The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.

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We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

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4 thoughts on “The nature of plot

  1. Great post – I love the image.

    Interesting you write about ‘Anna Karenina’. I am about to start the second edit of my first novel. The main character is somewhat fixated by Anna, particularly her death. It is one of my favourite novels and I love the film version with Greta Garbo.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Thanks for visiting, and reminding me about the Garbo film. I’d forgotten it, in all the Keira Knightly hype.

    Good luck with the editing. I’m sure it’ll be much less painful than you anticipate, once it’s started!

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  3. I know some people hold to the idea that you shouldn’t read if you are writing – almost as if you might get ‘infected’ by other people’s stories – but my feeling is that good writing never hurts as long as you’re using it as inspiration and not as a template (and I really can’t imagine that working anyway…). I was just wondering about the first handwritten rough draft in a week – even if was much shorter than the masterpiece that eventually emerged that’s incredible. Tolstoy was rich so I was wondering if he had secretaries/scribes and dictated part of it. And if he did does voice recognition software work for some writers today (says she, a hopeless two fingered typist who has suddenly had a dreary Monday morning idea).

    Thanks for this fascinating post

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  4. So far as I understand the process, Tolstoy hand-wrote his first drafts, and his wife, Sophia Andreevna transcribed his work and the corrections, at least up to Anna Karenina. Apparently she had to do that seven times for War and Peace! I think he had a secretary after AK.

    Not sure about voice recognition software these days, but I met someone who was using it a couple of years ago, and he said it regularly miss-guessed words. I’m sure it’s much improved since then, though.

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