Practical Plotting

Writing pal Bob is working on a new idea for a book, the first novel he’s written in awhile. Bob has published a bunch of funny and clever mysteries, but, as most writers find, every new book is another challenge. First you need an idea. Then you need to convince yourself it’s not boring. Bob sent a three or four sentence elevator pitch about the book in his head. It was not boring.

Bob moved on with a synopsis draft. Here he writes out exactly what the book will be about and who his characters will be and how the plot will turn. He has the story worked out in his head! Yes, Bob is a plotter. I find plotters fascinating. But this time, Bob has a problem.

“I’m writing a much longer summary than usual,” he said. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but being the helpful writing friend, I offered to send him a version of Jane Cleland’s Road Map, which I wrote more about here. I say “a version of” because after I diagramed the road map, and tried filling it in, I customized it to fit onto a notebook page. Here I’m simplifying it down to two lines of writer’s code.

Inciting Incident-SP1-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-SP1-Turning Point-SP2-Turning Point-All Plots Resolved

Inciting Incident: Where does the problem start? The point at which the story and character are headed into a mystery and there is no turning back. Start there.

SP stands for subplot. I like two. Introduce the first one about 30 pages in for a 300 page novel. (I write short novels). Another thing about subplots…if you don’t have, let’s say, a romance subplot, but an agent or your editor wants one, just write a love story for your character. Then you can piece it up and place it in 3 or 4 slots in the book. You can do both your subplots this way.

Turning Points need to escalate the drama, turn the heat higher. Lots of people call these Plot Twists. I think of them as going deeper into the mystery. There’s new information that changes everything the main character thinks they knew.

When the story hits the highest possible point of tension, the subplots braid together with the main plot. Each illuminates the other and all need to fit into the final resolution. I like to use one of the subplots to put a “sting in the tail” ~ just one final twist the reader never saw coming but also makes absolute sense.

Speaking of sense, I hope this made some. Questions or observations?

JennyJennyJenny

I’m from Detroit, so not sure how local the MC5 were back in the day. (MC stands for Motor City). They had a couple of hits “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Kick out the Jams” come to mind. The chorus to “Devil in a Blue Dress” sung fast, was ‘JennyJennyJenny, won’t you come along with me?’ and I’m thinking of it because Jenny Crusie is the writer who taught me everything I know about the craft of writing. And I’m looking back at those old lessons to try to get my WIP in order.

If you want the details on Jenny’s intensive workshop, I talk about our week together here. But back to today at my writing desk. Not a writing day goes by without me taking one of my Jenny hammers, wrenches, or screwdrivers out of the toolbox. Today, I’m going with a suggestion she gave me. This is a paraphrase, but the gist is:

Me: My books are too short. They’re more like novellas. How can I make them longer?

Jenny: One way is to add a subplot. The subplot should support the main plot. They should mirror each other and be entwined in ways important to theme and plot.

Great advice. Working on my second book in the Blue Lake series, I came to the end at about 40K. So of course, I needed a subplot. This was convenient, because I really wanted to write one, but with romance, editors can be picky about subplots. Now that I’m writing “women’s fiction” a subplot and even another point of view or two is not a problem.

So at first I thought, well, I can write the whole subplot as a separate book and then add it in where necessary. I have some experience with this in reverse when I had to pluck a subplot out of another book. That was pretty easy, but the opposite is not. Because really, a book needs to feel whole. Everything needs to seem like it naturally follows from what happened before. And I can’t get the theme/plot/intertwined thing doing the subplot as a stand alone.

So I’ve got three full scenes written and three or four ideas for scenes. My plan was to write out those scenes, but today I’ve decided I’m going to read through my WIP and decide where my supporting characters need to come in and why they are in this story in the first place.

And thanks Jenny for all you do and have done for me and many many other writers.