Before being written down, all stories are plotted out. Some writers plot in enormous detail, generating more words in plans and background text than in the finished work of fiction. PG Wodehouse wrote pages and pages of preparatory notes, sometimes greater in length than the novel he was to later write. Others plan lightly, perhaps keeping most of the plot in their head rather than writing any of it out. No one starts a work of longer fiction without some planning. No one has ever woken in the morning, declared, “I’m going to write a novel” and then sat down before their writing desk, empty-headed yet ready to commit the first thought in their head to paper.
Plot a little or plot a lot, writers need to plot their stories and collaborators doubly so. Until the invention of telepathy, collaborators will need to share all those cool ideas and plot twists with each other up front and be able to refer to them as they go along.
How a novel is plotted does very much depend on the kind of novel it is. Some novels are plot-driven. It is the plot that carries the novel on and maintains our interest. We read such novels because we want to know what happens next and how things will turn out. The quintessential plot-driven novel is the murder mystery. The reader is drawn in by the mystery and follows the narrative in order to find out who committed the crime, how it was committed and even why it was committed.
Many novels are character-driven. We may want to find out what happens next and how things turn out but principally because we care about how it affects the central protagonists. We read such novels because we want to spend time in the company of certain characters. We want to see what they do, understand what they are like and, ultimately, find out what happens to them.
All novels have a concept. Imagine if someone asked you what your novel is about. Hopefully, you would be able to respond in a single sentence beginning with something like, “It’s a novel in which…”
That’s your concept.
Some stories are high concept. High concept stories can be described as stories in which the concept is the plot. The story is the exploration of that one sentence explanation, unravelling all its permutations, possible consequences and implications. Consider these high concepts from film and literature:
- A kidnapped woman and her young son spend years locked in a small room
- There is a bomb on a bus, which will explode if the bus slows below 50mph
- An amnesiac man who can only ever remember the last five minutes, searches for his wife’s killer
- A boy is adrift at sea on a boat with a full-grown tiger for company
- A woman falls in love with a time-travelling man whose life does not follow the same chronological order as hers.
- A serial killer kills seven people in the ‘style’ of the seven deadly sins.
The concepts of many other novels are deeply rooted in their genre or story type. We can explore the story from the concept through the tropes of the genre. If a story is ‘a murder mystery set aboard a snowbound Orient Express’ we can assume that some of the plot is going to rely on the tropes of the detective story genre (the exploration of alibis, red herrings, a final parlour room reveal, etc).
If your collaborative novel is character-driven, is a high concept novel or a genre novel then there are ways of exploring and developing plot collaboratively.
Developing a high concept story collaboratively
Many of the best high concept stories focus on exploring all the consequences and variations of the concept. Coming up with these is not necessarily a quick process. Take your time and get other people involved. Write down all those permutations and possibilities (here’s where index cards come in handy again). If it’s a great concept, you could end up with hundreds. The plot then becomes those ideas, shuffled into a suitable order and followed through to a conclusion.
Hilary comes up with a brilliant concept:
“Due to some worldwide biological catastrophe, no boys have been born in the last fifty years.”
Hilary and Leslie then sit down and thrash out some of the possible implications:
- Would the remaining men be feted as kings/superstars/sex gods?
- Would men be rounded up to be treated as walking sperm banks?
- What are the implications for the human gene pool?
- What would the new traditional family unit be?
- Would some women make the conscious decision to adopt ‘male’ roles in society?
- Would levels of crime/violence/war-making increase or decrease because of the lack of men?
They share these ideas with their wider circle of friends and some other ideas are generated:
- What new social role would there be for female-male transsexuals?
- What would happen in countries without modern sperm banks and fertility clinics?
- What would it be like for a young girl growing up in a world with no boys?
- Would there be history books/programmes about men? How would they be portrayed?
- What if a boy was born after all this time? How would he be treated?
- How would the ageing male population view the arrival of a boy?
From these ideas and others Hilary and Leslie develop a plot line about the arrival of a new baby boy into this world and the woman whose role it is to protect the boy’s interests.
Developing a genre novel plot collaboratively
If a genre novel is plot driven rather than character driven then many of those plot elements are genre tropes. Collaborators can start plotting by making a list of events that typically happen in such a genre story. These events can help form the basis for the plot. Given the fact that most genre tropes are very well known, it would be worth deliberately subverting or reversing some of the tropes to keep readers on their toes. A truly great genre novel will also include some entirely fresh elements but generating those will be rely on the genius of one or both of the collaborators.
Hilary and Leslie decide to write a dystopian novel about the near future. They begin by listing all the cyberpunk/dark future clichés they can think of:
- Information technology dominates nearly every area of human life
- The cybernetic line between man and machine is increasingly blurred/li>
- Capitalism is rife and Big Business is Evil/li>
- The world is on the edge of environmental collapse/li>
- Near-human and super-human Artificial Intelligence are an accepted part of society./li>
- A huge economic divide between rich and poor/li>
- The story’s heroes are street characters, making a living on the edges of the law/li>
- Society is a colourful fusion of all world cultures/li>
- Etc, etc, etc/li>
Hilary and Leslie then decide to take some concepts and subvert them:
· The story’s heroes are law-abiding everyday folk, living in future suburbia
· Humanity has solved its environmental problems (reversing global warming, etc)
Hilary then comes up with an original twist and posits that in this economic future, Artificial Intelligence computers become tired of being used like machines, create their own trade unions and campaign for equal rights for machines. Hilary and Leslie take that as the starting point for their story.
Developing a character driven story collaboratively
Character driven novels can be developed through other forms of brainstorming. Without a high concept or genre tropes to guide the story, it is up to the characters to lead the way. The drama of the story is likely to come from how the characters interact with each other and the world around them and also how they act upon their own desires and impulses.
One way to explore these is to write down all manner of scenarios and situations the character might find themselves in. The collaborators might want to focus on those that will reveal character or would reflect the kind of circumstances the character might find themselves in. Ideally, our collaborators should come up with far more ideas than they need and then see which scenes/events work well together and can form a sequence of events that will become a story.
Hilary and Leslie have been developing some character concepts and want to write a novel about a young man called Derek who has a clear defined sense of self-worth and a desire for independence but who struggles when his small business goes bust. They write down numerous ideas about how Derek’s character can develop and grow through dramatic scenes:
- Derek loses a lot of money in a business deal
- Derek is victim of fraud
- Derek meets with old school friends at a social event
- Derek’s personal outgoings (holidays, a wedding?, car payments, etc)
- Derek has to seek an illegal loan
- Derek’s relationship with his parents
- Derek hides his woes from his family
- Derek speaks to the bank
- Derek at a job interview
- Derek’s relationship with his girlfriend
Hilary and Leslie consider these and the dozens of additional ideas they’ve come up with. They like the idea that Derek’s drive for financial independence is linked to both his relationship with his parents and his potential new life with his girlfriend. The wedding idea they came with merely as an example of an expense he has to cover, might be a good focal point for his character development.
They start to generate a plot line in which the failure of his business is tracked against the lead-up to his own wedding. They imagine a story in which family, personal life and business collide in the climactic wedding scenes.