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

8 Steps for Outlining a Novel

8 steps for outlining a storyI’m in the midst of outlining a new novel and thought I would share  the process I’m using which I’ve cobbled together from various sources. The examples shown are rough and rather cryptic at this stage.

Story concept: A 10 thousand foot view of the story. In my case: the story of how love changes with time; and, a story of friendship between two very different women; evolving into a mature friendship, each challenging and changing the other.

Time Period: The time period for your novel. Mine will be set from 1870 to 1880 or so; a time of significant unrest and change in France; end of Napoleon III regime called the Second Empire; followed by an intermediate period of political change as republicans gain strength; ultimately a secular, democratic state emerges; monarchists and aristocracy declining; Paris is rebuilt, dominates Europe if not the world as a centre of culture and ideas; women’s suffrage is a topic of concern; impressionist painting takes hold; new philosophers; literary giants like Emile Zola; political alliances reforming across Europe; industrialization has taken hold; financial industry changing with some banks failing, others emerging; France still a major cultural and political power; colonial expansion.

Themes: list the main themes you expect to consider then augment the list with your point of view.

  • Love
    • The search for love; the desire to be loved for one’s self
    • Love that grows within marriage
    • Different definitions of love
  • Friendship
    • Friendships born out of hardship
    • The evolution of friendships, the strength it brings to each party
    • A safe harbour
  • Marriage
    • The negative impact of societal views of marriage
    • Marriage is not for everyone
    • Male and female expectations differ
    • Nineteenth century views
  • Rural versus city life
    • Conservative views dominate rural life
    • Cities are the crucible for change
  • Family
    • You can’t choose your family
    • Families can inflict great pain on individuals
  • Greed
    • Its dominance as a motivating force in business and politics è parallels to today
  • Freedom
    • Within marriage
    • Within society
    • Different definitions of freedom

Conflicts: briefly describe the conflicts you expect will emerge from the story. Camille and Mariele will be the main characters. Both women are featured in Lies Told in Silence, which opens in 1914 Paris – a later time period. If I had been smarter, I would have written the story about Camille and Mariele first 🙂

  • Between Mariele and her mother; lacks her mother’s approval which makes her think she also lacks her mother’s love; Mariele strives to be loved for herself and to be secure in her relationship with Bertrand; at the same time she resists falling in love with Bertrand because she fears she won’t be loved in return; she has learned to cope with her mother by being as compliant and as invisible as possible
  • Between Mariele and Bertrand; Bertrand has lived in an austere, private household and has no example of a warm, loving relationship to emulate; he wants a wife who will be obedient and an asset as his career develops; he has had relations with a few prostitutes but otherwise knows little of modern women. Camille’s wilfulness both intrigues and repels him. He wants to be more successful than his father, seeks power and influence.
  • Between Camille and her parents; Camille should have been a man; She is wilful and determined to get her way. The older she gets, the more she seeks independence and to be amongst those with modern attitudes. Her parents want her to be an obedient daughter who marries to enhance their reputation. They want someone strong who will be able to handle Camille.
  • Between Camille and society’s expectations of women
  • Between Bertrand and his father whose underhanded dealings come to light – not sure about this angle
  • Between Mariele and the uncle who molests her; perhaps this occurs when they are in Lyon
  • Between Mariele’s brother, Robert, and his father
  • Between Mariele’s mother and father
  • Between Mariele and her MIL and FIL
  • Prussian War and Siege of Paris, Paris Commune and national government dominated by nobility and wealthy; Monarchists and republicans
  • Women’s ideas about suffrage conflict with traditional society; women excluded from the public sphere – even today we see this
  • Conservatives and progressives – parallels to today
  • Social change and unrest at that time in France – parallels to today
  • Workers and well-to-do – parallels to today

Plotting Concepts: my take on what goes into developing a plot

Note that this is not a step in the process, more a set of reminders to me as I go about plotting.

  • Make sure you know what the over-arching questions are in your story: will Mariele find the kind of love and family life she desires? Will Camille’s desire for independence leave room for happiness? Will she ever find love?
  • Plotting is what characters do to deal with the situations they are in; it’s a sequence of events that revolve around an attempt to solve a problem or attain a goal
  • You need conflict to have plot
  • Think of the events in the novel as ‘dramatic dominoes’ and make scenes causally related; A causes B causes C
  • Continually open up the story by creating scenes in which I lay down but do not answer dramatic questions; make partial disclosures, answer one question but create another one
  • Compelling questions need to start in the opening paragraphs of chapter 1
  • Each scene needs a specific purpose; characters should want something in every scene; readers need to see their motives; each scene needs action, needs something to happen; there is no narrative thrust without action; your heroes can’t be passive
  • Play the information out with great care – don’t give things away too soon
  • Link scenes, and the overall story, with what a character wants
  • Raise the stakes; give the character bigger and bigger stakes as the story goes along; consider adding a ticking time bomb (something will happen at a certain time unless …)
  • Need to have high points of drama which will deeply involve the reader
  • Need to have a climax and a climax within the climax
  • Need resolution – tie off the loose ends and illustrate the nature of change that has occurred in the lives of my characters
  • Narrative thrust is the taut building of a story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter; using the complexities of plot and character to propel the story forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax

Structure: early thoughts on structure

  • Generally chronological
  • Use major historical events to add tension, and to raise the stakes for Mariele, Camille and others
  • Alternate chapters between Mariele and Camille so we see their views of one another, how different they are and how they affect each other
  • Balance of the novel may tilt towards Mariele
  • Third person narrative

General story outline: major events that occur in the novel; some will turn into scenes, chapters or might even be dealt with in multiple chapters

I’ve written about four pages, single spaced. Some of my notes will become scenes, some are background details on the characters and their families.

Chapter outlines: each chapter will next be outlined using the following template

  • Setting: details, timing (day, hour, year), mood invoked, historical aspect, details that reveal personality, actions that preceded it
  • Fashion: who’s wearing what
  • Narrator: who and some sense of the emotional state they are in
  • Others present: who and some sense of the emotional state they are in
  • Desires: who wants what
  • Basic outline: a series of bullet points describing what occurs in the chapter (or scene)
  • Dramatic dominoes: scenes that are a consequence of this one; I borrowed this concept from Elizabeth George’s book Write Away
  • Open questions: what the reader is left wondering or worrying about; also from Elizabeth George

Another step is Character outlines. More on that later.

I used a similar process for Time & Regret, my third as yet unpublished novel, and it made the writing much more productive.

Would love to hear what others do.

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.