Recently, in a message to me, a reader commented on dramatic structure in the novel, as she saw it in my books – or, rather, she referred to the “plot arc”. She is herself an experienced playwright, but has been struggling with writing her first novel, and this got me thinking about the relationship between the forms of dramatic structure in different types of writing: the novel, the story, the stage play, and the film or TV drama.
When I visualise the dramatic structure of the novel, I don’t, somehow, see it as an “arc”. If I think about it at all in abstract terms (which isn’t often!), I see it much more like the structure of a stage play, and this is how I explained it to her:
Now, as to shaping the plot. Since you are an experienced playwright, I’d suggest thinking of your novel plots as you would for a play. Novels have a great deal in common with plays – they’re just longer! And you have to provide the scene-setting and the actions and emotions conveyed by the actors.
Like plays, novels are constructed of scenes. They often fall into the equivalent of acts – three or five, with a major crisis or turning point in the middle one. They build suspense, like a play, they drop the curtain at the end of each chapter. I ask the actors narrating my audiobooks to pay particular attention to the last sentence or two of my chapters – they have that effect of bringing down the curtain while awaking anticipation in the audience for what comes next. At the end of the novel, you want to follow a tense climax with a relaxation of tension, gentler emotions, a tying up of loose ends. All the great dramatists do this too – think of the end of Hamlet.
For myself, I don’t do a great deal of detailed plotting in advance. I know where I’m starting and finishing, and the major milestones along the way. Before I start each chapter, I jot down a note about each of the scenes it will contain, perhaps three or four. Otherwise, I allow the plot to grow organically. Things occur as I go along. The characters themselves force the development of the plot. New characters can appear without any conscious invention on my part, but again they grow organically from the characters and actions which have gone before, and those major milestones along the way.
I hope that helps. I’m sure if you think of a novel in dramatic terms you’ll find it less intimidating.
I believe that is a fair summary of how I think about dramatic structure in the novel. Somehow, I don’t much like the term “plot”. It always sounds a little contrived to me. And I loathe those terrible lists which claim that there are Only Five Plots or The 24 Plots in the Whole Wide World. They reduce the rich legacy of world literature to a kind of robotic machine which keeps on cranking out the same stories. Just as human beings and their lives provide us with a rich and varied tapestry of interest, so do their stories, written or oral. To squash them into some snide little list is a denial of the human experience.
So, rather than a “plot”, I start with a group of characters and the barest of skeletons for their story. For me, too much detailed planning kills the spontaneity of the writing. Some handbooks on writing instruct the novice author to compose huge files of information on each character, and plot outlines down to the fine detail of every scene. I can think of nothing more calculated to destroy a novel before it even sees the light of day.
I am very conscious of place (I think this comes across in my novels), of the seasons and the weather, and of the historical period. The dramatic structure of the novel is thus built on this skeleton. As I said in my reply to my reader, I have a fairly clear idea of the beginning and end of the story, and just a few major events on the way. Beyond that, I do build my stories scene by scene, just like the dramatic structure of a stage play. Scenes generate new scenes, and it is surprising what emerges with only a little conscious forward planning. And there is that curious phenomenon of characters who simply appear and begin to talk and act, characters one likewise did not consciously plan.
I think most writers have this experience, and it is very strange. It is as if these characters are waiting off stage, in the wings, and suddenly make their entrances and their exits. Often they prove to be major characters, whose actions become crucial to the dramatic structure in the novel. Yet they can take you by surprise. For example, when I began to write The Huntsman’s Tale, I had not met Sir Henry, and in The Merchant’s Tale, I had no idea that Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) was going to appear. Then suddenly, there he was. Not a major player, but crucial to the story.
The grouping of scenes organically into chapters, each ending with a definite dropping of the curtain, is an essential part of my version of dramatic structure in the novel. Chapters have a family resemblance to acts in a stage play, although the latter usually has only three to five acts, while a novel has considerably more, but since a novel is much longer than a stage play, this is natural. And like a play, a novel will generally have some major turning point near the middle, while the dramatic structure of both – and indeed of any story – leads up to the dénouement near the end, followed by a relaxation of tension in the final moments. (This is where the idea of the arc comes from.)
It is quite interesting to watch a TV play written for a channel which has advertising. The best dramatic structures here make use of these breaks, bringing down the curtain at some dramatic or provocative moment at the end of an “act”, securing the attention of the audience for what is to come next. When a television play not written for an advertising channel is subsequently shown on one with advertising breaks, the chopping up of the story line can be quite random and irritating. Try watching both types of TV drama, and you will see what I mean!
So that is a quick summary of my thoughts on dramatic structure in the novel, and how it compares with dramatic structure in a play. Nothing either complex or world-shattering, but my own instinctive way of working. What are your thoughts, as either a writer, or reader, or both?
Till next time,