When people ask what your book is about, they are really asking about the plot. A response: “It’s about two German Shepherds sniffing for buried treasure,” only scrapes the surface. Why dogs? Why that breed? What kind of treasure? Where? When? What must they overcome in order to sniff it out? What will they do with it once they find it? Why should I care?
At the risk of digressing, the author and tweeter @NathanBransford pointed out that a pitch formula should read: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER, they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.
Master Storyteller Jim Thayer, author of 13 books and new manual for novelists, The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel: A Complete and Concise Manual for Fiction Writers offers his take on novel plots. The following are excerpts from his post on authormagazine.org:
What is a plot? According to E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a plot is an organization of events according to a “sense of causality.” Encyclopedia Britannica says a plot is “the structure of interrelated actions, consciously selected and arranged by the author.”
What isn’t a plot? Forster says this isn’t a plot: The king died and then the queen died. But this is a plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief, because of the causality.
Christopher Booker says there are only seven plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Others think there are only five plots: man against man, man against himself, man against nature, man against society, and man against God.
Don’t worry about finding a truly fresh plot: Donald Maass says, “There are certainly no new plots. Not a one.” The legendary Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda says, “In books, as in other things, there is nothing new under the sun.” The fear of imitation is immature, according to Edith Wharton.
Make sure the plot is big and bold. Most of us are happy if our lives have a nice equilibrium. We don’t want a life that’s a county fair ride. Not so for our plot, though. Novelist and writing teacher Sol Stein says a reader “is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experience in life.” Stein compares readers to sports fans: “The spectator seeks the excitement that does not usually occur in daily life.” Erica Jong says a novel “must make my so-called real world seem flimsy.” Kurt Vonnegut agrees: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.’’
How do we know if we have a workable plot? If we can reduce our story to one or two sentences—called the pitch in the movie industry and often called the handle in publishing—we may have a successful plot. And if we can’t, something may be missing.
The pitch will force us to trim our idea to its essentials, to a plot. David Morrell points out, “There’s a huge difference between having an ‘idea’ and elaborating it into a plot.” Publishers don’t want an idea. They want a plot. As Gerald Petievich says, “If you can’t tell yourself what your story is in one or two sentences, you’re already running into trouble.” A story has certain elements, and if your pitch doesn’t have those elements, you don’t yet have a story. Petievich adds, “As complex as your novel might turn out to be, it’s essential you be able to state clearly what your basic story is and where it’s going.
What are the elements of a pitch? Donald Maass sets them out: “1. Where is your story set? 2. Who is your hero or heroine? 3. What is the main problem they must overcome? 4. Where do you think this novel fits in the marketplace?” If our novel can’t be pitched in one or two sentences, we haven’t thought about it sufficiently. We may be missing some ingredients in our plot, or your story may be too rambling.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service: www.thayerediting.com.