To paraphrase one of Shakespeare’s kings–you know, the one who wound up under a parking lot–my kingdom for a plot! I love to write, always have. Give me a scene, any scene, and I’ll flesh it out for you. Give me two people caught in a face to face encounter, and I’ll capture their dialogue. Show me a setting and I’ll bring it alive, replete with sights, sounds, smells and touch. But put all the elements of a novel together in a coherent, believable plot? That’s a task that gives me pause.
Plotting a mystery, you might argue, is easier than plotting, say, literary fiction. After all, there are some pretty clear rules in the mystery genre. For example, unless you’re Patricia Cornwell or James Lee Burke, you had better kill off someone in the first fifty pages of your book since the patience of your readers (and publisher) is notoriously short. And you also need to build-in an event that signals the approaching climax, and ensure, that, in fact, you end with a bang, not a whimper. This leaves the “slushy middle”, which must never be slushy, so all manner of clever devices should be inserted to not only drive the plot but keep the pace brisk, the tone engaging.
Easy, you say?
One school of thought claims outlining is the answer. Achtung! What we have here is a need for discipline. Put your mind to it, we’re told, and the plot will seamlessly unfold in an orderly sequence. I tried this in my early scratchings without much success. The experience was a little like driving in a dense fog. I could only see a short distance ahead and very little from side to side. Sure, I could get something down on paper, but after a short burst of writing, the outline would become obsolete. Those pesky, unruly characters of mine kept asserting themselves in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
The other school of thought says that the plot of a book is an organic element that must be allowed to evolve as the story progresses. In other words, the plot builds outwardly, informed primarily by what has already been written. This may sound appealing, especially to those like me who hate planning ahead. But the other side of that coin is that the story can easily bob and weave itself into chaos, a kind of literary proof of the law of entropy. And I can tell you from experience, there is nothing more painful than backing out of a corner into which you’ve written yourself. It invariably involves trashing a lot of good work.
Of course, authors should adopt a strategy for plotting a novel that works best for them. I land somewhere between the extremes of rigid outlining and unfettered evolution. I didn’t plan on using a hybrid strategy. It turned out to be the only way I could get a book written.
How to start? For me, it’s essential to identify a single, unifying concept or question that fires my imagination and provides bedrock on which to build a plot. For example, in Matters of Doubt (debuts in September), I asked myself what would happen if a homeless kid is unjustly accused of the murder of a prominent Portland citizen, and the evidence against him is utterly overwhelming? In Dead Float, I imagined a corporate team-building trip on the Deschutes River that ends badly. The CEO gets his throat cut, and my protagonist is set up to take the fall.
With a basic concept in hand, characters come next. I develop detailed physical descriptions and psychological profiles for each new character. I’m an equal opportunity writer, so all of them are potential bad guys. As a matter of fact, I go as deep into the story as possible before I actually decide who dunnit. I like to think this adds to the suspense of the plot, and it certainly makes the writing more fun.
Next, I turn the fog lights on and produce a bare bones outline for as far ahead as I can see, usually a couple of chapters. Then I begin to write, and continue until I hit a wall. Then I repeat the outlining process. The recipe is a dash of outlining combined with a generous amount of organic evolution. When my characters finally rear up and take charge, I know I’m on my way.
What happens when I get stuck? I have two writing-block busters. The first is to mind-map the problem on a large whiteboard. Physically spreading a problem out seems to make it more tractable. Doodling on notebook paper doesn’t work for me. If this fails, I take my dogs on a very long walk. This always works, although nothing comes to me until the third or fourth mile! That’s when I relax, secure in the knowledge that I’m back on track, at least for a while.