Sunday 22nd April 2018

Should novels have plots?

All novels should have plots. So I have heard it said and seen it written. In case you are wondering what a plot is, here is a typical definition: ‘the main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ This is hardly different from the definition relied on, by most people, for the word ‘story.’ In a novel, a story ‘…is a causal sequence of events, the why for the things that happen in the story.’ Given that my style of writing (in this novel) is similar to that for a film script, a narrator cannot explain causes. It is up to the reader to assume what the causes are, for any event, except where the characters discuss causes amongst themselves. In a film, the reader should be able to follow the series of events, and understand how and why they happen, from the scenes, as they are presented.

Why no plot?

Early on, in planning and conceptualising my third novel, I decided that I did not want to use the conventional stylistic notion of a plot. I wanted the characters to portray their own stories according to their own visions of the world and their own ideas about people and events, as shown by what they say.

The story unfolds sequences of events. Some of these appear to be random. Life is often a random sequence of things that just happen. Often there is no reason why things happen – they just do. Life is serendipitous. It is the way a character reacts to random events that tells us about him or her and reveals his or her attitudes. This underscores the uneven roughness of life.

It could be argued that my novel does, in fact, have a plot. This depends on what one considers a plot to be. What I have avoided doing – in writing the novel – is to allow the plot to drive the story. What the novel does is to present three characters, a milieu (the swinging sixties) in a place (London.) The ethos of the time is revealed through what the characters say to each other. Mainly. The three central characters meet each other by chance. They then attend parties, pubs and cafes in which they happen to meet other characters. The sequences of events are not dictated by some causal set of reasons. Other than the nature of the world in which they live. Each of them has his own ambitions that propel him in a direction, as he pursues his chosen career path. Many of the important things that happen are the result of random encounters or unpredictable, fortuitous happenings.

For example, Tom happens to be at a party where he is introduced to a man who works for the BBC. Through making this contact, Tom ends up with a career in broadcasting. Before that, Tom had no specific inclination to get a job at the BBC. It was a matter of luck that Tom happened to meet someone who could further his career, however indistinct his ambitions were, up to that point.

If there is anything that drives the story it is the characters. The work is mainly about individuals and their interactions. A reader might try to foresee what they will do, to anticipate how they will react and what path they might follow. The thing that interests me about individuals is that they often fail to do what is expected. It is true that much of the story is a sequence of events. The story moves in particular directions. But, its substance is always about the people. It is not a history of events. In that respect, it is akin to a biography. Readers cannot always see what is coming – as they would if there was a plot which leads them in a particular direction.

Because the story is set in a particular period of English history, it unfolds the ethos of the time, through its characters. They witness events happening in the world (the riots in Grosvenor Square, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the first manned moon landing) and talk to each other about these events, as they see them unfold in the media. There are many scenes in which the characters are sitting in a pub or cafe talking about ideas. Ideas that portray the milieu in which they live. Ideas that were prevalent in the late sixties. The reader will either like or dislike any specific character. My only task, as the writer, is to make a character appear credible. Some characters are clearly intended to be likeable; others are the nasty ones – the bad guys – and the reader is free to either like or dislike them. Some characters are introduced simply to oil the workings of the story. They are subsidiary roles or diversions, placed there only to entertain.

Rejecting conventions

In this, my third novel, I have rejected the conventions that are currently being pedalled by those in the publishing industry. Does this mean that my book will fail to be accepted by established publishing houses? Yes. Very possibly. I am not writing the novel because I have been asked to write it. Its origins lie within me; not within some external influence. In writing this book I have done a considerable amount of planning. There is, however, no document called ‘the plot’ which sets out the story. There is a ‘timeline’, but its role is to ensure that the sequence of events is tenable and to avoid mistakes in narrating when things happen. It is only a planning tool. It is concerned with continuity and consistency. The principal characters each have a profile – a piece of writing that helps me to gather together key characteristics of each one. This does not form part of the book. I also have a catalogue of names which lists every name introduced into the story and sets out notes about each of them. This avoids using a name more than once, for different characters. It reminds me of things like age, appearance, relationships to other characters and so on.

Style, method and approach

The novel is set out like a film script. It is not narrated. Notes are added at the top of each section (or scene) to indicate the date, who is in the scene and where they are. These are like the subtitles that sometimes appear in films. Hence, most of the material is in the form of dialogue. This is an approach that makes the novel read like a film script. I realise that this is an unconventional approach to the novel. None of my other works takes such an approach. Writing a novel in this way imposes restrictions and challenges on the way the story unfolds. I can tell the story, only through what the characters say and do. It is a visual approach to the novel. In a traditional approach to story-telling, the narrator can explain things that are not part of the action or dialogue.

I have introduced into this book, some stylistic devices that I have not used in other works. For example, the dialogue is often written using short statements, punctuated by full stops. For example: ‘Adrian: “Yes. So. As you can see. We have just about everything in here. Proper cooker with an oven. Fridge. Washing machine.” ‘ The use of full stops indicates the way that a character speaks. Normal speech is broken into words and phrases that are punctuated with pauses. We do not speak in the way that we write. There are points where the dialogue ignores the rules of grammar and syntax in order to portray a naturalistic way of talking. The characters have to talk as young, working class men would have talked in the 1960s. They cannot use words or phrases that were not current at the time. There are also brief statements about what is happening. For example: ‘They go into the kitchen. Adrian fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cooker. He lights the gas.’ These are like stage directions. They are actions that characters would not say; they are always brief and used only where needed.


The story has three central characters: Adrian, Michael and Tom. The story revolves around what they do. Other characters crop up and play subsidiary roles. Adrian plays the key part in the group of boys. Tom is the cover boy. Michael is the thinker. They are the same age, though Tom is slightly younger. Each of them came from a small town background in various parts of England. They each had different reasons for moving to London. The common denominator was a desire to get a better job and become established in a career. At the end of the book, Adrian leaves London to start a new life in New York. Michael goes to university to get a degree. Tom is the only one who stays in London but that is because he has secured a job at the BBC. They discover that they have musical skills and interests and they form a jazz band, which becomes very successful; but, its success conflicts with their chosen career paths.
As a group of friends, they all get on with each other very well. The tone of the story is positive. Whilst they are similar, as individuals, they also have contrasting characteristics. Adrian tends to be the leader, the decision-maker, the mover. Michael is challenging at times. Tom also can ask difficult questions. There are parts to the story when the group comes into conflict; even so, they stay together throughout the book until – at the end – they each go their separate ways.

Previous posts on my blog

Monday 2nd April 2018 – London theatre in the 1960s

Sunday 25th March – Writing about characters

Sunday 18th March – The swinging sixties

Sunday 11th March – What is masculinity?

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London past and present

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