Plotting and developing the novel:
A character-based approach

© Harriet Smart
From a talk given to the Edinburgh Writerís Club

I have decided to give this talk a sub-title, making it Plotting and Developing the novel - a character-based approach. The reason I've done this is not just to narrow the scope of what is a rather huge subject, but because when I started thinking about how I went about the job, I realised that characters are what I always work with first. So I apologise in advance to all those of you who are expecting me to give a scientific and foolproof method to plot out in minute detail one of those un-put-downable spy thrillers - the sort of book where the action is so breathless you donít notice and you certainly don't care that the people in it are made out of cardboard. I can't do those sort of stories. I wish I could sometimes, as I believe they can be quite profitable!

What I mean by the character-based novel is the sort of novel that takes a well-drawn individual (or group of individuals for that matter) on a journey of some sort, so that by the end of the book you feel that the character has got somewhere - either emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. The events of the story are there to make that person change, and I don't think it is too far-fetched to say that it's a bit like a course of psychotherapy for them. Jung says about his patients that

In the majority of my cases the resources of the conscious mind are exhausted (or in ordinary English, they are stuck) ... My aim is to bring about a psychic state in which my patient begins to experiment with his own nature - a state of fluidity, change and growth where nothing is externally fixed and hopelessly petrified.

Character based novels, similiarly, aim to take characters from bad, petrified situations, where they are stuck, by a process of events to a place where they have a degree of insight and further emotional growth is possible. Anthony Storr, another pyschotherapist, says in his book The Art of Psychotherapy:

Today, many of the patients who seek psychotherapy are not suffering from any definite neurosis, but from generalised unhappiness, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, problems with work - in fact they have 'problems with living'.

Such 'problems with living' are what the character-based novel deals with par excellence.

So when we turn to the opening page of Jane Austen's Emma we read,

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

To which Austen adds,

The real evils indeed of Emmaís situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened to alloy her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present, so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Not yet they donít, but we know exactly what we are in for - a moral journey, a transformation even. Indeed the French translation of Emma was called La Nouvelle Emma, suggesting exactly that as a result of her experience Emma becomes a new person. When at the climax of the novel, Emma miserably and mistakenly believes that Mr Knightly is in love with Harriet Smith and about to ask her to marry her, we learn,

The only source whence anything like consolation or composure could be drawn, was the resolution of her own better conduct, and the hope that, however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone.

The payoff of this state of mind is, of course, that only when Emma achieves a state of personal knowledge about herself, will she get the man she loves. This happens time and time again in Austenís novels, and is what makes them so endlessly satisfying. She puts her characters through social purgatory and emotional hell before she rewards them with the desired romantic dénouement. The titles sum it up - Pride and Prejudice refers explicitly to the excessive pride of Darcy and the prejudices of Elizabeth which stand in the way of their discovering that they are perfect partners.

Of course, enlightment doesn't always mean a conventional happy ending. It often means being able to cope better with a bad situation. The ending of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady shows this beautifully. Isabel Archer has come to realise she does not love her husband, that she has made a series of disastrous mistakes, and that she is in love with Casper Goodwood the American who has dogged her steps throughout the novel. There is a passionate clinch and Goodwood begs her to go away with him and leave her awful husband. As he kisses her, Isobel feels she is drowning and struggles out of his arms. James writes, "But when darkness returned she was free. ... She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path." The important thing is she has made a conscious choice to go back to her husband - knowing exactly why, and what she is giving up to do it. And amazingly, James manages to make us understand that too. We feel regret, but we donít feel Isabel is throwing herself away. She has learnt enough for us to be satisfied.

So, the idea is straightforward enough. Give a character a problem and let him or her work through it in the course of the story, leading to some sort of enlightenment. That is, of course, very easy to say. It's the stuff inbetween the beginning and the end that causes all the difficulties for the novelist - the sequence of events that make up the thing called a plot.

Plotting is probably the bit that everyone hates the most - I don't think I've met a novelist who really enjoys the process of plotting. It probably comes second only to publishers on the novelist's grumble list. You have a crop of wonderful ideas that sets your pulse racing but the thought of turning those exciting, unformed ideas into hard plot often seems incredibly difficult and depressing. It's a bit like putting wild birds into a cage and then training them to do entertaining tricks. Itís a seriously unnatural process - it's business-like, it's necessary and it can feel very uncreative indeed.

It is very easy to turn 'plotting' into a great mountain of difficulties which you feel you can never get over. Some people, I know, start their books without having a clue about it, but I find this never works for me. I just get in a horrible mess, and I find that some preliminary working out of a story is necessary. I think the people who say they just sit down and write the story have probably worked out in their heads where they want the story to go - they simply haven't undergone a formal process of plot formation. You really have to find what works best for you. I know some writers plan everything minutely - and this would be very helpful in something very complex like a detective novel - but I would probably occupy the middle ground here. That is, you need to have as clear an idea as you can of the sequence of events, and where you want to go with your characters, but never set that sequence in stone. The first path you find is not always the best.

Perhaps that isn't very helpful. I think it may be useful to throw out the word plot altogether, which is a bit heretical, but really, what we are talking about is 'what goes on in the story'.

When I was a teenager and ambitious to write a novel, my mother gave me a copy of E.M. Forster's Aspects of the novel and very enlightening it was. But one passage of terrified me - and still does, somewhat. Forster writes:

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and the queen died of grief', is a plot. The time sequence is perceived but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again, 'The queen died, no one new why, until it was discovered that is was through grief at the death of the king.' This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say 'and then?' If it is in a plot we ask 'why?' That is the fundamental difference between these two aspect of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by 'and then - and thenÖ'

This is a classic and elegant argument, made to a group of Cambridge dons and undergraduates in 1927, before cinema had been recognised as an art form to which the upper middle classes might deign to enjoy. Forster goes on to argue how much more intelligent novel readers must be than cinema-goers because they do not merely thirst for endless sensations but for causality and explanations.

Today, I don't think we have the luxury to distinguish between plot and story like this, and to do so is actually not very helpful to anyone who is struggling to work out what is going to happen to their characters in the course of the novel they intend to write. To me, plot and story are irrevocably yoked together - you can't have the luxury of 'Why is all this stuff happening?' without that stuff happening, without the thrill of events unfolding to carry along the reader. I'm aware I'm critiquing a sacred text here, so apologies for blasphemy, but the passage always unsettled me because of its dogmatic clarity, as did an earlier (equally well known) passage in the book where Forster asks three imaginary men (no women, I note) to say what a novel does:

If you ask one type of man, 'What does a novel do?' he will reply placidly: 'Well - I don't know - it seems a funny sort of question - a novel's a novel - well, I don't know, I suppose it tells a story, so to speak'... Another man will reply 'What does a novel do? Why, tells a story of course, and I've no use for it if it didn't. I like a story. You can take your art, you can take your music but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife's the same.' And a third man, he says in a sort of drooping regretful voice. 'Yes - oh dear yes - the novel tells a story.'

Forster goes on:

I respect and admire the first speaker, I detest and fear the second. And the third is myself. Yes - oh dear yes - the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish it was not so, that is could be different - melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.

'A low atavistic form.' That's a pretty savage thing to call a story. Forster was clearly deeply uneasy about 'mere' stories, frightened of the raw power of the 'and then - and then' factor.

So I propose for the purposes of this talk to throw out the word plot, because it's frightening, and focus on what is really important in a novel: the people and the things that happen to those people in the course of the novel. And I find myself saluting Forster's second opinion-giver, whom Forster detests and fears; 'I like a story.' Well, Mr Forster, so do I.

So how do we make a good story? I think the secret is to start with the people in that story, the characters.

If you take a simple, old story - a low atavistic story, Forster would probably say, like Little Red Riding Hood, you will find that the events that unfold in the story are directly related to the personalities in the story. We have Red Riding Hood - the virtuous and curious little girl, the wolf, who is greedy and manipulative, and the Grandmother, who behaves like an old woman, and stays in her bed all day. The characters determine the opening scenario - Red Riding Hood is a good little girl and therefore goes to see her grandmother. She does not sit at home playing with her Nintendo Gameboy. Grandmother has not remarried and moved to Australia - she lives in the vicinity and behaves like a traditional grandmother and is therefore available to be visited - although there is a nasty forest to go through to get to her house. And the wolf, true to his wolf nature, does the sort of things you expect wolves to do. He dines on respectable old ladies who live in the middle of the forest and have not yet discovered the local group for the empowerment of senior citizens, let alone locks on the door. The stage is all set, because of what the people are, for a nicely nasty little tragedy. Wolf eats grandmother, and because he is a conniving baddie, he does not just run away to digest. He dressed up in her pink flannel night gown, climbs into her goose feather bed and awaits the arrival of the inevitable and virtuous granddaughter. Red Riding Hood will do for pudding.

Now I referred earlier to the idea that 'problems with living' are necessary for the characters in a novel. Grandmother's problem is that she is old and cannot defend herself. The Wolf's problem is that he is a wolf and he can't help himself. He must be true to his wolfish nature. And Red Riding Hood has to learn it isn't that safe to go and visit grandmother in the woods, even if it might be very virtuous.

What can we do with this story by altering the characters? Give the wolf a conscience. Make him hate what he is, but make him hungry. Make him struggle - and overcome or fail, if you like. You will see immediately that a lot more possibilities have opened up to you. If the wolf's problem with living is that he is a wolf, you have a journey for him to take. And if the Grandmother's problem is that she has never learnt to stand up for herself, you have a journey for her.

So imagine the scene. The wolf, hungry but conscience-stricken, breaks into Grandmother's house. Grandmother being what she is, offers herself up like a martyr. But he can't bring himself to kill her. There is a stalemate. Grandmother is disappointed by this un-wolf-like behaviour. She has always been a rigorous traditionalist who can't cope with liberal idea such as vegetarian wolves. She expects to be eaten, just as she expected labour pains and all the other general miseries of a womanís lot. But here is this wolf, refusing to eat her and making her, in his consummately wolfy way, question everything she holds dear. In some ways that is far worse for her than being eaten by him. What does she do then? Well, off the top of my head come three options.

  • Option One: She can listen to the wolf. She can offer him a place by the fire. They can form a strange trusting and caring relationship. The wolf will nurse her on her deathbed and then pine on her grave like Greyfriars Bobby.

  • Option Two: Grandmother can argue with the wolf. She can persuade him that it is his duty, in the scheme of things, to kill her and eat her. He does it with the utmost reluctance, but feels so guilty that he dresses up in her clothes and tries to become her, in order to assuage his conscience about depriving Little Red Riding Hood of the world's best Grandmother. In this version, Little Red Riding Hood doesnít notice the difference for ages.

  • Option Three: Grandmother gets assertive and kills him. She has never done anything as tough in her life before. This act of self defence changes her view of herself and of women in society. She goes on to become a feminist guru in the forest.

This is of course a bit facetious but it demonstrates how variations in character and the resulting interactions with other characters leads will stimulate ideas for story events. Each situation thrown up by this sort of exercise leads to more story complications and events if you know enough about your characters and their situations. If you take the conclusion to option three, for example - Grandmother becomes a feminist guru in the forest - and think about it for a few moments, you can see that it isn't really a conclusion at all. It could be the start of another journey altogether, perhaps for her family and friends as they struggle to accept the strange new person that good old Grandmother has become.

So the first step in the process is 'know your characters.' I can't stress this too much. I think it's crucial to spend a long time day-dreaming about the people you might want to put in your book. I even subscribe to that dreadful cliché of falling in love with them. The more you think about them, the better you will know them and the more story events will occur to you as a result. You can do this in all sorts of ways - you can conduct interviews with them, write their diaries, go mentally shopping with them, draw their family tree, you can list their favourite foods, imagine what they wear, think up what happened to them when they were ten and then again at fifteen. Do what you like - just do it! And in as much detail as possible. You donít have to write it all down, though some people swear by it, and it is useful to keep track of dates of birth and eye colour and that sort of thing when you come to edit, but there is a lot to be said for just keeping it all fermenting gently in your mind. This stage shouldn't be rushed. As you think about your people, try to put them in a solid social context - visualise their world as concretely as you can. Try to see what they see when they wake up each morning. The more you know about how they are and what they do, the easier it will be to think of interesting things to do with them.

Some of the writing books suggest that people focus on one main character, and give all sorts of alarming advice about main plots and sub-plots, i.e. the hero deals with the principal plot, his sidekick or girlfriend has or is the sub-plot. Since I've thrown out the word plot I really should throw out sub-plot with it. It sounds too like 'substandard'. The way to avoid this sort of misleading hierarchy is to think of each character as having their own story to explore or rather a road to travel along. In the Little Red Riding Hood story, we have the wolf's story, the Grandmother's story, and Little Red Riding Hood's story, rather than the wolf sub-plot or the Grandmother sub-plot or whatever. I find it much easier to imagine each character's personal journey as a thread which interweaves with the other characters, or more dramatically, gets knotted up with the other character's threads, and has to be untangled or whatever. A group of well-drawn characters, with conflicting aims and agendas, are the stuff of interesting stories. All should have their own 'problems with living' and the possibility of enlightenment at the end of the story. Some threads of course will be thicker and more dramatic than others, but that's one of the interesting choices you have to make in writing a novel. Take, for example, a soldier going to war and his mother suffering quietly at home. Nothing much may happen to the mother externally, but her inner life might be fascinating, and what you choose to focus on. Or you can have a few vignettes of the mother, to contrast with your gruesome and dramatic battle scenes. If you really know the mother and son well, you will probably know how you want to treat this sort of situation.

As you spend all this time thinking about characters, lots of possibilities for events will begin to occur to you. Making the people concrete and credible in your mind will make the world in which they act and react that much easier for you to grasp.

But try to focus, after a while, on how you want each character to be at the end of the process. What do you want to change about them - or rather, what needs to be changed? Is the rake going to be reformed or is he going to defiantly leave the country to be even more dissipated elsewhere? Which man, if any, is the heroine to end up with and why? Basically try to work out the ultimate destination of the character, and of course once you know where you want that person to go, you can start finding a suitable route.

However unlike normal travel, you do not want them to take most direct route to the destination you have decided for them. Nothing would be more dull for the reader. Drama comes from the characters taking one step forward and then two steps back, and the goal should remain tantalisingly elusive. Othello, is a wonderful example of this. Othello goes resolutely on in the opposite direction to that which the audience wants him to go, believing all the rubbish that Iago tells him and letting his heart rule his head until he is locked into such a downward spiral that he can do nothing other than murder Desdemona. And of course, only when he has killed her, does he realise that he has been wrong all along. Murdering his wife is the moment when he begins to change and realises exactly what he has done, and when Iago's machinations are finally revealed, he shows the sort of insight into his faults that the audience have been longing for throughout the play:

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set aught down in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme; one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.

After that, it's OK for Othello to fall on his sword because he's changed, he's learnt something. If he just killed himself in a fit of jealous despair, the play wouldnít be nearly so satisfying.

The moment of important change for a character, then, is the beginning of the climax of their story, and it's quite useful to have in mind, at an early stage, some scene or circumstance when you feel that revelation will begin to strike, when the direction of that characterís story begins to flow more in the direction that the reader will want. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth realises that Darcy has helped save her sister from the disgrace of her elopement with Whickham, she is able to own up to her own deep feelings for him. The elopement plot, a dramatic and sensational happening after so much drawing room activity, focuses Darcy and Elizabeth's minds on what they really want - each other - and they each begin to take what steps they can to achieve that - within the limits of the time. Darcy finds Whickham and Lydia and pays Whickham's debts, while Elizabeth spiritedly defends herself and her position against the imperious onslaught of Lady Catherine de Burgh. Of course, there are still quite a few complications before everything is ironed out, but the important thing is that the tide has turned, and by then reader will be desperate to keep reading on.

In fact the pleasure of a book like Pride and Prejudice, where you can guess pretty much from chapter one whom is destined to end up with whom, is the tortuous journey of those people muddling through towards the finishing line.

The story I'm developing at the moment involves a woman who will not admit, for various reasons, that she is in love with the hero but I haven't yet quite worked out when and how the penny will drop for her. Something needs to happen for her to stand back for a second and see what is actually going on. Once I have that worked out, I will begin to chart her journey towards that point. I'm not worrying about this too much (yet!) because I've a group of other characters to work on, and searching out their climatic point of change might lead on to hers - in fact it is much more satisfying when you get a cluster like that, a sort of domino effect.

So weíve established what sort of people we want, what their lives are like and what their problem with living is. We have also decided how we want them to be by the end of the book and the moment when they begin to change. The blank page is beginning to look a little less empty - we have a beginning, a climax and an end.

In fact we might represent it like this:

Story curve

Looking at this model, we can see that a character's story in a novel is a series of scenes or incidents leading them towards a moment of change, and then on and up towards the ultimate goal in the story.

The opening point of a story is also something that it is worth spending a lot of time deliberating over, as if you get the starting point right, a lot of the rest of the story will evolve naturally. If you start too early, you may find it hard to get events moving with sufficent pace to grab the reader. I've talked quite a lot about the significant moment of change in an individuals' story, but there is another crucial moment of change that starts a story rolling. This can be something quite dramatic like a woman finding a dead body in the attic of her new house, or to go back to the calmer world of Jane Austen's Emma, it is the marriage of Emma's governess and friend Miss Taylor, which upsets Emma's customary routine and gives her the opportunity to do some dangerous meddling. If Miss Taylor had stayed at Hartfield, one can imagine that Emma and Knightly would have gone on as they have seem to have been doing for years and never get to the point of declaring their feelings for each other. Perhaps if she had gone untested by the delicate and complex events Austen has devised for her, Emma may never have realised she loved him. The opening moment of change in a novel is often to do with a fresh situation that stops life being a plateau - new people in the neighbourhood, a new job, a decision to change something about one's life - often a wrong decision. Novels often start with weddings, funerals or the first day at a new job; these are traditional thresholds people cross into different sorts of life and experiences. There's an Abba song which illustrates this concept beautifully. Called 'The day before you came', the lyric outlines in detail a woman's humdrum existence up the point of change when presumably a man arrived who changed everything out of recognition.

As I've said, it can be tricky to indentify this starting point of change. Itís very easy to start too early because you feel you need to present a lot of information to the reader before they can understand why the story is moving forward. The story should be like a puppy on a leash - anxious to get ahead of everything, and you should let it off the leash at the earliest possible moment. If there is no change in the first chapter, scrap the chapter. Something must be under way, no matter how slight, how subtle. The action movie rule is to start with an explosion - well, an explosion can take many forms. Jane Austen is full of controlled explosions that push the story along. If you are in doubt as to whether you have picked the right moment, imagine the climax of your book and ask, could your people have got there without the benefit of that intial moment of change? If they can, the opening incident probaby isn't significant enough. This is always one of the hardest decisions to make - and I find that if I don't get it right, I'm building on very shaky foundations. The best solution is to return to the characters and where you want them to go, bringing the issues they are to explore as tightly into focus as you can. In the book I'm just starting, I have been playing around with ideas for the opening for some time, and I think I've finally solved it. I'm going to describe two contrasting Sunday lunch parties - one a relaxed, rather bohemian affair, the other a tension-filled traditional family lunch. During this, I will be able to introduce all the characters and begin to explore their problems with living, as well as getting the story well underway, by introducing the three characters who are the agents of all the changes these people will undergo.

I thought I'd talk now about some specific ideas and techniques, which I've found helpful in coming up with properly structured stories.

I tend to work out a story for each of my viewpoint characters, interweaving them as I go. Each character would therefore have a chart like the one I've just shown you. The helpful thing is to know exactly what each person is doing at any point in a story - this will make it easier to pick out the bits that need to be written. The rule of thumb is that only the really interesting bits of a person's life are worth reporting. The peaks and troughs - or the action leading towards those - are the interesting bits. If there is a plateau, skip over it. It will slow the story down.

I always write in scenes and, as a rule, a scene ought to equal an incident - if there's nothing much happening, ask yourself what the scene is for. I tend to have each scene perceived by one viewpoint character - and if I do switch viewpoints in the middle of a scene, I always make it clear with a new paragraph and a couple of line breaks. Film and television is a really helpful model here, I find. Cutting directly from scene to scene avoids messy transitions of time that are a pet hate of mine - that is, when you find wedged between two paragraphs a paragraph saying "Over the next few months, Joan carried on running the business for Mrs Simpkins, and managed to increase profits substantially. But she still missed Joe dreadfully, and found herself thinking about him all the time," followed by a paragraph saying "Then one day in May, Joe walked into the shop." Much better to plunge straight in, with Joan poring over the ledgers, realising sheís made a profit, when Joe walks in and says, "I didn't know you were running the place for the old lady." If you can't imagine a passage dramatised, or implied by something visual (a thoughtful look, or atmospheric light, or some such) it is best to leave it out. In cinema, these sort of transitions are sometimes dealt with using a montage sequence, when, in this example, you might have a half a dozen mini-scenes, showing Joan running the business - e.g., one working late in the stock room, one greeting customers, one showing the customers eager to buy more, another showing her glancing at Joe's photograph with a sigh as she gets on with more work. This is 'showing not telling', which is the essence of writing in scenes.

However, there is no getting round the fact that devising scenes to lead the character along to his or her moment of change is not easy. There is no substitute for lots of hard work with the grey matter, but it will help tremendously the more you know about the characters, their milieu and where you want to go with them. Each scene you decide to write ought to have a definite point to it - it must move the action along or tell us something important about the character, enhance the atmosphere or feed the reader with fresh information. The best scenes manage to do all these things, in varying proportions. This can seem a Herculean task at times and be prepared to make yourself miserable about it. There is a certain pattern to scenes which work well in a dramatic sequence, though. I think one of the characters in a scene should be having to deal with something. This could be dealing with a new situation, or having an argument with a lover or trying to hoodwink a police officer, whatever. A scene is always a incident, no matter how minor. A spilt cup of tea, depending on the circumstances and the people involved, could be a volcanic occasion.

Therefore, a sequence of related scenes or incidents leading towards a climax equals a story.

With related incidents we are back to Forster and causality: one incident results in something else happening, a scene causes another. For example, a scene when a man discovers a corpse will often lead to a police investigation scene. Or a scene where a man has a row with his wife might lead to a scene where the wife decides she will flirt with another man, in order to make her husband jealous. This might lead to another scene where they have another row. All of which is pretty straightforward and satisfies the 'and then' requirement. But it is important to make each scene as interesting as possible in itself, and that comes back to character and setting, which are pretty much intertwined. If you take that simple example of the husband and wife row, you have all sorts of interesting options. First of all, what is the row about? Perhaps they work together in a design partnership and they are arguing about the right way to attract a client. The client turns out to be the man with whom the wife flirts over a business lunch in a smart restaurant, and this drives the poor husband crazy. Then they go back to their loft apartment and have the second row there - or worse still, they have to go down to the country for his parent's golden wedding anniversary, so they have the row in the BMW on the motorway and by the time they get there, they aren't speaking, which will lead to even more complications. Before you know it, you've got to the big scene when she realises, in the middle of the golden wedding anniversary party, that she never loved her husband at all - the example of his parent's long lived and caring marriage shows her what a disaster her own is. That's a pretty interesting story, I think, and it still has room for plenty more complications in it. If the husband and wife were different people in a different milieu the row might have been about something different, the flirtation different, the second row different, and leading to another, quite different set of complications and climaxes. Put them in fourteenth century Scotland for example, or make them a retired couple living in a coastal resort in Spain and the possibilities open up, if you know what they are, how they live and where they need to go.

Novels often have big set-piece scenes, in interesting settings where all sorts of things begin to come together. Any excuse to get the characters together in the same physical space should be seized upon - dances, weddings, trials scenes, board meetings - all these have great potential for setting up dramatic twists and turns. And as a general rule, Jane Austen's advice to her niece that two or three families in a village make ideal material for a novel, still holds good. It doesn't have to be a village, of course, but novels have a village mentality - the characters often know each other and see each other more regularly than they would in real life. Closed communities make very good settings - the men on a submarine, a convent full of nuns, a university, a hospital ward, a shift of police officers, families, whatever. People should be in situations where they can interact easily with each other, where all their problems with living can rub up against each otherís nicely. And of course the more you know about that setting, the more vividly you have pictured it in your imagination, the easier it will be to come up with incidents to move the story along in a meaningful way.

Although your people might be intimate, beware of making them too honest. Honesty and good communication are the enemies of a novel. Make communication difficult - if your hero and heroine are naturally honest, straight talkers, put them on opposite sides of a battle field. If they are both hopelessly repressed, they can sit in the same drawing room and not manage to say anything significant to each other. The action in that sort of scene is interior action - the thoughts and emotions of whichever character you have chosen as the viewpoint character.

This might be called making life difficult for your characters, and it is a handy standby ingredient when constructing a story. If things are going too smoothly, make trouble for your people; crudely, this is blowing up the bridge during a car chase. This sort of external disaster or test can be used to great effect, and some sort of books absolutely demand it. But for a character-based book, the best sort of trouble comes from a mixture of external and internal forces - the circumstances conspire to play on a flaw already existing in the characterís make-up. This is the sort of trouble which will lead both to more and more complications, and also ultimately to the sort of self-knowledge which will make the story really satisfying. In this model the bridge could have collapsed because the heroine, who is now being chased, was a civil engineer, with gambling and debt problems who could not resist a bribe from a corrupt contractor who did a shoddy job on the bridge. And who is chasing her now? The contractor, of course, whom she has threatened to expose when her conscience got the better of her.

Obstacles and problems of this sort really ought to have a logical connection to the person enduring them. Of course, in real life, fate is never quite so just. Bad things just happen, without reason, but in a story there needs to be a reason. The internal world of the story has to be logical - within its own terms. Readers will accept almost anything if it obeys the internal logic of the novel. Science fiction makes a virtue of this. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, says:

The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people and so forth is a meaningingless process when speaking of books. In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. An original author always creates an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that original world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth. The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe.

Nabakov has a lot to say about the novelist as an enchanter, but as anyone who has ever tried to write a novel will know, the reality is more prosaic. Stage magicians practise for hours in front of mirrors to perfect the illusion of magic and the reality of their sleight of hand is fairly banal. Constructing stories that work for the reader also requires a great deal of hard work behind the scenes, a lot of thought, a lot of worry, but the satisfaction of pulling off the trick is immense. It is a different sort of satisfaction from consuming a novel, as different from being in the audience enjoying the feats of the magician. In fact, the process of learning may spoil that illusion for ever, when one realises exactly what the author is up to. However, there will be moments, when your story is in place, when your characters are firmly in your heart and in your head, when the illusions will become more than illusions and have an uncanny reality for you. When you manage to deceive yourself, you know you have succeeded.

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