A lot of the 4,000 or so visitors to this site each month come searching for subjects related to writing. Although writing sword fight scenes appeals to a lot of people, the part of writing which I’ve reflected on most over the past twenty-five years — and failed to find satisfactory answers among published books — is What is Plot? and How do you write a good one?
Having been entirely unsatisfied by Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, which (in my view) were neither plots, nor basic, nor even adding up to seven, I decided to do my own research. This produced initially the article The One Basic Plot, and, with considerable expansion and revision, has now led to the book The One Basic Plot: How we tell stories, which is available as of today on Kindle, a snip at just £2.21. Kindle will also run on your iPad, iPhone, Mac or PC, so don’t be put off.
Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s one fundamental, universal shape to the plotty bit of stories, and you can apply this shape to any scenario, premise, situation, character and outcome to produce a story which feels like a story worth telling. In other words, I’ve come down against the notion that there are seven, or two, or twenty, or thirty-six basic plots, and decided that there are an infinite number, and they can be about anything you like.
Hopefully you find this liberating.
The book is quite short, hence the price. It’s tempting to pontificate about writing and telling stories, but, seriously, most people who are interested in stories already know most things, and, if they don’t, they are already available in hundreds of books which tell you to use ‘said’ rather than ‘whispered’, ‘yelled’, ‘repeated’ and suggest your ‘show don’t tell’ (or the other way around). So instead of regurgitating what is already known, I’ve tried to keep it down to just three big ideas: the double-reversal, the collision of narratives, and the moment of clarity.
If you’ve been struggling with Nanowrimo, or you’ve completed it (congratulations) and are now wondering if your plot works or not, and, if it doesn’t, how you can fix it, then this book is for you.
Just so you know.
By the way, the sub-title is slightly cheeky. Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots is subtitled ‘why we tell stories’. I don’t have a clue why other people tell stories, and my conclusion was neither does Christopher Booker. All I am claiming to have done is identify an easy to use pattern which is the mechanism for telling a story, and is more useful (and less obvious) than beginning-middle-end.
By ‘how we tell stories’, I’m not talking about the thought process by which you come up with a great story. I’ve read lots of books on this, some great, most not-so-great, and my conclusion is that… every author does it differently. There doesn’t seem to be any one process by which you set out to write a novel and then complete it. I suppose, if there were, could just set a computer to churn them out.
If you’re interested in creating great plots, and want to practise, the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is this: go and tell stories to people. Tell narrative jokes, tell people some inspiring heroic tale you heard, recount things you saw on TV, tell them the plot of films (though this could lose you friends), tell them the progress of a sports fixture. It’s only by watching how audiences react to particular bits of your story that you actually see what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been doing this now for twenty-five years — my apologies to all those who were bored in the early years — and I finally feel like I’ve learned something worth passing on.