Pick your plot and get up with the lark

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The Independent Online
A FLATTERING thing happened last week. A man I had interviewed while wearing my journalist's hat asked me to wear my other hat, that of an author, and explain how to write a novel. He thought it would be fun, and wanted to give it a try. Come to lunch, I said, and I'll tell you. Then I started to think.

Like the centipede that never knew walking was difficult until someone asked him which foot came next, I suddenly found that I didn't know how to write a novel. It's just something I do. I do it because I love telling a story: a magic gift possessed by everyone since the first parents lulled the first children to sleep, and the first bard recalled the old battles to keep the drunks quiet after dinner. But I don't deceive myself that the stories I tell are new.

It is often said that there are only 10, a dozen, a score - at any rate, a limited number - of basic plots. I began to try to work them out. The most fundamental, spanning everything from Genesis to Mills & Boon via Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen, is of course Boy Meets Girl. This divides into two. In the first instance, after many vicissitudes, they marry and live happily ever after. (The quintessential example is Jane Eyre, which is particularly satisfying because of the apparently unbridgeable gulf that yawns between Girl and Boy at first encounter.) A Suitable Boy is a recent, more complicated, example of the genre.

In the second, the plot traces the vicissitudes - produced by outside interference or, better still, by their own incompetence, lack of courage or basic incompatibility - that conspire to drive them apart. By the end, at least one (usually the Girl) is left alone tosuffer the pangs of unrequited love (cf, Wuthering Heights, Lolita and all Anita Brookner's novels). This was my first plot. Many writers never move beyond it and, after the version with the happy ending, it is most readers' favourite.

Then there is the theme of Myself When Young. This can produce Oscar and Lucinda, Gissing's Father and Son or David Copperfield. It is often, though not always, the most overtly autobiographical genre. It certainly proved so with my second novel, and I admitted as much in my acknowledgements.

This type flows naturally into another immensely popular version: the Erotic Odyssey. From the Marquis de Sade and In Praise of Older Women through to Couples and Fucking Martin, this equates the sexual adventures of the hero - it still tends to be written by male authors - with his progress towards maturity. The outstanding example of this plot, and to my mind the greatest contemporary fictional quartet, is John Updike's set of Rabbit novels.

Another theme, with the added advantage that it has tremendous comic possibilties, is The Attraction of Opposites. Two people are thrown together by circumstances or proximity, and the modifying effect of each upon the other, often unrealised until the end, provides the driving force. I had immense fun with this in my third novel, and will go back to it one day.

The great mythical themes never lose their appeal. There is the Hazardous Journey (the Odyssey), often precipitated by banishment. There is (slightly different) Seeking Your Fortune or the Prodigal Son; the One Forbidden Thing (as in Bluebeard); or the Quest for the Magic Talisman (as in Morte D'Arthur or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings).

Then there is the Random Group of People Forced into Proximity plot, spanning Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron to Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel (subsection, Disaster Movie, viz, Towering Inferno or Airport). Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale tells identically the same story as does Kipling in The King's Ankus. Kipling may have read Chaucer, but it seems more probable that they both drew on plot 14a, Greed and Retribution.

This 'random group' plot is currently taxing me with novel the fourth: an altogether more complicated format to handle than those I used in the previous books. But there are compensations - gratifying opportunities for coincidence, irony, and prescience.

I would be interested to know whether anyone has ever codified all possible plots; and if so, whether no new ones remain to be invented. (New genres, yes: the Western, the detective and the science fiction novels are all products of the past century or so.)

That dealt with the plot. Now all my inquirer has to do is write it. Easy. Get up at six and write for three hours every morning for a week without looking back. Re-reading is fatal to the first green shoots of inspiration. At the end of seven days, I told him, you'll know whether or not you have a novel in you.