The Plot Thickens

Plot is one of the 7 elements of historical fiction. In the original post outlining these seven elements, I wrote:

… the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

When you’re plotting, you are essentially devising the sequence of events that link your scenes and chapters and your character arcs into a compelling story for readers. Christopher Booker took 34 years to write his book The Seven Basic Plots. Wikipedia describes each plot type briefly and, if you’re interested, the New York Times has reviewed Booker’s book.

Booker’s seven plots are:

  • Overcoming the monster
  • Rags to riches
  • The quest
  • Voyage and return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

Which of these plots fits the story you want to tell and its historical context?

According to Elizabeth George in her book Write Away (a resource I consult frequently), “plot is what the characters do [George’s emphasis] to deal with the situation they’re in.” Elizabeth George builds on this:

  • “To have a plot … you must have characters … you also must have conflict.”
  • “But you must also have events that occur as the conflict unfolds, and these events must be organized with an emphasis on causality.”
  • As she explores causality, George introduces the notion of “dramatic dominoes” – essentially scenes that trigger an event that follows.
  • To this she adds: “… your plot has to have high points of drama” that deeply involve your readers.

So, what does this mean for historical fiction? I’m sure someone could write a thesis on this topic, but let me offer two points:

If you’re writing historical fiction based on a real person’s life, then history provides all – well, almost all – the details you will need. The challenges are (1) to pick the true events in that persona’s life that will actually make a story worth reading bearing in mind the need for tension, conflict, causality, dramatic dominoes, and high points of drama, (2) to leave out the bits that are tedious or don’t advance the plot, and (3) to judiciously insert the scenes and characters that are plausible and will add those extra bits of drama and sparkle. Remember, you’re writing fiction not biography.

Do we know what Eleanor of Aquitaine said to Henry II on their wedding night? No, but with the right research a good author can imagine it.

Do we know whether J. P. Morgan had an affair with his personal librarian Belle da Costa Greene? No, but Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray do a wonderful job of imagining the dynamic between these two individuals in their novel The Personal Librarian.

If you’re writing historical fiction with fictional characters, then choose the historical events that frame the story, drive the plot, are inherently dramatic, and can realistically involve your characters. If your character is a captain in the British army during WWI, choose a suitable regiment and research where that regiment was during the war and therefore what battles, what losses, what victories and so on could have shaped your captain’s life. If you need your fictional captain to have met Winston Churchill, there has to be a plausible reason and accurate regimental specifics for him to have done so. More than that, the meeting with Churchill should advance the main character’s arc while adding tension and conflict and laying down another dramatic domino for the story.

In Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he also defines plot:

To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted with a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.

What are the branching possibilities your plot faces? What events will you choose? How will they unfold in the timeline you’ve chosen?

McKee’s notion of navigating the correct path makes me thing of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I should keep that in mind as I devise my next plot.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

What does your plot look like?

In April, Jane Friedman – whose banner reads ‘helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age’ – posted an article on How to Use a Plot Planner by Martha Alderson. The post presents two typical plot lines and discusses the ways authors can visualize and change their stories. For example:

The energy of a story doesn’t remain flat, just as the Plot Planner line isn’t flat. A story grows in intensity, which is reflected in the line moving steadily higher as the stakes and the energy of the story also rise.

Using a plot planner you can show scenes “where the power is somewhere other than with the protagonist above the Plot Planner line.” Scenes showing character development involving loss, failure, revenge, self-sacrifice, anger, grief, fear, rebellion and so on also go above the line.

Scenes that go below the plot planner line show “the internal, emotional territory of the protagonist”, these are often moments of character introspection and include scenes where information is shared, where a character is planning, contemplating, problem solving and so on.

My own feeling is that many of today’s readers expect more complexity from stories. They expect multiple crises leading to a climax rather than one, and even multiple protagonists, thus making the challenge of plot planning even greater.

My latest novel Time and Regret includes two story lines, one in a more present-day world and one in WWI. Each story has its own plot line, the tension of one mixing with and affecting the tension of the other. Hopefully, I’ve managed the trick of growing intensity for readers, keeping the energy rising and delivering satisfying crises and climaxes! The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah does this superbly.


Time and Regret releases August 16, 2016 under the banner of Lake Union Publishing.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016.

Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.


Write Away – Advice From Elizabeth George

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.

Write Away Five ElementsI 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Voice is a character’s defining way of speaking and thinking. Voice reflects background, education, social position, history, biases, desires and beliefs.
  5. 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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.