#5onFri: Five Ways to Find, Develop and Deepen Your Plot

by Fred Waitzkin
published in Writing

After graduate school and a short period of teaching English at a small college, I moved back to New York resolved to become a novelist. My mother loaned me her crowded, unheated painting studio on 14th Street overlooking S. Kleins and I attempted to plunge into my career. I wanted to write long intricately plotted novels. Each day I tried to imagine a wholly original plot that would sustain me through hundreds of pages, story lines teeming with great wars, intrigues and tragic loves like great Tolstoy novels, but I couldn’t think of one entirely original plot. I believed that a novelist must invent plots never envisioned before. I wracked my brains for almost two years with virtually no success.

1) There Are Stories Everywhere

Then I spent a number of years writing feature journalism for national magazines. This was a terrific training ground for a would-be novelist. I discovered that there were stories all over the place. They were on television, in newspaper articles, they were told to me by friends and strangers whom I chatted with in the subway. I learned to coax intimate uncanny stories from reluctant celebrities.

I often traded secrets with my subjects—because secrets breed secrets—and rarely used a tape recorder. I have a good memory for dialogue and I quickly learned that tape recorders are not the best for intimacy.

As a journalist I became a hunter for stories, an effective one. The adage is true: Everyone has a story to tell but most people don’t know how to tell it well. Also, as a journalist I learned to research my stories deeply. You are not likely to write convincingly about a remote Bahamian island without going there and experiencing the place. Feature journalism was a great training ground for this novelist.

2) Take Care in Choosing Your Story

As a journalist, I only took story assignments that I felt passionate about and I’ve stuck to this rule throughout my writing life. A story that touches the soul of our collective unconscious is what you should be looking for, a story moving to many. You want a delectable plot that gathers momentum and that has a surprising or satisfying ending.

But more importantly, the plot must have a personal undertow. What is your connection with the story? Is it a story you can fall in love with?  Because, after all, you may be involved in this romance for years. Perhaps you are suffering from the loss of a relationship or are newly infatuated. You can share such emotions with your characters—such feelings are gold for a novelist.

3) Follow Your Intuition

Hemingway once said that each day he tried to write better than he could write. I think what he meant by this is that he wanted, needed to travel into a pre-analytic place in his writing, to dig into his soul, his unconscious, to make discoveries he could not fully imagine before he sat down to write. He understood that great writing is born from intuition. Will this story you’ve chosen open you up? Do you think it can bring out the best in you as an author, lead you to a deeper place? Will the story lead you to new discoveries? Is it a story that will tell you secrets or coax you to share your own? You want to find a story that will stretch your art.

When I write a book I never compose a detailed outline. I have a general idea of what will take place, although I usually don’t know my ending until I’m far into the writing. As I’ve suggested before, I believe the deepest art comes from a pre-analytic place. I begin my day’s work looking back to catch the spirit and rhythm of the manuscript.  I have a general idea where I want my characters to go, what they will feel. Then I start to write. If I am deeply into the flow of my novel, I hardly need to think. My characters speak, they feel, they love, and often they surprise me. When they do, I allow them to find their own direction. Great characters are alive. Don’t inhibit them with a detailed outline.

4) Find a “Second Story”

When I am at the beginning of a novel I am on the prowl for a secondary plot, a story that will weave itself into the narrative of my primary story, giving it counterpoint and emotional relief. In my most recent novel, Deep Water Blues, I tell the story of the remote island of Rum Cay in the Southern Bahamas, a dreamy, physically gorgeous retreat for fisherman and a few vacationers. A gruesome accident takes place near the island, and in the aftermath, this quiet place becomes transformed by greed, out of control ambition, violence and murder. I have described the novel as a “heart of darkness adventure”. I knew that I had great material I was excited to write but I also knew that without counterpoint my compelling plot would flatten out and feel two-dimensional. Once I found “the second story” the novel wrote itself.

5) But what if your plot comes to a dead stop, and you just can’t push it ahead. What then?

I find that some of the best ideas take time to grow and, until they are ready, resist the light of day. Sometimes being stuck in a manuscript simply means you are not ready to move ahead, that an idea is gestating somewhere deep inside and you need to give it time.

I always carry a small notebook in my shirt pocket. Breakthrough ideas come to me out of the blue when I’m riding my bike home from my office along the West Side Highway. Or maybe I’m in the middle of a conversation with my son or a friend and I suddenly see the ending of my book or a piece of dialogue jumps into my head. When this happens I immediately write it into my notebook. The best ideas are very shy. If you don’t write them down, they run away and you are left with the feeling that something very important has been lost.

For young writers publishing is often the biggest concern. When I was first struggling to write fiction in my mother’s painting studio, my paragraphs and sentences were continually interrupted by warring fantasies of success and failure.  I was so nervous about my fledgling career that I rushed into my pages without having a compelling story to write, or interesting characters to develop. Today when I talk to young writers I can feel concerns about failure blocking crucial avenues for development.  I always tell them that much more than any plaudits, the great joy for a writer has to do with the creation of the art, the discoveries of remarkable worlds growing inside you that you never imagined. The first step for a young novelist is to find a compelling story, a story you can love and that will lure you ever deeper into the writing. You don’t need to be Tolstoy to succeed when you have a great story.   

Fred Waitzkin was born in Cambridge, Mass. When he was a teenager he wavered between wanting to spend his life as a fisherman, Afro-Cuban drummer, or novelist. He went to Kenyon College and did graduate study at New York University. After a brief stint teaching English in St. Thomas, Waitzkin settled in New York City with his wife Bonnie, where he wrote for Esquire, Forbes, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, New York magazine, Outside, and Sports Illustrated. In 1984, Waitzkin published Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of three years in the lives of Fred and his chess prodigy son, Josh. The book became an internationally acclaimed bestseller. In 1993 the movie version was released by Paramount and was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1993, Waitzkin published Mortal Games, a biography of world chess champion, Garry Kasparov. In 2000 he published The Last Marlin, a memoir that was selected by The New York Times as “a best book of the year.” In the spring of 2013 St. Martin’s Press published The Dream Merchant, Waitzkin’s first novel.

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