"I want to write a novel," you say, "but I can't think of a plot."
In the spirit of Furthering the Literary Arts, I have designed a Madlibs-style skeleton for your Unpublished Work of Literary Fiction. (We will cover Romantic Comedy, Action, Political Thriller, Horror and Fantasy another time, possibly in a Choose Your Own Adventure format.)
Have a try! (If you get bored with the instructional bit, there is an example further down the page.)
The Protagonist, who is deeply unsatisfied and creatively stifled in their bad marriage/unfulfilling job/overseas teaching post, finds their humdrum life suddenly shaken by a dramatic event of your choosing, and is forced to return to their childhood home/cultural roots on what will become a much-needed Journey of Self-Discovery and Overall Large Metaphor. (Metaphors are good.)
The Protagonist journeys across the countryside, considering their broken dreams as they travel. They meet someone who will be important later on in the story, but they do not realise this at the time and discount it as a Chance Encounter because they either don't know the person, or the person has a motorbike helmet on. Little does the Protagonist know that there is no such thing as a Chance Encounter! Poor Protagonist.
The Protagonist arrives in their hometown/cultural rooting-place and discovers a thing of cultural significance/childhood possession/beloved pet which will have Enormous Personal Significance, and serve as a Metaphor for the Protagonist's Emotional Growth. (Metaphors are good!) At the end of the story this item will die/be released into the wild/get put in the back of a drawer, as the Protagonist no longer has any need for it! Oh, how they have Grown.
Having arrived at their Destination, the Protagonist sets about solving the Problem that made them come there in the first place. Re-purchased childhood homes and dead relatives are good; so are small towns struggling for funds. This brings them into contact with A Father Figure. If you want to be really unconventional, you can make this the Protagonist's actual father, but it's much more likely to be a retired army colonel or a hard-bitten taxi driver. He agrees to help the Protagonist sort out the problem.
Some basic problem-sorting ensues; the Protagonist has personality clashes with unimportant minor characters. Blah blah. Here you may show off your descriptive writing talents.
Suddenly, someone discovers that Something Is Amiss! It could be just a coincidence, but of course it isn't, don't be ridiculous. This is something entirely more sinister. Possible Sinister Events include, but are not limited to, a crooked public figure/a secret of parentage/a whiff of incest/a drug addiction. The important thing is that this has been covered up by somebody, who the Protagonist will blame heavily. It can be a repressed memory, in which case the Protagonist can blame themselves; the important thing is that when the Secret is uncovered, the Protagonist can forgive whoever covered it up, because the Protagonist now understands their reasons, and has learnt a valuable lesson. Anyway, we are jumping ahead a bit.
The Protagonist and the Father Figure delve deeper into the mystery, bringing the Protagonist into contact with a relative who did something awful in the war/an old lover/a mysterious stranger who seems to know too much/a ghost/a junkie who is actually a diamond in the rough. This person is not a metaphor, they are just there to add spice, so get creative.
The Secret is partially uncovered, with the help of any of the characters who are not the Protagonist. However, at the climactic moment, someone (usually the father figure, aged relative, or junkie with a heart of gold) dies, or nearly dies.
The Protagonist either finds out the secret or doesn't find out the secret but learns an important lesson anyway, either has a romance or doesn't have a romance, but learns an important lesson anyway, and finally leaves to start a new life, or returns to their old life, having learnt an important lesson.
Here is a brief example.
Primrose is a twenty-two year old junior computer programmer who dreams of becoming a linguist. She receives a letter from her mother's solicitor to tell her that her mother has died and that Primrose, as the only child, has to return to her hometown of Pigroot to sort out her mother's effects. Primrose is very resentful of this and, whilst driving angrily through the night, crashes her Beetle into a tree. She is helped by a devilishly good-looking passing motorist, but by the time the Police Etc arrive he has driven off into the night and she did not get his name.
Upon arriving in Pigroot, Primrose returns to the her Childhood Mansion and finds all of her mother's junk, along with her Favourite Childhood Toy, Rupert. Primrose becomes angry and throws Rupert at the wall, then goes to the pub.
At the pub she gets talking to a retired Colonel who is now destroyed by drink and drugs. He has many wise things to say about Life, and offers to help her sort out her Mother's Effects.
The next day, Primrose and the Colonel start going through her Mother's Effects. Along with the Usual Crap they find old photos of her Mother, Primrose, and A Small Boy who Primrose doesn't remember. The Small Boy is clutching Rupert. Who is the Small Boy? A Childhood Friend, or is this something more sinister?
It is, of course, Something More Sinister. At the bottom of an old trunk are some letters and some more photographs of the Small Boy, which imply but do not state that Primrose is not an only child after all. There is also a birth certificate which probably belongs to the Small Boy.
The Colonel drinks some Scotch and tells Primrose many useful things about Life. He also mentions that she reminds him of his daughter, who died of something dramatic. Primrose is touched by this and forced to re-examine her priorities.
Determined to get to the bottom of things, Primrose goes to visit her Grandfather in a nearby rest home. Unfortunately, he is senile. Primrose goes outside for a fag and is confronted by a doctor because she is not meant to be smoking.
The Doctor is the Devilishly Handsome Stranger who helped Primrose in the car crash! Primrose, who is upset, tells him about the photographs, letters and Small Boy. The Doctor offers to help uncover the mystery.
The Grandfather does not recognise Primrose, and thinks she is her mother. He apologises for that awful thing he did, claiming that it was a necessity because of the War. Primrose asks him what the awful thing was, and as he is about to tell her her cellphone rings. It is the bartender - the Colonel's years of drinking have caught up with him and he has been rushed to hospital with a collapsed liver or something.
Primrose and the Doctor go to the hospital immediately and sit at the Colonel's bedside. The Colonel dies, but not before telling Primrose to follow her linguistic dreams. Primrose cries as she realises that she has just lost the only father figure she's ever had. The Doctor comforts her.
Primrose returns to her mother's house and sits up late reading the letters, crying into Rupert's fur, and generally being introspective.
Primrose wakes up at 3am and remembers that when she was very little she used to play with the Small Boy every day, until her Grandfather took him away! She gathers letter, photos and birth cert then calls the Doctor, who drives her to the rest home in the middle of the night, and helps her sneak in through the back door.
The Grandfather confesses that when Primrose was little she had a younger brother, who was sent to live with some random people because they couldn't afford to feed both children because of the War, and they all thought it better if they pretended he had never existed at all. Then he dies. Primrose is shocked, and finally understands why her mother was so resentful and bitter all these years. This somehow gives her a better understanding of herself as well. Primrose cries.
The Doctor comforts her and confesses that although the timing is all wrong he has Feelings for her. Primrose confesses that she, too, has feelings for him. They kiss passionately and retire to Primrose's house for the night.
The next morning, Primrose wakes up to find the Doctor gone! It turns out that he saw the birth certificate on the kitchen table while he was making a coffee or something and has realised that he is Primrose's younger brother.
Primrose leaves instructions for her mother's things to be auctioned, takes Rupert and goes back to the city, sadder but wiser.
Alternate ending: Primrose and the Doctor burn the birth certificate, move away from Pigroot, and live incestuously but happily ever after.
EDIT: if you wanna write your own and email it to me I'll totally post it and/or steal the idea and win some kinda literary prize. ally (at) sleep500 (dot) com