s so difficult!

    July 22, 2013
  2. It’s very difficult! Sigh!

    July 24, 2013
  3. Just beautiful, Stephanie! And exactly what I needed to read today. Just because a scene is well-written doesn’t mean it should stay in the novel. Knowing that you despair cutting scenes somehow makes me feel much better . . .

    July 25, 2013

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