‘Just finished reading The Girl on the Train,’ he tells you. There’s a pause and you can’t help yourself, ‘What’s it about?’ you ask. That’s when you cross your fingers and hope you get the short version. What you’re really hoping for is the story not the plot, and there’s a huge difference between the two.
The short version of The Girl on the Train—a divorced woman pines for her ex but then discovers he’s not what he seems—is the story. Plot deals with the why and what, the cause and effect, the twists and turns. If your friend starts to relate the story with ‘Well, there’s this woman on a train drinking…’ you’re in for a long listen.
Stories are usually chronological with a beginning, middle and end. It is what it is—an object, a noun. Plot is a verb for the writer; an activity that only becomes a noun when they’ve finished writing. To entertain, they use it to lay traps, to confuse, to surprise, to scare, to mystify, to mislead (for a while), to excite and, more practically, to inform.
There is no need with plot to keep to chronological order. Start at the end, end at the beginning, jump back or forward in time, stick in a dream sequence. Ask yourself, does the plot structure add drama, deal with causes and effects, or add useful information about whatever love or hate story you want to tell? If the answer’s yes, it’s valid.
Macbeth was a Scottish king, reasonably long serving (about ten years as I recall) and by historical accounts not a bad one for most of his reign. Shakespeare often nicked stories from history but he wasn’t a historian, he was a dramatist. There’s little drama in an orderly reign, so, he leaves it out. In comes the three witches and maybe a fourth in the form of his awful wife, in comes inner turmoil in the form of Macbeth’s soliloquys, in comes ghostly daggers and the apparition of his dead best friend. That’s plotting for you. It adds drama and makes sense of the tale of an ambitious noble gaining then losing a kingdom.
Plotting can get you around practical obstacles, too. Macbeth begins at a battle. It is where he’s introduced to the audience as a mighty, courageous and faithful servant to his king. But hundreds of actors on stage slashing at each other with swords and lances is a bit impractical, so, Shakespeare starts away from the battle with a ‘bloodied’ survivor telling the king how the battle was lost until ‘brave Macbeth,’ whose sword ‘smoked with bloody execution,’ turned the tables. That wasn’t history, that was a clever plot device.
It’s as necessary now as it was in the 17th century. In The Girl on the Train, how is the protagonist going to see the private event that leads to her discovering her ex-husband’s true nature? Answer: she sees into the house next door to her husband’s as she passes the back garden on a train on her way to work. A plot device that became the title.
In Conjuring the Blood, my own novel, I have an inexperienced and bigoted M15 agent who, for the story to make sense, somehow has to rise quickly up the ranks to take on a case of national importance. He's not well thought of by his superiors but I know from experience how ill thought out official policies have unintended consequences. I used that knowledge, through a series of plot devices, to convincingly get my protagonist where he needed to be. (If you want to find out how, buy the book and make a bald bloke happy.)
Take care though, plot has to be believable in terms of both setting and character. A shy wallflower suffering from agoraphobia is unlikely to turn into a vamp to get out of a difficult situation, and is unlikely to bump into the man she’s going to fall in love with at a pop concert. What about Macbeth and the witches you could ask—how believable is that? Actually, in 17th century England, very. Time and place.
You can't plot without story and nor should you without a theme. Macbeth's theme is the dark side of ambition. He was in the pub writing one of his sonnets, upset about some young courtier who wasn't returning his affections, complaining that he couldn't think of a theme for his new play when it came to him (I know, I was there at the bar supping a pint of shambles ale). I'll write about theme in a future post but next week I'll do what I promised last week, editing (I had it in my had I'd said plot).
Book review/recommendation: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
An excellently plotted book with a weak female protagonist who knows it. She is no Holmes or Miss Marple, she blunders her way to a shock discovery in a drunken haze. That’s what makes it stand out: weakness is interesting and, if you know you’re weak, you’re conflicted, which is also interesting.