I mentioned “organic plots” in this post about the novel Maine. The idea is that, in novels like Maine, the plot grows organically out of the characters and the way they interact; it isn’t a structure (or, at least, it doesn’t feel like a structure) imposed by the author on the characters. I have never taken a writing course, so I don’t know how academics talk about plots, so this is just the way I view the matter.
My novels — thrillers, mysteries, private-eye novels — are about as far from organic plotting as you can get. In them, plot and character have about equal weight. Often I need to invent characters specifically to fill a role in the plot I’ve constructed. I do occasionally rejigger the plot to fit a character, but after a certain point in the writing the plot doesn’t give me a whole lot of room for rejiggering. So the plot and characters basically have to be developed together.
I don’t want to say that one model is better than the other. I suppose an organically plotted novel has a better chance of being good than a highly plotted one; a plot without interesting, believable characters is worthless, but characters without a good plot will still hold my interest. On the other hand, the most satisfying novels to me are the ones that manage to seamlessly combine both plot and characterization. That’s hard to do!
So here’s a wisp of a novel idea that came to me during my morning run a few weeks ago. If I were to actually write it (I’m not going to), it would have an organic plot, although it would (I think) have more structure than a novel like Maine
It’s the late 70s. A wife gives a thirtieth birthday dinner for her new husband. She invites three or four other couples that they know, and they talk about current events, popular music, their hopes and dreams. In the course of the dinner we learn about the characters as seen through the eyes of the wife. At the end, exhilarated by the success of the dinner, she says: “Let’s make this a tradition! See you all in ten years!”
We then move to the 80s, and his fortieth birthday dinner. Same people, different point-of-view character. We learn what has happened to them in the meantime, and we know them more deeply than we did from the first snapshot of them ten years ago.
So, we do this two more times, up to more or less the present day. Characters die; characters are divorced and replaced. Some are successful; others are not. Some of the things we thought we had learned about them turn out to not be true. Some people surprise us; some never change/ Everyone gets older. And so on.
This is not a bad structure for a novel, I think. It’s probably influenced by the play/movie Same Time Next Year, which I’ve never seen. Its organic-ness is obvious, right? The only actual events are those that take place during the dinner parties. People talk and eat and drink and listen to music. And the point-of-view characters remember and judge. But by the end we know a ton of stuff about them and (if the thing is done right) we hope that everything turns out well for them. That’s the idea, anyway. As I said, I’m not going to write this novel — feel free to write it yourself! But if I did, I’d have to approach it differently from the way I usually approach things. It would have to start with the characters, and only when they were deeply realized would I start to figure out how they interact.