The Plot Diamond, Part One: Turning Inspirations into Ideas
I started seriously trying to get published when I was sixteen. In the many (many) long years since then, I’ve written about fourteen or fifteen novels, all told, and had nine traditionally published and self-published one. I’m now working on my first adult novel as part of my doctorate.
Throughout all of this – on my firth and tenth book as much as my first – I have spent so much time worrying that I wasn’t doing it right. That I wasn’t building or visualising or carving out stories ‘properly’ and, as a result, my books just weren’t as good (as moving, affecting, dramatic, important, exciting etc.) as they ought to be.
I know I’m not alone. Here are some (paraphrased) quotes from emails and comments and in-person questions that I’ve had over the years:
How do you actually turn an idea into a real story?
How do you ever figure out what happens next?
How do you fill a whole book up with all that STUFF?
How do you manage to keep going through all those thousands of words?
How do you know you can get it right?
Plagued by these worries, some writers plunge into drafts with huge enthusiasm and get horribly, time-consumingly stuck as soon as they hit what’s often called ‘the middle muddle’. Some write a whole novel’s worth of ‘bad’ words before they can really understand or articulate what story they’re trying to tell, and then throw everything out and start again for their official Draft 1 (they call this ‘zero drafting’; personally I think I’d rather jump down a mineshaft). Some plan exhaustively and then find everything veers wildly off track – others fly by the seat of their pants and agonise over what is to happen in each and every scene as they write it.
For me, this sense of ‘incorrectness’ usually manifests in struggling to begin. I find the first five to ten chapters of anything paralysingly painful to get through. The characters are in the right location, they have the traits I’ve designed for them and the relationships with each other that I’ve envisaged, and they’re aimed squarely at the jobs that I need them to do, but they – aren’t alive. They’re wooden figures jerkily clip-clopping across a hollow-sounding stage, flatly repeating the lines I’ve written. The second that I stop concentrating on making them move, they fall down.
Astute readers will have skimmed over the above wails of despair about my writing misery with eyebrows raised, mentally commenting that clearly I figured out some way to overcome these issues, or else I wouldn’t have kept on churning books out on a fairly regular basis over the past decade. And they are correct. I – in common with most writers, I think – have developed a plethora of tools to try and get me through that terrible ‘I’m-not-doing-it-right-I’m-a-terrible-writer-and-soon-the-world-will-find-me-out’ stage as quickly as possible and minimise the amount of wear on my poor tooth enamel.
I’m going to talk at some length about one of those tools here, and probably over another post as well; you can infer that this is something that has worked for me. Therefore, it is something that may also work for you. But it has limitations, probably more than I’ve ever really considered until lately, and I’ll also talk about those as we go.
“Yes, yes, get on with it,” you say – but wait.
You need to understand the limitations so that they don’t end up limiting you. Or the stories that you want to tell, which may not fit this method at all, and in fact, might be distorted and ruined by attempting to make them fit. This is just a way of thinking about stories, not a universal cheat code. There is no universal, Platonic artist – or work of art – and so there is not and can never be a method that works for every artist – or every piece of art. Have your pinch of salt at the ready and apply it at will.
My idea - not a unique one - is that for most writers, stories emerge piecemeal. We have a variety of little idea fragments spinning around in our heads at all times (for instance: an interest in the facts about Huguenot artisans arriving in London as religious refugees in the 1600s. A certain tone or atmosphere in a book that you once liked. A plot twist that was completely wasted in a TV show you did not like. The desire to one day name a female character ‘Nell’. Memories of watching a weaver work at a historical enactment site). On a certain day, two or three or more of these collide, or collide with some other thing that you were randomly thinking about and suddenly there's a story there.
But it's not a complete story.
It does, in that blinding light of inspiration, often feel like one. But while the fact that you clearly envision a fearless female hero fighting a black-clad Samurai in the middle of a bleak orange desert could mean that you want to write a breathless adventure with a female lead, it could also mean that you want to write a Dystopian road novel from the point of view of a lonely Samurai who wanders the world searching for love but ends up destroying it when he finds it. Or that you're interested in having a romance where the couple fights each other with swords. The important thing could be the tiny snatch of dialogue you get where they taunt each other about their parents, or the colour and slithering drifting quality of the sand under the sun, or the general bleak tone of the thing. It might be that this scene will never end up in your book, and that neither the female hero, Samurai, or the desert are even the important part.
Ultimately the much vaunted burst of inspiration usually leaves you with surprisingly little: let’s say, an idea for an opening scene or inciting incident, perhaps a couple of middle moments, and an inkling of an ending. And that’s if you’re lucky! The unlucky part is that none of these things link up and you have no idea how to get from one to another.
This is where I bring out the Plot Diamond (cue: dramatic clash of thunder, flickering lights, thin, distant scream).
Once again, certain readers are giving me the eyebrow. “This,” they would point out, “looks rather reminiscent of…”
It does indeed resemble Aristotle’s Theory of Drama, and Freytag’s Pyramid. It’s also heavily inspired by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, which itself borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell’s work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You can also see echoes of Shakespeare’s five act structure and even the famous cinematic three act structure popularised by Blake Synder’s Save the Cat. What a lovely pedigree there. Clearly this means that the Plot Diamond is a universal cheat code for writing, yes?
No. Look again at this list of illustrious names and note the thing they all have in common: they are all white males writing within the Western tradition of storytelling. This story is, at the basic level The Hero’s Journey. And the Hero’s journey is founded on a world view and culture which is deeply patriarchal and Imperialistic. Who leaves his ancestral land with a band of fellows on the advice of his elders, goes out into the scary world to fight and kill and learn lessons, then drags his booty (dead woolly mammoth, chest of treasure, the Secret Elixir, the effective ownership of another nation and its people) back to his home where his family and elders are waiting to be impressed by his deeds? The secret is in the name: the hero does.
Who is a hero in such stories? He's able-bodied, he's cis and straight, he's almost certainly white or at least Western, or in the racial/ethnic majority of his people. He might be a woodcutter's son, but his quest will usually reveal him to be Of The Stuff Of Kings. And he's obviously male. Just for example, his sister didn’t get to leave on a merry adventure, learn lots of exciting life lessons, and then come back to her ancestral lands, did she? No, no, what if she had sex and 'ruined' herself out there? If she did leave, it would only be so that she could be married off into a different family. A one-way journey; a straight line rather than a circle or a diamond or a triangle. The journeys of Snow White and Beauty, Ariadne and Psyche, Becky Sharp and Jane Eyre, and most of our traditional female literary heroines have a similar one-way structure.
Narratives do not have to work like the hero’s journey. Really. Some of my favourite books definitely don’t. Oh, you can force them to look like they do, if you are obsessed with making all stories the same. I’ve seen people do it. I’ve seen people criticise deeply effective and moving books and films because, despite being wonderful, they didn’t conform to this structure. That is entirely backwards way on, and I will one day talk in more depth about that as well, but suffice it to say that whatever complex jiggery pokery we writers get up to in our heads (or notebooks) in order to organise our narratives, this process must always be in service of creating the most effective work possible.
There is no Ultimate Form of a novel to which we should all aspire. There is no universal cheat code.
Do not try to force your story to take on any form, especially if the process hurts you or it! Please. I recommend a read of Jane Allison’s wonderful book Meander, Spiral, Explode, or this absolutely joyous essay by Rebecca Solnit which conclusively proves that trees are socialist, at least according to Ted Lasso (trust me, it all make sense somehow).
However, in the meantime… well, a lot of us were raised steeped in stories that do follow the hero’s journey. It often feels intuitively right to us. Thus, the good old Plot Diamond does work for quite a lot of people and stories. Used with acknowledgement of its limitations, it can be a very helpful device for organising ideas into something that, at the very least, feels like a story.
So next week I shall go through how to use the Plot Diamond and what it can do for you. I hope to see you then. In the meantime, please do join me on Thursday for Pick & Mix and some writing joy, which I definitely need a dose of just now!