Elizabeth George writes mysteries, intricately plotted, full of rogues and oh-so-human heroes, set in wild or innocent corners of England. Her words hook you as soon as you read the first page. When I purchased her book, Write Away, I thought, what a great person to learn from.
I distilled her suggestions into five essential points (see diagram) with notes to augment each point. Although George presents them in sequence, the diagram shows them in a circle because that’s how I think of them – interconnected aspects of a work of fiction.
- Story is Character, bullets remind me that I must understand my characters’ core needs and the pathology of their actions when these needs are thwarted, unique episodes from the past that have shaped them, their sexuality and their burning desires.
- To remind me that Setting is Story I have listed atmosphere, landscape, landscape of the person and internal landscape. George tells us that good writers explore each of these settings. A broader and more complex way to think of setting.
- Plot must consist of conflict, laid out in a series of what Elizabeth George calls dramatic dominoes. Plot contains high points, a climax and resolution. George pays particular attention to a novel’s opening which must establish a character’s emotional state, promise excitement, suggest conflict, theme and problems, describe the atmosphere and place and grab the reader with some sort of hook.
- Voice is a character’s defining way of speaking and thinking. Voice reflects background, education, social position, history, biases, desires and beliefs.
- Dialogue moves the plot forward, provides information about conflict, theme and plot, adds to tension, reveals character, and suggests subtext. It must also serve the action of the scene.
Elizabeth George offers further advice on plotting:
- Plotting is what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in
- You need conflict to have plot
- Think of the events in the novel as dramatic dominoes; your scenes should tip from one domino to another to another.
- Ensure you have high points of drama which will deeply involve the reader
- You must have a climax and a climax within the climax
- Your story needs resolution, a point where you tie the loose ends together and illustrate the nature of change that has occurred in the lives of your characters
- Continually open up the story by creating scenes in which you lay down dramatic questions; make partial disclosures, answer one question but create another one
- Play the information out with great care – don’t give things away too soon
What works for me is to briefly describe the idea of my story, then write down the themes I want to explore and areas of conflict between and amongst characters.
Then I build each scene from the following prompts:
- Setting – where does the scene occur (remember that setting consists of atmosphere, landscape, landscape of the person and internal landscape)
- Narrator – who has the primary voice in a given scene, the scene will unfold mainly from their perspective; what does the scene reveal about the characters
- Basic Outline – I use bullet points consisting of two or three sentences
- What are the dramatic dominoes? – which scenes are causally related to this scene; those scenes will follow, not necessarily immediately but at some point
- What questions are left open? – what questions will the reader wonder about and turn the page to find the answers
These notes from Write Away help me outline the story while keeping these five elements ‘front and centre’. For me the writing then flows more easily and I can keep the bigger picture of the story in mind.
All of which does not mean that the process is quick or without many edits, but it does add coherence to my efforts. Guess I’m not a ‘seat of the pants’ kind of person.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.