Sharpe’s Plot Structure

I’m working on a military-type story right now, so I ended up revisiting my old LJ notes on the subject. This is a tidied up version:

There’s no point in reinventing the wheel (unless you end up with armored tracks). So, though I myself aspire to writing refined, nuanced tales of unicorn herding and holistic magic-wielding, sorry “path-working” vegetarian Earth Priestesses and their tormented coterie of Warriors Who Cry, when a friend unburdened himself of the (almost) complete Sharpe books (“Take them pleeeeeeaaaaase! I can’t stand them anymore – I’ve read them all, ten times!!!”), I was happy to let them fall my way. I’m a great fan of seeing how other writers handle the technical challenges posed by certain sorts of story.

In creating his military cornucopia, Cornwell overcomes several technical challenges. By “technical”, I mean challenges that demanded use of technique to create certain effects in the reader’s mind, rather than more strictly artistic muse-wrestling to do with theme and character. Somehow, he had to tell an adventure story within the shifting context of an army at war, where the structures and characters of the army and the action of the war itself would be intimately bound up with the plot, and where some of the characters interact directly with large bodies of men.

You notice – after reading a… few – that, even though the stories have a tremendous forward momentum, actual battles don’t take up more than about 20% of the word count. Instead, the plot is built on several interacting threads – “subplots ” or “arcs” if you prefer. (A caveat here. I’m not for one minute suggesting that Cornwell has a formula, except in the eye-of-newt,-tongue-of-frog sense. He’s fairly consistent with his ingredients, and they to a certain extent dictate structure. Even so, he bakes a different pizza every time, and usually serves it up with a surprising garnish.)

Sharpe vs the Enemy

The obvious thread is the military one. Armies march, manoeuvre, try for advantages and, in the last chapter clash in such a manner that the final result hinges on the protagonist. This thread binds the rest. It provides default momentum, and its weave is the ever-evolving fabric into which the other threads are woven. These last, in turn, all serve to place the protagonist at that critical hinge point.

Sharpe vs Inner Self

Next, we have the (optional) personal growth thread. The hero has some sort of internal struggle. This can motivate other threads, and either resolves in the final battle, or triggers the hero’s role in it, or both. It absolutely must relate to the hero’s role as a soldier.

The technical trick here is to avoid – are you listening, J. Michael Straczynski? – merely having personal struggle interfering with his soldiering. Alcoholism, dysfunctional love, bereavement, alienation, and addiction are all great dramatic subjects, but they are not of themselves military. They are Off Topic. We see them most days when we step over a tramp, or observe stoned ned couples having a public screaming and yawling match.

Rather, the struggle itself has to be soldierly – Can I kill? Can I restrain myself when killing is such fun? (Thanks, Elizabeth Moon!) Can I overcome class guilt to become an officer? Can I overcome my fear? Can I bring myself to leave soldiering to seek out the peaceful life? Will I chose the girl or the regiment? The final battle should resolve this conflict, or confirm its resolution: “Hey, this rocks!” , or “Yeah, without a chick to worry about, I’m one mean killing machine.”

Sharpe vs Military Organisation

Then, there’s the army-as-organisation thread. The hero seeks advantage – or survival – in the face of a very real and physical internal threat to himself or to those he cares about.

Without a threat, this thread loses its urgency. It’s hard for the reader to care about displeasing a senior officer, unless e.g. that officer is quite capable of giving the hero suicidal orders. So, Can hero get promotion before the corrupt Bad Sergeant conspires to have him flogged to death? Will he manage to keep his men alive despite the orders of his incompetent superior who’s bent on his destruction?

The army thread either resolves in the final battle, or triggers the hero’s role in it, or both.

Sharpe vs Challenges of Leadership

Finally, there’s the unit thread. Hero must manage his own unit, overcoming the doubters and the laggards, and somehow weld it into a proper fighting force, usually in time for the final battle.

* * *

Having three to four threads almost guarantees having enough plot to fill the novel. What guarantees that the novel isn’t impossible to follow (or to write) is the way these threads are structured.

Hero is always the protagonist

Sharpe is the hero of each thread. Though there are often carefully themed subplots in each thread, there are no alternative novels waiting to get out.

Most importantly, we don’t see the generals trading move and countermove, unless it’s to send Sharpe off on a mission. Where one thread requires action from another to move forward, this is merely a case of Sharpe solving one problem so he can solve the next – we don’t have to skip between hellishly-hard-to-timetable-and-pace parallel novels.

Always a different Antagonist

The Antagonist for each thread is different. Sharpe struggles to beat the French colonel, tries to prove himself to himself, while not letting his CO kill him through stupidity, meanwhile turning his unit into proper Riflemen.

Threads converge

This is the important one. The threads converge on The Big Mayhem at the end. Some finish just before it. Some are resolved during it, or by its results. But they all head in the same direction.

* * *

The power of this approach lies in the way the threads work together to solve the challenges of Military fiction:

World Building

The threads operate at all levels of the world, making it seem real. They also enable Cornwell to depict the full breadth of the soldierly experience, since Sharpe can have goals – and hence plot – in those moments which are not part of the military thread, for example in the aftermath of a battle.

Pacing

On the one hand, there’s always something happening, so guaranteeing forward momentum. On the other, different threads create different moods and pace. After frenetic military mayhem, a romantic interlude, or a moment of betrayal by the internal enemy can slow things down without stopping them.

Exposition and Setting Up

Nothing is real to readers, unless it’s illuminated by conflict. The snag is that some facts need planting or establishing well before they matter. Wannabe folklore suggests “Write a scene where X tries to teach Y [the thing], or wrestles with [the thing] for some reason.” Cornwell extends on this – or possibly uses the real technique it refers to. As far as I can tell, every single piece of setup is part of a fully realised thread, not just a disconnected scene.

Nor does he have [the thing] happening as a mere backdrop to some other thread. So, for example, since flints are part of the Sharpe vs the Enemy thread, very early on, we get a moment in the Sharpe vs Military Organisation thread where the Evil Sergeant tries to make it look as if the hero sold his. What we don’t get is a scene where the Sergeant tries a scam on Sharpe while the latter happens to clean his flints.

The lesson for fantasy writers is, if you want to establish how plate armour works, don’t just have the hero being armed up while he tries to seduce his lady. Instead, have the squire struggle with the challenge of getting it all on in the right order… and that means you need the hero to have a thread in which he MUST bring the squire up to scratch.

The end result is the reader experience of a seemingly complex plot, which moves forward so relentlessly you can – and do – read a Sharpe book in a day, which creates a vivid world in your head, and which is deeply satisfying.

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4 comments on “Sharpe’s Plot Structure
  1. In addition to this Bernard Cornwell is a fine writer of battles.

    He approaches them in the same way you describe – multiple threads representing the different factors in the battle. This gives a view of the battle from both a strategic level and a personal level. The interaction of the macro scale drama with the personal action makes them compelling reading.

    Every writer should read Bernard Cornwell if he (or she) wants to have a battle. A great number of authors seem almost scared to write battles (George RR Martin skips over them regularly for example) or they just don’t do it right. Sharpe is a textbook that every writer should read. It will make your book better in the end.

  2. Ben says:

    Very interesting thoughts here. Thanks. I’ve added this to my list of go-to articles about story structure.

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