Lessons from the Writing Workshop #8: Plot and the Novel

When I began to write my first novel, I didn’t know anything about writing a novel. I had read hundreds of novels, but had always allowed myself to be immersed in the story and hadn’t studied their construction. My early writing education took place within a feminist context—with wonderful instructors such as Marge Piercy and Deena Metzger—and had focused more on permission and experimentation than on literary technique.

I hadn’t planned on writing novels. It was just that an idea appeared to me and said, “I need to be a novel.” Even then, I knew better than to argue with my writing. This was a novel that imagined a reunion of 1970s feminists reconvening in the late 80s to consider what they had and had not accomplished. So I wrote a draft and revised it, and a friend introduced me to a literary agent who was also a feminist. I sent her my draft, then flew to New York to meet with her.

In the back of the taxi on the way to that appointment, I was Marlo Thomas in “That Girl,” living of the dream of being in New York, meeting with someone whom I was certain would become my literary agent. If I’d been wearing a hat I would have thrown it into the air.

At the meeting, the agent sat across from me with my manuscript in front of her. She shoved it across the table and said, “Put a murder in it.” I was outraged. I wasn’t writing detective fiction; I was writing about feminism. I was stunned. I hope I managed to be polite. I stumbled back down the stairs to the street, my bright imagined future disappearing before my eyes.

It took a long time for me to understand what that agent was talking about, and that she was right. The missing ingredient in that novel was plot. A bunch of women gather to talk about feminism—so what?

I had come of age during a moment when writers were disavowing plot; they were creating stories in which people sat around and talked about things and nothing happened. These were writers who had likely been trained in the device of plot, and were trying something new, suspending that element of story. I was a writer who hadn’t been trained in that element, and I needed to learn how it worked.

I came to understand that a story is a record of change, and that change, no matter how subtle or how obvious, needs to be present. Plot is the device that allows you to demonstrate that change.

Sometimes I call it the engine that powers the car. It doesn’t matter how pearlized the paint job or how shiny the rims—without an engine, the car won’t go anywhere.

Readers want to know what they are investing their time in. They want to have a pay-off for reading. The protagonist needs to have a quest (something they want, something they’re seeking) and this helps to establish a central question for the story: will the protagonist achieve their quest?

Readers also want to know what’s at stake, what does the protagonist stand to gain or lose by how that question is answered. It’s the stakes that make them care.

I recently read the first 80 pages of a student’s novel. She had a compelling voice, a powerful situation and believable characters, but each scene read like an episode, one after the next, without a sense of what we were building toward. I suggested she give her protagonist a quest, something she is working toward or hoping for, to give the pages more dramatic momentum.

Sometimes students push back, just as I initially did with the agent’s advice. They think I am asking them to reduce their complex meanings into a simplistic formula. But that’s not the case. A novel has more to say than its plot would indicate; the elements of character, setting, and theme, in particular, work to deliver those layers of meaning. When we go for a drive, it is the scenery along the way and the destination that we care about; but it’s the engine, the plot, that allows us to move down the road.

Eventually I wrote my first novel again (well, several more times) and I took the agent’s advice. I put a murder into that novel, the rape and murder of the daughter of one of those 1970s feminists. Suddenly the women had a compelling reason to gather, they had a reason for evaluating their movement, and we had a question: who had committed this murder?

If this were “That Girl,” Marlo Thomas would have gone back to the agent, shown her the new draft of the first novel and been signed on the spot. She would have tossed her hat up into a blue sky. Reality is always more complicated. That first novel, The Labrys Reunion, was eventually published, but it took twenty-one years from the time I first conceived of it. But that story can be the subject of another blog post, one called “Patience.”


Text by Terry Wolverton
Drawing by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


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