And what happens if your plot doesn’t fit into that grid, because there’s not enough of it?
What happens if your plot, boiled down to its basics, just feels too thin. Like it might fill out a 40,000 word novel, but certainly not an 80,000 word one?
(And those aren’t theoretical questions, by the way. Every month our editorial team sees novels with that exact issue. A book in search of a plot.)
If that applies to you, you need to complicate your plot. Add ingredients.
Method 1: Mirroring
This doesn’t mean tack on needless bits and pieces – characters shouting at each other for effect, etc. – but add depth and subplots, developing the complexity of your protagonist’s story. (Remember: if it’s not contributing to your protagonist’s journey, it doesn’t matter and you need to delete it.)
To take another novel – supposing your name is Harper Lee, and your story is the tale of a girl named Scout – let’s say Scout’s spooked by an odd but harmless man living on her street. It’s fine, though there’s not yet enough complexity yet to carry a novel, so complicate it.
One thought is giving her a father figure, say a lawyer, named Atticus. (Harper Lee herself was daughter of a small-town lawyer.) He’s fighting to defend a man accused of something he obviously didn’t do. Targeted for who he is, rather than anything he’s done.
A black guy accused for looking different? An odd-but-harmless guy who spooks Scout?
It’s straightforward, tragic mirroring. Atticus’ fight is lost, the stories interweave, and Scout learns compassion in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Introducing that second, reverberating plot strand meant that Harper Lee’s novel had the heft to become a classic of world literature.
Method 2: Ram your genre into something different
Another way to complicate your plot is to throw action into a different genre – such as sci-fi, fantasy or crime.
So take The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.
Looked at one way, that’s a pretty much standard issue romantic story, which, yes, could have sold, but could never have made the huge sales it actually racked up. But then ram that into a story of time-travel, and you have something shimmeringly new and exciting.
What you had was still a romantic story at its heart – it certainly wouldn’t appeal to hardcore fans of SF/fantasy – but the novel element gave it a totally new birth.
Or take Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters.
A picaresque Victorian historical novel . . . that kind of thing always had its audience – but that audience had never encountered a frankly told lesbian coming-of-age story in that context, and the result of that shock collision was to produce a literary sensation.
Method 3: Take your character and max her out
Why was it that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo went on to get such gigantic sales across the globe?
It wasn’t the quality of Stieg Larsson’s writing, which was never more than competent and which was quite baggy, to say the least. (You could easily trim 20,000 words from each one of his books, and not lose anything material in terms of content.)
And the actual plot? Well, on the face of it, he delivered a fairly standard issue crime story. Nothing so unusual there in terms of actual narrative.
But Stieg Larsson rammed that basic story with an exotic character: Lisbeth Salander. That woman had Aspergers, she was a bisexual computer hacker and rape survivor . . .and boom – something totally new was born and vast worldwide sales resulted.
Method 4: Add edge – a glint of steel
A few years back, I was struggling with one of my books, This Thing of Darkness. (here)
The basic plot was strong. The mystery element was good. There was at least one quite unusual element. The climax was rip-roaring (set on a trawler at sea in a force 10 gale.) But . . .
The book wasn’t quite working.
It was long. (All my books are long; I’ve never mastered the cost-effective art of writing a short book.) And it was just a long, long way from the set-up phase of the book to the denouement.
A glint of steel.
I took an incident from the middle of the book – a break-in, and a theft, but no violence, no real time action – and I turned that into a long sequence involving the abduction of my protagonist.
That addition made a long book even longer . . . but it made the book.
It’s not just that the sequence itself was exciting, it’s that its shadow extended over everything else too. Whereas before the book had felt a bit like, “yep, gotta solve the mystery, because she’s a cop, and this is a crime novel, and that’s just what these books have to do.”
Now it was: “We HAVE TO solve that mystery, because these bastards abducted our protagonist and, even though she escaped, she is still echoing with that shock.”
Steel. Edge. Sex or violence.
Yes, those things work in crime novels like mine, but they work in totally literary works too. Can you imagine Ian McEwan’s Atonement without that glint of sex? Would The Great Gatsby have worked if no one had died?
And, although we’ve listed out four methods for intensifying and improving your novel, there are a million more. It doesn’t matter which tool you choose to do it. It does matter that you do something.