Plot Like a Poet

There is a collateral danger to the commitment that many historians share to telling the truth about the past: is there only one story to tell?

The historians’ options might at first might seem limited, especially when compared to the fiction writer. How would a historian follow James Scott Bell’s advice for planning?

To find the best plots, you need to come up with hundreds of ideas, then choose the best ones to develop.[1]

The historian cannot simply conjure plots of all shapes and sizes to suit a topic. But what they can do is choose which true stories to follow.


Think of the example of the revolutionary decade in France, from 1789 to 1799. A historian today, writing under the weight of one of the densest historiographies that there is, is unlikely to change the major outlines of the story of how France went from monarchy, to republic, to the Consulate of Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor.

But within this huge field, the possibilities of which story the historian follows are close to limitless. Successive or competing historiographies – the economic collapse, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the influence of the radical Enlightenment, the crisis of language itself – could all be seen as different choices of what kinds of plot to follow, which heroes and villains were chosen, or what timescale to study. Colin Jones, for instance, has recently turned his focus to one day, the day Robespierre was overthrown.[2] It implies a different story to see events in this immediate rhythm, rather than the lofty distance that historians so often assume.

There is a balance to negotiate between being sure, and being inspired. Many historians instinctively plan their research and their writing with absolute precision. A plan is a defense against the unfiltered chaos of the past, and at every stage of planning and writing, the historian struggles to impose order.

Are there times in this struggle to tame the unruly material of history when it might be better to lay down your tools? If you plan too rigidly, you may find yourself excluding the very things that drew you to a topic in the first place. As the poet Ted Hughes puts it, if you are stuck, this is a ‘sign that the story has led [you] outside [your] genuine interests, it has lured [you] on over the boundary into country that [you] have no real feeling for.’[3]

At every stage in a writing project, it is worth asking yourself if you need to plan more, or perhaps plan less.


  1. Write out over a hundred different ways to ‘plot’ one of your current writing projects. Think, for instance, about whether you could write different stories by choosing different protagonists or timescales. Maybe start with the most obvious plot to you, the one you think you would write if you started tomorrow. Think of other plots that are as different from this as possible
    1. Keep adding to your list.


  1. Freewriting is always a good way to access the more impulsive and intuitive aspect of your interests. Try making a habit of regularly freewriting about individual projects, or about your interests in general.


  1. On the other hand, there are plenty of techniques that work to focus your skills of planning. Plan better by learning about your own planning. Cal Newport suggests a three step process for any piece of writing. Step one: what are the key points you want your piece to say? Step two: what do you need to do to get these points across? Step three: did it work?[4]
    1. Step four: why did it work better or less well this time?
    2. Step five: what will you do differently next time?

[1] Bell, Plot and Structure, 35.

[2] Colin Jones, ‘9 Thermidor: Cinderella among Revolutionary Journées’, French Historical Studies, 38 (2015), 9-31.

[3] Hughes, Poetry in the Making, 97.

[4] Newport, Deep Work, 173.

One thought on “Plot Like a Poet

  1. Thanks for this. You bring up lots of interesting angles here that we should all think about, although there aren’t clear cut answers. It seems to me necessary that a historian commits to telling a ‘truth’, using the sources to support that ‘truth’ in as faithful a way as is possible. After all, as you imply, we are hopefully not ‘storytellers’ in the sense that fiction writers are (though the advent of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ might put paid to that naive idea!). Aspiring to tell a ‘truth’ doesn’t mean that one needs to claim there are no other ‘truths’, since as you say, there could be the event seen from the perspectives of different protagonists, a different geographic area, a different era… And of course, no human being can be entirely objective, and we all need to be clear that we are telling a ‘truth’ as we see it. I’ve been encouraged by the proliferation of what one might call detailed ‘local studies’ which use a plethora of types of sources to delve deeply into the history and experiences of particular little known individuals, towns, streets even, in the same period. Now we have the luxury of being able to bask in such detailed work that not long ago didn’t exist, and we can pull it together to compare and contrast in such a way as to really get below the skin of ‘broad brush’ approaches that can sometimes be so ‘intuitive’ that they say more about the assumptions of the writer than the realities of the history they are trying to write! I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people that ‘do’ history need to subscribe to an ethic of trying to reflect what the sources say in terms of formulating a ‘truth’ whilst knowing full well that this isn’t an ‘ultimate truth’. The genuineness of the attempt to be faithful to the sources is maybe what matters, and this makes the practice of history different (and one might say vitally important). Yes, we tell stories. Yes, we can tell them from different points of view. But all of those views should at bottom be rooted in sources, not just our imaginations, or the agendas of who knows who, who know where…

    Liked by 1 person

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