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.


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.

I’d like to recommend…

…a short story I’ve just read by A.M. Homes, called The Chinese Lesson.  It’s available to read for free on the Granta website, at the moment, because she’s just won The Women’s Prize with her novel, May We Be Forgiven.

This short story was the precursor of that novel, so for those of you who are not generally tempted by the short form, reading it might provide an useful taster.  For the rest of us, don’t be put off by the idea that I’m recommending an excerpt.  This is a beautifully told story, nicely balanced and elegantly written.

I read it yesterday, and the essence of it is still with me, despite an afternoon out with friends and some mundane jobs in between.  Am I tempted to get hold of the novel, now?  Well, yes, even though it would have to join a long queue of outstanding reading.

In an interview on the Granta site, Homes says that she uses short stories to begin working out ideas for her novels.  It seems to me that thinking about short stories in this way could be a useful addition to my arsenal of answers to that eternal question, ‘So, what is a short story?’



Working Story

One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story.  It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*.   At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing.  Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.

Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.

Until I took my results to the tutorial.

‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment.  ‘Start again.’

‘All this work?’

She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget the rules, just write.’

There was less than a week to my deadline.  Simmering with resentment I returned to my desk.  I had no idea what to write.  All I had was my main character.  I began a fresh description of him.  After all, I had to hand something in.  As soon as I started to write him, things began to happen.  They were not the situations I had planned, these were exciting.

Ideas flowed off the end of my pen. I had no time to worry about theories, but I was aware, for the first time, that I could see the story shaping as it evolved.  I knew how the events were building, even thought I was not sure where they would go.  Something wonderful was taking place, I was creating a linear plot as I went along.  I was flying.

I understood then that my best writing could not be created using a formula, but knowledge would help me to get the best from my ideas.  I recognised parallels to essay writing.  Without training I could not have collated my notes into an academic argument.  Yet, when I wrote essays I was not consciously following structure, I was following a line of related thoughts, and with practice, that same process would work for fiction.  All I need do was concentrate in the right places.

*Short Story Writing (The “Writers News” Library of Writing) published March 1993