Monthly Archives: July 2013

Plotting in Coffee Bars

Clouds in my coffee

Clouds in my coffee

I’m sitting writing this month’s blog in one of my favourite haunts – a coffee bar – my intention had been to continue plotting my next novel, which is already largely written in my head, while enjoying a large Americano. But my mind has turned to plots of a different kind: plots of land. This plot for example was once occupied by a bank but now belongs to a national coffee chain. The coffee is good, the ambience of the place is pleasant and the chairs are comfortable and, of course, it has Wi-Fi – a prerequisite for me these days. Between the bank closing and the present occupier, another national coffee bar chain opened here that I also used to visit. That chain too provided good coffee, fine ambience, comfy chairs and Wi-Fi but after a while I stopped going and I assume several others did as it closed its doors after about twelve months.

So here we have two successful coffee chains occupying exactly the same plot, offering almost identical product to largely the same clientele: one ultimately failing to make the grade and the other doing well. Why? Both chains train their baristas to be friendly and greet you when you walk in but while the former lacked sincerity and warmth, the latter makes a real effort to connect. But that’s not the only reason for the failure: The management and staff of the first chain allowed the tables to remain uncleared. Tables and floors soon became sticky and the upholstery appeared stained. In no time at all this neglect gave the place a run-down, grubby feel that the new chain have managed to avoid. I believe it’s down to skills and training of the local management, the treatment of customers and the attention to detail that makes the difference between success and failure.

What has any of this to do with plotting a novel? Well quite a bit actually. Anyone who has ever studied creative writing will have been told at some point that there are only seven basic plots (if you don’t know what they are I recommend you read Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories’ – see link below). Just like the two coffee shop managers, we writers are broadly operating from the same place. It is the treatment of our chosen plots that makes the difference between great, good and poor writing. Readers are your customers – how welcome do you make them feel? Do you treat them with sincerity? Do you give good service, know their likes and dislikes? Is your narrative clean and fresh, or sticky and over-used? Do you pay attention to small details like good punctuation and grammar? Also, if you are writing in a particular genre, whether you like it or not, you’re part of a production chain. Do your readers get what they’re expecting? Or when they walk into your coffee bar needing a nice creamy Latte are you trying and sell them tea?

Well, it’s time I tried to inject into my own plot some tantalising froth to excite my readers’ taste buds (or add some spice perhaps?) so goodbye until next time and, in the meantime, good luck with your own plotting.

Christopher Booker – The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories

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