I realise I will be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs as far as many readers of this will be concerned, but I regularly get manuscripts for appraisal where even though the writing might be good in many ways, the whole thing is let down by the plot – if there is one at all!
To get back to basics, if the handsome prince meets and falls in love with the poor serving girl and they marry and live happily ever after, this is very nice for them but it isn’t really a plot. But if the serving girl’s two ugly sisters try to throw a spanner in the works and we’re not sure how things are going to work out, then it becomes a plot.
There has to be a significant problem, a source of tension and suspense that makes us want or even need to know how things turn out, makes us hope for a good outcome for the protagonist. You can probably find exceptions, such as some ‘literary’ novels where nothing very much happens, but generally speaking this is an indispensable element of fiction. It’s not at all uncommon for writers to put their central character or characters into a series of situations, one after another, with no single Big Idea at the heart of the novel even though there may be some vague concept linking everything. The novel then becomes, in effect, a series of short stories and is unlikely to be accepted.
(Collections of short stories, to digress for a moment, are much harder to get published than novels if you’re an unknown, unpublished writer. It’s not a route I would recommend.)
So it’s not enough to come up with a great character and throw him or her into a few tricky situations. You need a Big Idea at the heart of the story, something that is going to really challenge your protagonist and which is likely to lead to a climactic ending. It doesn’t have to be a threat from a monster or a murderer but can be something very subtle like unresolved tensions within a relationship.
And although it’s usually most satisfying for the reader if your hero or heroine triumphs in the end, sometimes this isn’t necessary for a successful plot. I was once recommended a book on the basis that ‘By the end, I realised that nothing much had really happened – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after I’d finished it.’ This was The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor. It was published in 1924 and was about – surprise, surprise – a rector’s daughter who has been looking after her disabled sister and feels a sense of filial duty to do the same for her ageing father. Then a young new vicar arrives on the scene…
Give it a go!