There’s nothing I adore more than an analogy (or a theory) so bear with me on this one.
A plot is like a sandwich. Yes, it’s true. And I’m going to tell you why.
One of the things you must know when you set out to write a book is what kind of book it is. Are you writing a mystery? A romance? A thriller? A fantasy novel? You must decide because the kind of book it is will determine what the beginning and end points of the written book will be. What kind of book you’re writing will determine where you pick up the thread of the story.
This seems very straightforward but people mess it up all the time.
• A romance begins with the couple’s first meet and ends with their decision to live happily ever after.
• A mystery begins with the murder and ends with the unveiling/capture of the villain.
• A fantasy begins with the embarkation upon the quest (or call to adventure) and ends with the successful resolution of the quest.
• A thriller begins with the threatening incident and ends with the capture/disembowelment/whatever of the villain.
These beginning and ending points are the two slices of bread of your sandwich: all other events must be packed in between them. Subplots begin and are resolved within the sandwich. The main conflict must begin first, as close to line one page one as possible – otherwise, why keep reading? The main conflict of the plot must be resolved last – otherwise why read the rest of the book? All the other stuff gets stuffed into the middle of the sandwich.
It doesn’t really matter whether you outline your entire plot or whether you follow impulse/instinct: you simply must ensure that the plot is structured properly. With bread on top and bottom. It’s lovely to think about a work being organic and evolving to its own form, but that’s a lot of nonsense – like a sandwich with the bread in the middle and the lettuce on the outside. You may be able to play such games in literary fiction but in genre fiction, a work must be recognizable to the reader as whatever it is. That means you start at the beginning (of the central conflict) and you end at the end (of the central conflict). It sounds so easy but gets messed up all the time.
Similarly, writers often get very excited arguing about prologues and epilogues and their necessity (or lack of necessity). By definition, prologues and epilogues happen before or after the story — they are the pickle on top of the sandwich, or the doily underneath. Strictly speaking, they’re not necessary, but sometimes they’re the perfect touch to make the story work better. If you think of the sandwich, you know that your prologue, in order to truly be a prologue, must occur before the beginning incident of the book. In a romance, that would be before the meet.
For example, I used a prologue in THE WARRIOR because it was a reincarnation book – the hero met the heroine in her previous incarnation, just as she was dying. This gave a hint of what was to come, but the plot proper began when he met the heroine in her heroine guise some twenty years later. The prologue had to be there, as a prologue, because it explained why he recognized her immediately and also why he responded so strongly. (He’d been looking and waiting for a while and was a wee bit impatient!)
Similarly, the epilogue must occur after resolution of the main conflict. In a romance, an epilogue is often used to peek in on the hero and heroine a year or two after the ending of the book, after the core issue of their HEA has been resolved, often with a new baby. The function served is reader satisfaction, by providing a little bit of proof that the couple really are living happily ever after. It’s sentimental, it’s unnecessary strictly speaking, but sometimes it’s a nice touch. An epilogue can also be used to connect to the next book in a continuing series, a link that exists outside of the main conflict of either book. Hmm. Like a link between your sandwiches, maybe a carrot stick half on one plate and half on the other.
This sandwich analogy can really help with a hybrid story, which is where people really mess up. Let’s say your book has both fantasy and romance in it. Is it a fantasy romance (that would be a romance with fantasy elements) or a fantasy with romantic elements? To decide, you must know which part of the story is the main conflict, not so easily sorted out when you’re up to your eyes in secondary characters and entwined plots. You can tell by looking at the main conflict – if it’s a romance, the spine of the story is the development of the romantic relationship; if it’s a fantasy, the spine of the story is a quest. This helps you to put the parts of the plot in their place by telling you which is bread and which is lettuce. And that tells you what goes where, by making it clear what incident starts the book and what incident ends the book. It also tells you which plot thread should dominate the story and will give you a big clue as to where to submit the beast once it’s done.
Let’s say you want to tell the story of an ambitious single woman diagnosed with a nasty disease and thus compelled to reassess and redirect her life. Let’s say she finds love along the way.
• You could write it as a romance, beginning with the moment she meets the hero and ending with their commitment to each other. If she met the hero partway into treatment, you’d have to jump right in to that moment, then work the rest in as backstory. If it was a romance, you’d probably want her to triumph over the illness to ensure your HEA. The spine of the story would be the romantic relationship and the medical stuff, personal life journey stuff, etc., would be subordinate to that.
• You could write it as women’s fiction, which would focus on the heroine’s journey of discovery. You’d begin with the shock of diagnosis and end with her being glad of the changes she’d made. Maybe she’d die at the end, maybe not. The focus would be on the changes the woman made and her discoveries – the love interest and medical stuff would be subordinate.
• You could write it as a mystery, making her illness be something infectious, presumably inflicted upon her out of malice. She could become a sleuth to find the perpetrator and stop him/her from ever doing this again, as well as to work out why it had happened in the first place. The love interest would be a subplot – and maybe a red herring for the villain. The medical stuff might play a larger role, specifically the technical details of infection. The life changes would also be subordinate to the mystery. Again, you’d start with the bad news of the diagnosis and end with the villain unveiled.
• You could write it as a thriller, with her infection being deliberate as above, but part of a diabolical plan to eliminate all — what? Choose what kind of women the villain wants to kill. “All redheads must die.” “All women from the high school drama class of 1972 (who laughed at him) must die”. Maybe it’s an old personal grudge. Maybe it’s more general. You decide. The point is that there must be more intended victims and that the heroine is going to save them. Maybe our heroine wasn’t the intended victim and her infection was a mistake. The ticking clock – always present in a thriller – would be her pending death from the disease. (Alternatively, the heroine could be investigating the deliberate infection of someone else and the climax could be her own infection, which would provide the escalation typical of thrillers – the threat usually moves from the general to the personal in measured steps.) The disease/infection would have to be something really nasty for this to work, and you’d need an antidote to save your intrepid and honorable heroine at the end. The medical aspect would pay a comparatively key role.
See what I mean? Same story idea, but four different sandwiches as easy as that.