In my M.F.A. program I worked almost exclusively on short stories. Once I started a novel, I had a very hard time switching over to that form. The biggest difficulty for me was the plotting.
I'm guessing there are nearly as many approaches to plotting as there are writers. You might have heard John Irving talk about how he writes the ends of his novels first, and then works back from there; or E.L. Doctorow talk about writing as being like driving at night, where you can only see what's just ahead of you, but at the end of the night you've made a journey of a thousand miles. I think every writer looks for what works for him or herself, and gives some slight sense of control over what's in essence a frighteningly uncontrollable process.
There are three specific things I did that helped me with plotting Finny. I'm not saying they're the right or proper thing to do, so please disregard them if they don't fit with the way you want to write.
- I read the chapter entitled "The Leg" in the first part of John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year. In the chapter, a writer named Ted Cole tells the story of his twin sons' deaths, and the narrator uses this as an opportunity to talk about how to tell a story. This is one of the many things I love about John Irving novels—the way he fits in so many of his ideas about the world and writing and books and his obsessions. (That's the dream of writers, I think: to get it all into the work.)
I learned more about storytelling from this chapter than I have from any book on writing. For instance, I had always thought about plot as being what happens in a book. But the essential lesson I got from this chapter was that it's not just what happens, but the interaction of what happens with what you're expecting to happen. The important thing is setting up the expectation. That's where suspense comes from—not people jumping out of closets, but the expectation that they're going to jump.
- I outlined the plots of several novels, including at least two nineteenth-century British novels. Think Austen, Dickens, Hardy. This is extremely time-consuming, but the experience was invaluable to me. I re-read books I loved, and tried to list all the plot points in each chapter—the events that changed the course of the story. Usually, my initial list would be too long and contain irrelevant events, so I gradually whittled away until I had only the essential events, which I tried to fit onto a page or two—maybe three, if it was Dickens. It helped me see the skeleton of the story, and what events really set the plot in motion.
Then I would group the events into "main plot" and "subplots," which helped me see the rhythm of the book, and the way that subplots work in a novel. The biggest difference between the plots of novels and those of stories was the number and complexity of subplots. Seeing the way writers like Dickens moved between story lines was hugely helpful to me. Like creating expectation, I think that subplotting—leaving one storyline at a point of tension and switching to another—is a big part of suspense in novels.
- Books on how to plot. If you go on Amazon and search for books, then type in the word "plot," you'll see at least a dozen books come up on how to write plot in fiction. I've bought several of these books. (Check your local independent bookstore.) I used to keep them under my mattress or with the spines turned in on my shelves so that no one would see I owned them. I was afraid they—and I—would be viewed as pandering or commercial, and that writer friends would think I was selling out. (Though selling out in writing literary fiction is something like selling out in baroque-furniture repair.)
Here's the thing: I've found some of these books really helpful, and concrete in the areas where some more literary books on writing become mystical. I wanted to have a sense of how some of the basic plots functioned—mystery, romance, quest, etc.—and these books helped with that. (Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell was particularly useful.)
I understand that some of this might sound a little mathematical or programmatic for some writers, and I'm sorry if it comes off that way at all. I definitely don't think programmatically while I'm writing, but having considered plot and the overall shape of books was useful as I was shaping my own. I offer these ideas in case they're helpful for anyone in a similar situation.