When a student from the Middle East was asked what Shakespeare wrote, he answered: ‘The great dramatist wrote tragedies, comedies, tragicomedies and historectomies, all in Arabic pentameter.’
Many commentaries on the Bard say that he found it hard to find a tale to write a play on but if someone gave him a story, he’d make fine theatre of it. Going by his plots one sees that while he got quite a few from history, many others—including Romeo and Juliet—were what we called cigarette brands in college: “OP”—Other Peoples.
How do writers of fiction, especially those who write in English in India, find or construct plots? Is there a formula or does the story depends on the experience and inner workings of the writer’s mind? Or on the impact of the flow of news?
Some sites on Google
posit that there are basically only seven plots for novels. Those are:
1.Overcoming the Monster, 2.Rags to Riches, 3.The Quest, 4.Voyage and Return, 5.Rebirth,
6.Comedy and 7.Tragedy.
Like other facts about fiction this too is fiction. Using a simple mathematical formula we see that these seven elements lead to 21 combinations. When they too are put in the shoe and the die is cast again the number increases to 210.
What is true is that some oeuvres are kaleidoscopic, those of, say, Charles Dickens, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh till the third quarter of the last century. A few authors, for example, Arundhati Roy are able to weave the magic of shifting patterns into—so far—an only work as the tragic story rolls out in The God of Small Things. Almost all of these are woven out of internally felt, deep emotions that have sunk in.
By comparison Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels fall in the overcoming-the-monster category: the formula being a spy-hero who defuses nuclear bombs (hair-raising seconds before they blow him and the world up) purloined by rogue elements from legitimate owners, i.e., the recognised nuclear-weapons powers.
Some sites on Google posit that there are basically only seven plots for novels. Those are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy and Tragedy. Like other facts about fiction this too is fiction.
This crescendo is achieved through, what Indian audiences refer to as, “dishum”, pulp violence.
The first novel, Casino Royale, seems to have its roots in Fleming’s Second World War days in naval intelligence. Thereafter the theme got externalised and enmeshed in the box-office appeal of the sexy, often sultry, woman that he gets to bed in the process of extirpating the villain and his forces.
The difference between the two is as obvious as that between Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger (more on both later).
as the Arab student termed historical themes, are a different kettle of fish.
And there are a growing number of exponents of these in India. The plot is
given, as are the characters. What is left to the imagination is the scenery
and the conversation. I can’t recall the title of the particular novel—there
are so many on Henry VIII and his shortly to be beheaded wives—in which Anne
Boleyn steps up to the block in the Tower and just before placing her blonde
head on it asks the executioner: “Does it hurt?”
f we place 'Moby Dick' and 'The Glass Palace', we see that the high seas and chase and retaliation of a noble, giant whale, get to run deep in Melville’s veins. The plot is internalised and expressed as a feeling. The difference is that while 'Moby Dick' grips one by the gut, the Palace comes across as a critique of colonialism and its gunboats.
These poignant flourishes are open to the writer but the story, even when there is fresh evidence for well worn pieces, does not lend itself to great variation. Imagine then a novel about Jehangir’s eldest son, Khusaru, who led unsuccessful insurrections against his father and was ultimately captured and confined to a dungeon in Gwalior fort and as a further precaution had his eyelids sewn together. What would he have said to the hakim? Or Aurangzeb’s brothers to their executioners?
The possibilities are limited. This is a type of novel that is becoming available and in different forms. There is a whole series on the Mughals, The Tainted Throne by Alexander Rutherford; there are other more sophisticated one-off pieces on the British era by Amitav Ghosh such as The Glass Palace/ Sea of Poppies. Neither, to my way of thinking, qualifies entirely as a work of imagination. They are pre-plotted in a way, as discussed below, that true fiction cannot be.
So for writers of other genres, whereby hangs the tale?
Lewis Carroll’s (lesser known by his real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) most
famous and fascinating writings are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its
sequel Through the Looking Glass. He was a mathematician and logician. We see
from these stories that he was able to place both in the slots that are an
amalgam of Voyage and Return and Comedy, what we can term an adventure comedy,
if by these terms we infer that the first means going to a place and returning
(although some novels end in going to a place and settling or perishing there)
and by the second we mean a happy ending.
We may also add that Alice is covered by a third theme mentioned above: The Quest. (I cannot readily recall a single work in Anglo-Indian literature of this sort. Only the ancient Indian classics like the Panchtantra and Baital Pachisi, that so influenced the Arabian One Thousand Nights and a Night, compare.)
Is such a work on the plate of any Anglo-Indian writer?
However, there is much fiction that depends, to use a Hindi term, on a kind of khoj, i.e. journeys undertaken to find something—say the yeti or the mystic monk in the Himalayas.
These are a completely different type of voyage to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—or an author’s quest, as is Amitabh Ghosh’s A Glass Palace or The Sea of Poppies. Other classics, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, are involuntary shipwrecks of discovery that yield an awakening in satire.
If we place Moby Dick and The Glass Palace (and Ghosh’s subsequent works) side by side, we see that the high seas and chase and retaliation of a noble, giant whale, get to run deep in Melville’s veins. The plot is internalised and expressed not as an extract from a ship’s log but as a feeling.
Ghosh’s work is based on travels in Burma (and elsewhere) combined with the history of its annexation and the capture and exile of King Theebaw. Here we have a new combination, i.e. voyage/history. The difference is that while Alice floats on an ethereal dream and Moby Dick grips one by the gut, the Palace comes across as a critique of colonialism and its gunboats that sail up river to show the might of empire, even if that is being used to enforce the less than majestic purpose, according to today’s moral principles, of supporting the deception and duplicity and ultimately armed robbery of its businessmen.
It seems the author wants to take revenge on history. Interesting. But it lacks the quality of fiction even as Burma’s archaeological and geographical landscape and the inequity of the king’s daughter (in exile) marrying her coachman fall meticulously into place. While the end of Moby Dick cannot be predicted, that of the Palace would be known to whoever cares to read British-Indian history.
and travel-based works are kept aside, the question is that for works of
imagination, how does the author sift out a plot that fits the story? How does
he, to take the quandary in The Mikado, “make the punishment fit the crime”?
What then is the essential difference between a plot that is internally driven and that which is connived at by research to yield a known end?
Never having ventured
into the kind of literary surgery that drives pre-plotted, pre-characterised
works, I can only share my experience with writing both internally and
externally driven fiction.
While casually leafing through magazines in a library I came across a column by one Devika Bhagat in the December 7, 2012 issue of India Today that said:
“Twitter is for adults where a film is given a Hit or Flop prognosis before the opening weekend is through. Audiences want to know the story of the film before they see it. The beauty of discovery is lost because we are now used to information coming at us instantly at the touch of a button. Spending three hours watching a story unfold is a death sentence.
“Romantic films now seem to belong to a bygone era. Perhaps we have seen the last of them. We only have ourselves and our smartphones to blame.”
Do electronic media and newspapers present a mortal threat to world of writing by presenting truth that is stranger than fiction? And that too on devices that we carry in the pocket? Hopefully not. So much more goes into the elaboration of plots in the world of writing that even films of quality—based on novels of quality that one has read—are mostly a disappointment. So for authors are a certain class of well wishers.
Shortly after my second novel was published some people some people would come up and say “I read a review of A Twisted Cue.” My question followed: “What about the book?”
But I gave up quite soon as this embarrassed the person, who was trying to be kind, and didn’t do me much good, often leading me to form a low opinion of him.
Besides, the review had already done the job of declaring it a Hit or a Flop. If romantic themes have as short a life as the mating routine of Kachchh’s wild asses that starts with a chase and ends in a single five-second mount, three hours is not just a death sentence it is roasting in hell thereafter.
Is there a future for longer works? Perhaps the answer lies in the reaction of those that did have the time to go through its 434 pages. To them I would have to give a more thorough explanation to searching questions.
In the process the difference between the two types of fiction also became apparent. The link between the inspiration and motive of fiction is most likely not apparent in the work. And this is where the soul of fiction that is internally evolved lies.
Why is the novel written against the backdrop of the 1965 Indo-Pak War?
While thinking about this I was reminded that in my very young days itinerant photographers would come with a choice of screens of The Taj Mahal, Roman Villas and other imposing backdrops against which one sat to have a family portrait taken. I had to ask myself whether writers really have this kind of choice for their novel.
Hopefully, readers will grant them that indulgence. In The Cue the characters were based on the semblance of an army officer I got to know in the 1970s, a woman I knew in the 1960s, two girls I knew, one in college and another in my early working life, both in the 1950s, and a major who went fat and mad just after that war. None of them had ever known each other and were parted in my acquaintance by a span of 20 years.
The Suitable Boy could not be interviewed in one’s aunt’s kothi. Given their character, the plot had to have some of the tragedy of A Farewell to Arms and the desperation of The Sun Also Rises, some of the cynicism and wit of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour war trilogy and something of Indian spice.
Secondly, as Jaques
And so from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot
These were liberated people who had suffered the slings of fortune and were looking for a new future. When they thought they had found one, first they had to ripe and ripe, and when it failed, to rot and rot.The magnitude of a war, or perhaps a 1947-type mayhem that accompanied the Partition, was required as these kind of events alone justify the destiny of people involved under orders.
Our epics, the Mahabhrata and the Ramayana, are cases in point. Cataclysmic events part lovers and thereafter you may long for your sweetheart but she may lie over the ocean, though in the case of the 1965 war, she may just be beyond reach, beyond the caress, the feeling of touch that binds loving flesh.
And the conversations that are so important to a work of imagination came not as the kind of set-piece dialogue but spontaneously as I was writing.
There is a bit of Omar Khayyam about this process, the moving finger writes and having writ moves on. A revisit to the moment is not possible.
That spontaneity, I
think, is the difference between plots that are internal and external to the
The former are inspired while the latter are constructed. One can see the difference time and again, for example in Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and his later works which are more laboured. Only very few masterpieces like Yes, Minister achieve the delicious element of linguistic surprise on the screen.
Let me share another
journey of a novel that I would class as internally driven but within an
external frame: Comrade Sahib. Its theme rests on the starting days of the
Naxal movement in Bengal and the use of “encounter” to eliminate its cadres.
Several matters, both negative and positive, came to a fruition for me at the
time. But more than the shocking lawless killing by the government, the
motivation came from what was always known but not personally witnessed: that
hierarchical power can yield desired results to end personal predicaments (many
a time of those who, as the Indianism goes, are nears and dears).
The case of a former Supreme Court judge (who, to use another Indianism, was still in position as the head of a commission) directing a course of action in a suit to a lower court may not sadden or surprise too many people nowadays, but way back in the 1960s there was a heady optimism about the rectitude of constitutional functionaries, of a setting to rights, even the emancipation of the colonial system of the administrative sentencing or reprieve of those whose rights the Raj considered a trifle.
So when it came to the adjudication of serious matters like divorces the expectation was that Independence meant that due process would be upheld so mightily as to make one heady. This did not come to pass and hence the tale.
What does this have to do with young men from St Stephen’s College disappearing
from residence to join the Naxals? Nothing on the face of it. But in fact
everything. The inspiration and motive of a plot in a fictional work that comes
from within is seldom apparent on the surface. Yet this is the soul of works
that come from deep within.
Cherchez la femme?
Undoubtedly. She may not be in the list of dramatis personae of the plot either for Comrade Sahib or for A Twisted Cue. Just the trigger.
I would say The God of Small Things and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss have themes that have personal depth (the former more virginal and the later innocent, even immaculate). Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger on the other hand reads a lot of the time like a newspaper. Its crime does/may pay theme is only a reflection that the majority of criminal investigations in this country lead nowhere or are thrown out by courts for want of evidence.
I have recently
completed a draft of what I have termed above as an externally driven novel
provisionally titled The Girl Who Tied the Golden Noose and the contrast
between this experience and the earlier ones is revealing. Let me say that the
plot reflects the mood of the times though no single news event is involved or
It involves three characters, with a large supporting cast. A judge, a Brahmin priest and a fun-loving tribal girl of no particular creed who loves romp-romance. With the lover who speaks English she is mute but not deaf, stiff but not insensitive; with the other who speaks her vernacular she is chatter-boxy, musical and yogic.
So much is likely. But in presenting the unlikely, there is compunction. How different is this from more subjective works?
In the case of The Girl one has the plot but not the characters; in the case of the other two one has the characters but not the plot.
One may on first thought assume that one could be totally uninhibited in the manner in which one treated the inhabitants of this kind of plot that deals with issues even as one would be inhibited in the fictional attributes one gave those who one knew in flesh and blood. Completely the opposite seems to be the truth. I feel that an author’s entire psyche and cultural and societal hang-ups, limitations of emotions and prudery in imagery come to the fore in the external process of plucking people from the street or the courtroom or the whorehouse to serve as the cast.
And very early on one finds one is not capable of subjecting them to rape— even though that lights up prospects of sales—if that is not a fact though one has no compunction about getting them to seduce or be seduced; one cannot hand them a gun or a dagger as an implement of vengeance if one does not know their use.
But one has no pang of conscience in undermining through innuendo in ways that resemble the animal kingdom in which wild dogs snap at the tendons of their prey as a means of bringing them down though one may not have the prowess of the tiger going shamelessly for the jugular. There is the limitation of upbringing, association and sensibility. Call it breeding if you like.
By contrast, in plots based on personal intimacy, emotional or otherwise, one knows the limited or limitless capacities for wickedness or nobility of one’s characters and one has complete freedom within that ambit. There is, inevitably, abstraction, but both unlimited wickedness or nobility of one’s character are at one’s command. One is in no way responsible for their actions. They can be allowed to stew in their own juice.
Pardoxically, even though the limbs and minds and hearts of those who figured in Comrade Sahib and A Twisted Cue were given and unchangeable, they seem easy to juggle with.
should be even easier in the case of the characters in The Girl. But they are
harder to play around with. Here one is rather in the position of the sculptors
of Tanjore or Khajuraho bound by the Shilpa Shastra. If one has the talent one
can accentuate the curve in the waist of a dancer or the lift in the breasts of
But it seems impossible to sex up the plot with gun and dagger if there is a lesser way of revenge. Why?
Somehow one feels responsible for the well being of one’s icons even to the extent of having the hangman save the judge. It seems hardly just that they reap as the author sows.
The equipoise required to keep one’s mood in check for fiction is hard to achieve. No wonder then that the future seems to belong to what is now called Creative Fiction: for which one can check the facts through research or a right-to-information petition and get it all over with gun or knife a la Bond or the Lashkar or the thugs of Wassepur.
Or perhaps the student from the Saudi world who spoke about historectomies had it all. If the Mughal are being written about, can Vijayanagar, the Cholas, the Cheras and other dynasties (who now all speak English!) be far behind? If more is required, there is always the rona-dhona of Family Matters thinly veiled or blindingly bejewelled.
Comparatively, to get the so-called human dimension right in all fiction is hard: very hard. One could end up writing a newspaper story or, worse, announcing a Breaking News event on Telly and carry on and on in subsequent verbiage where one started writing Animal Farm. Will this punishment fit the crime?
Thereby, with due apologies, Dear Jaques, hangs a tail.