Primacy of plot

A good, plot-oriented story will keep the reader hooked till the end…

Updated - July 04, 2011 03:06 pm IST

Published - July 04, 2011 03:05 pm IST

Recently I received an invitation to the launch of a book entitled But It's Not Fair, written by an author, Aneeta Prem, of whom I did not know and put out by Freedom Charity, a publisher completely foreign to me. Normally, I despatch something like that from my desk and mind in a matter of minutes. But this book grabbed me, because it dealt with the issue of forced marriage which is a sad reality for so many young South Asians.

But It's Not Fair illustrates one indispensable quality of an engaging book. It should be topical. In Indian fiction that part often gets lost. Indian writers, who make the biggest headlines, are the ones that win literary prizes, and in literary fiction plot plays second fiddle to creating involving characters and possessing a unique voice and structure. Furthermore, much of the Indian setting and culture are foreign enough to be exotic for the Western reader. Hence, transporting the reader into another world becomes a desirable trait. But make no mistake about it. Topicality and subject matter sell more books than all of the above combined. And anyone who thinks plots are unimportant would be well advised to take a look at what makes the fiction bestseller list week in and week out.

What is it about?

Before you read a line you want to know what the book is about. And if that does not grab you, chances are you will never turn to the first page. Some of the most popular genres in fiction are plot-driven. Thriller and mystery, just to mention two of them. So any writer who devalues plot does so it at his or her peril.

How do you create an engaging plot? Well, the first thing to do is to accept that no one is interested in your life. That, of course, does not hold true if you live the life of Tolstoy. (I am talking of a proper writer here not some Page Three celebrity dabbling in fiction.) If you are a Count and participate in several wars and serve as a diplomat and have numerous love affairs and marry a great beauty…Then there is plenty to write from your own life. You don't have to look anywhere else. But most of us live rather boring lives, no matter how involved we may personally be in them. A lot of my life, for instance, is spent in a room, writing. For me, that's okay. But why should anyone else care? Hence, even if you base your main character on yourself, the first thing to do is to take him or her out of your life.

How do you do that? Well, one of the ways I have found useful is to employ what I call the what-if factor. Let's say I sit next to a middle-aged woman on my way to work on the metro every day. Is there anything interesting about our daily routine of riding to and from work? Certainly not. But what if the woman does not come for two days in a row? What if, on the third day, I read an obituary of her in the newspaper? What if I see a woman who looks exactly like her when I get off the metro? What if I follow that woman into a dark alley where I am waylaid by a gang of toughs and wake up alone in a dark room? Now you have a situation that is full of intrigue and possibility, one on which you can easily hinge a short story or a novel.

Variations

Every plot has a beginning, middle and end. The question is where we begin and how much of the story we want to reveal. The answer to that depends on whether you are writing a short story or a novel. Short stories are about endings, climaxes, resolutions. You begin as close as possible to the end and suggest as much of the back story as necessary along the way. In the modern novel, the tendency is to start somewhere in the middle or even close to the end, anywhere except the chronological beginning, and then tell the back story through flashbacks or dialogue. That is true even in mystery and detective novels where the crime happens towards the beginning and the story of the crime is revealed through the investigation.

A good plot-oriented story will grab you by the scruff of the neck from the get go and not let go. It will surprise you at each twist and turn, and then end with the mother of all surprises. One that makes perfect sense when you think of it later, but which you never see coming. If you can come up with a plot that does that, then the sky's the limit.

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