Thursday, August 18, 2005

Plotting

First, a quick answer to a question left yesterday about my segment on The 700 Club. Don’t know nothin’ about the air date yet. Don’t know what’s taking them so long to produce the segment. When I finally hear when it will air, I promise to let you know.

Okay. Last week I had a question about my process in plotting. Yikes. I’m in the habit of answering BG questions, so I’ll tackle it. It’s not that I don’t know anything about the subject. Oh, I can teach on it, sure, sure. It’s just that, even with what I know, when it comes to plotting one of my own books, the process drives me nuts. I think it’s because I’m always competing with myself to write better, create better stories. Plus I’m looking for something new under the sun when, as I remember, some bestselling book says there ain’t no such animal. This is certainly true in suspense, when you have to have a protagonist in trouble, and a bad guy. And usually a murder or two. Or three. Or more. Anyway, with the same basic conventions to follow book after book—well, see why I go a little crazy?

I lay before you this sordid truth about myself for one reason. Well, maybe two. First, if by some outlandish, insane, over-the-top reason you’ve put me on any kind of hey-no-problem-with-this-writing-stuff pedestal, you can knock me off with grinning alacrity. Two, to let you know that when you face trouble plotting, and you’re kicking cabinets like they’re ain’t no tomorrow—you’re not alone. And you will survive.

All right. Now that we have that out of the way, onward and upward. How do I tackle plotting? As much as I dread the process, it’s something I’m compelled to do—whether I feel like it or not. Imagine a contract, an I-believe-in-you editor, a deadline (that Mufasa-shuddering word)—and a blank page. No story, no ideas. Zip, zero. Oh, yeah, that plotting thing’s mighty important, all right.

Because I write suspense, I shall speak in such terms. Take what you will from my process and make it work for your genre, whatever it may be.

First I start with the conventions of my genre. As mentioned, at the most basic level, I need a protagonist, a crime, and a bad guy. It’s a triangle. I can start with any one of the three corners of this triangle. At some point some smidgling (if that’s not a word it should be) of an idea relating to one of the three is going to pop into my little brain. For example, with Violet Dawn, it was the thought of a body surfacing in a hot tub during the dead of night (ooh, there’s a book title). Only problem was, I didn’t know who the body belonged to, or why said person met his/her demise. But—I had that germ of an idea.

The basic aspects of most genres tend to fall into triangles. In a romance, you have the hero, heroine, and whatever’s keeping them apart. In a fantasy, you got the protagonist, antagonist, and the quest/adventure. In a romantic suspense, you’ve got the hero, heroine, and the problem that throws them together. Etc. So figure out your triangle—or maybe it’s a square—and start with those plot points. You don’t have to figure out one point completely before you go to the next. Quite the opposite. It’s the pingponging from one corner to another that builds the story.

I’m finding one of the best ways to get my story off the ground is to figure out the bad guy. It’s really hard to come up with an interesting, fresh antagonist. Think about it. The protagonist can do any one of a million things. The bad guy has to kill. Sigh. How to make him unique?

The key to the bad guy is motivation. Why does he kill? Was the murder intentional? Or a horrible mistake . . . that leads him to more killing to cover it up? This motivation must be very strong—strong enough to make him a chilling, frightening foe for the protagonist.

When I start getting ideas about the bad guy and his motivation, then ideas for who’s murdered and how can start to flow.

As for the protagonist, sometimes that’s already decided. If I’m in the middle of a series focused on one person, I know this character. Whew. One triangle corner down. (See why I write series?) But in the case of Violet Dawn, I had nothing. It was the start of a new series. Not only did I not have a protagonist, I didn’t have a location. What’s the community? What’s the world I have to build—and live with for the entire series?

When I was writing Hidden Faces, I had Annie Kingston, the forensic artist. For each of the four books in the series, I knew I would have her tackle a different sort of project within the large and fascinating field of forensic art. For Brink of Death, it was a composite drawn after interviewing a child too traumatized to describe the face of her mother’s killer. For Stain of Guilt it was creating a twenty-year fugitive update for a double murder suspect on the lam. Dead of Night dealt with drawing unidentified murder victims. When I came to the fourth book in the series, for which I had no story idea, I knew my starting point was at the crime corner of the triangle—figuring out what Annie hadn’t yet tackled. Once I got that figured out, the story that become Web of Lies began to develop.

More on this plotting stuff tomorrow. If you’ve got comments/questions, you know where to leave ’em.

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Read Part 2

7 comments:

Pammer said...

That triangle thing made sooooo much sense. It clicked with me. I am trying to figure out plotting because I am a SOTP, but if I don't stop after a couple of chapters and plot a wee bit, I end up in a terrible tangle.

Is there a pattern for the pingponging or is it more random?

Great topic. Thanks.

Grady Houger said...

I too was enlightened by the triangle comparison. My wip seems to fit squarely into the 'romantic suspense' example you gave.
Just today I was reading a article (actually here it is) about genre; it started me thinking about if I should fit my story to a genre or be more experimental. I certainly like the idea of writing a story that is wildly undefinable, but doing so requires even more care in plotting if there is no framework to go by.
I'm still struggling struggling with the basics of plotting like: 'make the story end' and rewriting the whole thing to fix plot holes big enough to fit an entire novel into.

I look forward to tomorrow's insightful lesson!

C.J. Darlington said...

It's great to know I'm not the only one who often struggles with plot. It's my least favorite aspect of writing. Once I know where I'm going in a chapter or scene, it's much easier.

Lynette Sowell said...

Hooray for the triangle! :) Do you find that you need to let an idea "stew" for a while, so it can germinate? (how's that for a mixed metaphor) Anyway, do you find that sometimes the first thing that crosses your mind is too obvious a choice, and your idea won't stand out from the crowd? That's what I'm dealing with right now...making the idea stand out.

Ron Estrada said...

Suspense ideas are tough for me because--how many different versions of a maniac can you come up with? I can create interesting ways to die and interesting protagonists, but I always come back to the same nut who was abused by his mother/father. I did just watch a video at work about workplace violence, though. That could be fun.

Karen Wevick said...

THANK YOU. I have at least 2 basic plots for a suspense series, and have done some development on the characters, but I've been having major problems getting it to all gel together. I just figured it was going to be too much for me at this point in time. However, something just clicked. Not sure what yet, but I'm looking forward to dragging out my stuff tonight and getting back into it.
God Bless

Domino said...

I'm confused about what to save for the unravelling of the tangled web my bad guy weaves with his story-long deceit. In my plotting, I'm supposed to leave questions for the reader. Right?

I have to show his intention to harm so the reader knows he's the bad guy. The reader knows more than the heroine most of the time. I want to throw in his admission of guilt and a fuller explanation of his motivation than has been hinted at so many times previously, but not until she's figuring out the truth at the end.
Can I make the reader wait until the end of the story for the full reason he's being mean?