Interestingly, the word ‘plot’ often has pejorative undertones. If you ‘plot’ to do something, you may be branded as a schemer, a devious person, ‘subtle’ in the sense that the devil is said to be subtle, sneaking up on the unsuspecting.
And, for a writer, that is entirely appropriate, even laudable. You are there, weaving your magic, arranging your characters to create a world in which your readers can immerse themselves without understanding – or at least only subconsciously understanding – that you, the author, are managing the whole process.
Plot is not synonymous with synopsis, though your synopsis may contain some of your plot; the plot is not, however, what the novel is ‘about’; rather it is the framework or the scaffolding on which you hang the flesh and blood of your tale: the bare bones of your story.
The plot is the vehicle in which a connected series of events unfolds, often but not always in chronological order – an alternative and very effective device many novelists use can be to set their plot in two or more different time periods. There may then be a main plot and one or a series of sub-plots. Novels set within the same time sequence may also have sub-plots; they may then feature two sets of characters who are in some way interconnected.
Should you work on the plot before you start writing your novel? To a certain extent, that depends on what kind of novel yours is. Some kinds of genre fiction – crime, certainly, historical novels, usually – require the development of a strong plot accompanied by considerable discipline on the part of the author to stick to it. Authors of such novels are well-advised to spend a considerable amount of time working out the plot at the outset, not only to stamp on their own minds the details each individual chapter ought to contain, but also to make sure the action is well spread out across the time sequence, to ensure that the reader is neither overwhelmed by events nor lulled by the lack of them into ceasing to pay attention. Sticking to your plot when you do start writing is particularly important if you’re a crime fiction author. However, once you’ve begun, you may have other ideas that you wish you’d thought of previously; you’ll need to be very careful if you try to introduce them, especially if it means deviating from your original plot or you’ll find yourself contradicting something that you wrote in earlier chapters and the whole edifice of your novel will fall down, house-of-cards-like. It is worth pointing out that crime fiction readers are particularly adept at spotting flaws and inconsistencies… and they won’t hesitate to tell you about it!
If your novel is more ‘literary’ (not necessarily a term I like – I’ll write about this on another occasion) or more about a mood, an idea or a single event, you won’t need to work in as much detail on the plot beforehand or stick to your outline as closely. Some novelists start writing without knowing where their novel will lead them; some even say they gain inspiration to keep on writing because, like the reader, they want to know what happens when the novel ends! However, writing in this way requires considerable skill – and more than a little self-confidence – and is probably not to be recommended to a new author just starting out. My own advice would always be to have a firm idea of how your story will unfold before you start to write, identifying not just the beginning, the middle and the end, but significant landmarks as it progresses. If you can create a strong framework – a firm, robust plot – it will give you the courage to experiment with more exciting ways to hang your words upon it afterwards.