How to Plan a Novel: Beg, Borrow, or
Steal Buy This Book Now
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If there is one book I cite more than Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, it is Lajos Egri’s relatively obscure gem. I happened upon it thanks to a writer-friend of a writer-friend who took one of James Frey’s (no, not that James Frey, may his plagiarizing soul fly to a million little pieces) master classes in fiction. And yes, Egri will help you write a damn good novel.
The key is unity. Out of necessity, teachers of writing split the art of fiction writing into about five elements: character, plot, voice, setting, and theme (a.k.a. premise, in Egri’s vocabulary). Yet any writer who has been learning the craft for more than a few years will begin to intuit the problem with this approach. The problem is the same one you have if you go to your kitchen, say, and set a stick of butter, a bag of chocolate chips, an egg, a cup of sugar, and a cup of flour next to one another. They don’t turn into a tray of chocolate chip cookies. Likewise, writers must consider the elements of the novel in relation to one another, because the decisions we make about any one element has important ripples in all the others.
If this insight happens to strike for the first time while you’re revising a complete manuscript, you will probably feel like you’re wrestling with a ball of tar. Any positive change in one direction undermines some part of the story somewhere else. For example, say you realize that you’re a natural at writing in first person. So you change the manuscript to first person. But the problem is that your protagonist is an aloof computer genius for the CIA. Her POV doesn’t sound right in first person, so… Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the unified nature of fiction.
Lajos Egri has a solution. The trick is to plan first, write second. He divides the story-building process into three parts: (1) premise (a.k.a. theme), (2) character, (3) conflict. That is, first, decide on your theme: the meaningful emotional arc that organizes the story. Second, pick the very best character to embody that arc. Third, pick the very best conflicts to throw at that character, to allow him to naturally enact the theme. Egri provides many, many examples drawn from theater (the book is written for playwrights) that soon make this process seem intuitive.
So much of revision involves the courage to start again from scratch. If you already have a manuscript that seems irreparably fractured, take a deep breath, read this book, and see what you can salvage. If you have not yet begun to write your novel, you’re in luck. Read this book. Then check out my post on how to plot a novel. I will never claim to have all the answers, but like anyone offering advice to a traveler about to embark on a great journey, I simply advise to start with a good map.