How to develop a plot

How do you come up with a plot? The question sounds harmless, but has caused many a sleepless night to aspiring writers.

Once you have decided to write a Regency novel, the rules of the genre define your framework:

The minimum ingredients

For a Regency novel, you need in any case:

  • a hero
  • a heroine
  • a bit of adventure
  • misunderstanding and excitement
  • hero and heroine to fall in love with each other
  • the happy ending!

You think it’s easy? Good. Let’s roll up our sleeves:

There is still plenty of work left!

To me it is always helpful to begin with the characters of hero and heroine and see how they interact with each other. You will receive very different plots if you match a rakish hero with a virtuous maid or with a bold miss.

Some matches are more difficult than others. To create a sparkling story with a prudent and virtuous couple-to-be needs great experience or at least one villain to challenge them.

One can see why beautiful hoydens (= tomboys) and rakish Lords are so popular: They will get into trouble easily. Trouble is vital for a good story.

Now, what about that plot?

I suggest regarding it as a strategy board game. Your characters are the players, and you can throw chance cards at them. The possibilities are endless. Explore them, mix them, take them to extremes. Keep a playful approach until all fits and you really like it. Let’s try:

Your first chance card is:

Gretna Green: elopement!

A bit early in the story, but let’s go with it. So your heroine is on her way to Gretna Green, preferably with someone other than your hero.

Your next chance card:

Running away.

Running away from eloping? Has anyone shuffled those cards at all? Well, it might mean that your heroine eloped with someone, but changed her mind half-way to Gretna Green. Having no money, she turns for help to the next gentleman she encounters – your hero. Does he help her? Maybe not immediately. By now, the heroine’s brothers have found her sister and mistake the hero for the blackguard. Also the wannabe groom catches up with the party (a bit lame that chap, I wonder what she sees in him). So what does he do?

Too complicated? – It’s you who is in control of everything. Cross out the parts you do not like.

Boring? – Pick another card.

If you come to a dead end, drop it and try something else. There are techniques you can use for finding a new angle and starting over. You could, for example, interview your characters.

The next step …

is to create a story line from the first chapter to the last. I suggest writing it down. It should contain as many conflicts and turns of events as possible. See James N. Frey’s book How To Write A Damn Good Novel for details. I find his method immensely helpful to draw up very detailed story lines, moving from scene to scene in every chapter. Careful scene-to-scene planning helps you avoid getting stuck while writing. It also helps to straighten your plot and arrive safely at the happy ending.