Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Plot and narrative: the twin rails of the novel

'Narrative,' says John Gregory Dunne, 'is not plot.' And he's right. Here is how I understand his statement, and what it means when writing a novel.

Plot is what happens. Narrative is what the reader sees and hears of what happens – and how he sees and hears it.

In some novels, plot and narrative can be very closely aligned. In others, considerable distance can separate what is happening and what the story is telling of it. In murder mysteries, for instance, the plot – what is really going on, and why – is obscured by the detective's narrative – what she is telling us of what she sees, learns, and suspects. There's actually a whole lot more going on, but she will only know the full picture right at the end. In other sorts of stories, the plot and the narrative can be parallel, as what is really happening, say, a couple are getting divorced (the plot), is related is through the eyes of their eight-year-old son (his is the narrative), who doesn't really understand what is actually going on.

One of the great challenges and joys of steering a novel-length story is the complexity and subtlety the two reins of plot and narrative offer you. While it can be enjoyable to tell a story from the point-of-view of the all-seeing, all-knowing creator, dipping into everyone's heads, explaining to the reader what is happening at all times, this becomes too easy, too much simply telling the reader what's happening, one darn thing after another, making them passive recipients or plot events: she did this and then he did that and then they agreed they felt like this and then this happened to them....

Far better for the reader, and for your creative pleasure, is to choose a limiting point of view. The limit is not a constraint; it's like the barre against which ballet dancers practice, or the torque of an exercise machine, giving you something to work against, giving your narrative movements power and direction.

Let's see how, by limiting the way you will narrate your plot, you can make your story richer and deeper.

Narrative is usually limited by keeping it within one character's point of view, like that of the eight-year-old boy watching his parents going through their divorce. Let's take another story. Here is the plot:

An earnest young woman, Brenna, who has spent her years since college working for non-profit organisations, is hired by a global industrial empire as head of its environmental overview department. She is at first dubious, and then thrilled, as she sees the possibility of making such a company truly responsive to ecological and human-rights needs. The fact that her boss, Joel, is her age, handsome, single, and plainly smitten with her, makes Brenna even more happy – until a series of small things begin to make her doubt her reality.

An old friend from an environmental charity warns her that the toxic dumping the company swore it had ceased is still going on. An anonymous email tells her that she is being used. Confidential papers are withheld from her with bland reasons. She turns to Joel, who apparently shares her concerns, but she grows wary of him when things she has told him in confidence appear to be known by the Board of Directors.

With the help of some friends from outside the company, including a Federal agent called Mike, and from secret allies within the company, she slowly pieces together a conspiracy by the Board to circumvent serious pollution laws by bribing top government officials in many countries and by disguising shipments of toxic waste as benign imports. One of Brenna's inside allies gets physical evidence at the cost of her own life. Joel tries to distract her with romance, and then with veiled threats.

Brenna realises that some seeming accidents were in fact attempts on her life. As she gathers up the last bits of evidence that she needs, Mike helps her to fake her own death by plunging her car off a cliff into the sea. While undercover, she is able to place the evidence before the right government people and finally triumphs at the press conference Mike holds to announce the arrests of Joel and several other corrupt Board members. The threat over, Mike is able to offer her a job at his agency and, in the final scene, his heart.

A good, meaty conspiracy plot. Now, from whose point of view shall you tell it? Brenna is the obvious choice, but what happens if you choose Mike? Let's do this, and see how plot (what happens to Brenna) and narrative (what Mike knows and sees) run through the story together.

You know your plot, but Mike only knows what he can investigate and be told. Opening scene: he's been on the case of the company for months, and is rocked when he learns that they have hired Brenna McDonald, the well-known 'green' campaigner, as head of their Environmental Department. He immediately assumes that she's been 'bought' and is corrupted by big money.

He interviews her and comes away troubled, wondering if she is, in fact, sincere. A mutual friend, once a colleague of Brenna's, contacts Mike to tells him that Brenna is clearly perturbed by something and is asking around. Mike speaks with her again and suspects strongly that she is being duped.

Now you can have Brenna and Mike work as allies, Mike still not 100% convinced he isn't being played, but is slowly falling for Brenna and coming to believe in her – or wanting to believe in her, which increases the tension. She tells him of some 'accidents' and he himself saves her from one, which gives him the idea of faking her death. And the final scenes play out from his perspective, as Brenna denounces the company publicly at his press conference and, in the emotionally-charged aftermath, falls into his arms.

Clearly, I have not spelled out the details of the plot, nor have I specified points at which Mike's actions intersect with what is 'really' going on. Mike is like a hiker out in the night, only seeing the lay of the land when he turns on his flashlight, and then seeing only as far as his flashlight can illuminate.

The main thing is that, by choosing Mike as your limiting narrative perspective, you have heightened tension and suspense, which is just what you want to do. Not only is there a conspiracy, but he doesn't know if he can trust Brenna, and he has all the terror of a man who knows that his beloved is being stalked by unknown killers. It is the twist of placing the narrative at a different angle to the plot that makes a simple story of uncovering a dastardly plot into a thriller. You have a legitimate reason for withholding from the reader vital clues and, at the same time, you can offer them strong emotions, as we see inside Mike's head and watch him watching Brenna.

Even if, in the end, you decide to tell this thriller from Brenna's point of view, it is a good exercise to plan it from Mike's narrative as well, so that you know what he is seeing and feeling at every stage. You might even try telling it from Joel's...

Plot and narrative, like woof and warp, together lets you weave a strong and intriguing story by making the telling of the story as important an element of it as the plot. It makes the story more fun to write, and that will make it more fun to read.

Plot and narrative, writer and reader: pairs that join to make a greater whole.