Next week I’ll be on a panel at Sleuthfest where we’ll all be talking about our methods of plotting a mystery. That’s had me thinking. How do I plot a story, be it a mystery or a romance?
When I first started writing (eons ago) I really had no idea how to plot, which my first attempts truly showed. That was when I started looking at books I’d read and liked and tried to figure out how those writers put together a story. By my third attempt at writing a romance, I was doing better. I even interested an editor and ultimately found an agent who wanted to represent me. That particular story never sold, but that was back in the days when we could sell a book on a synopsis and three chapters, so my agent made me start writing synopses. Writing a synopsis before you’ve written the book can teach you a lot.
It forced me to started reading books about plotting, which, in turn, taught me the three act structure (beginning, middle, and end) and about turning points. I’ve always found beginnings fun. That’s when I get to give all the important information: who the main characters are, the time period, setting, and major conflict. I rarely, however, found that act took up a third of the book. More like the first quarter, if that much.
I also like endings. That’s when the conflict is resolved and our hero and heroine (I was writing romances back then) realize they are meant to be together and we have the happily ever after ending. Endings, also, rarely ever take up a third of the book. So that leaves the middle, which often becomes the sagging middle.
What do you do with the middle?
It was The Writers Journey, by Chris Vogler (based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), that gave me the information I needed for the sagging middle. If you’ve read either of those books, you know the structure begins with the hero’s (could be male or female) ordinary world and moves to a call for adventure. Basically the first few steps the hero goes through comprise act one. It’s what comes after that stage that has helped me structure the middle. In this act (the middle) the hero meets allies and enemies and is tested. In this section the hero is growing and changing, facing and conquering fears, real or imagined. It’s after going through all of these ordeals (which intensify as the story progresses) that the hero is ready to face the major conflict. By the end of the middle section the hero is stronger and now has something of value (perhaps merely an understanding of her self-worth or maybe an actual weapon). The ending (act three), then, is where the hero meets and defeats the enemy or finds the elixir and returns to his or her ordinary life a changed person. Now she’s ready for love, or now he has his reward.
Nowadays before I start a story, I write a synopsis (one for my eyes, not an editor’s or agent’s). Sometimes it’s in story form, and sometimes it looks like an outline. I put in the key scenes that develop both the character and the conflict, introduce the mentor (ally) or mentors, shapeshifters, enemies, and tests. I decide how, as a result of these tests, my protagonist will have changed and grown (or discovered the villain). Of course there will be the darkest moment when all seems lost, so part of my plotting will be deciding how my hero will meet the challenges, how I can show him teetering on the brink of failure and yet ultimately succeed.
Once I have those decisions made, I’m ready to write.
Does this mean I never change the story idea once I’ve written the synopsis or outline? No. This is merely a guideline for me. A road map. Once my characters take over, they can either follow it or veer off on a side road, but I usually find they work their way back to the original path. That’s what makes the writing fun.
So how do you plot?
P.S. THE CROWS is now available in paperback on Amazon.com. My last try was successful.