September 9th, 2011

The Plot Thickens

Mystery Maven, Linda O. Johnston is back! We’ve gotten lots of mysterious questions lately, particularly about writing “process,” and Linda O has some answers about plot.

The Plot Thickens
by Linda O. Johnston

My guest blog posts here on Writers in the Storm will largely be descriptive of how I write, focusing on mysteries.  That’s what sets me apart from some of the other bloggers here, since I write mysteries as well as romances.  I’ll tell you what I do and how I do it, and you can determine if you want to incorporate any part of it into your writing, no matter what genre(s) you work in.

Today’s topic, if you haven’t figured it out from the title of this blog, is plotting.

I’m a plotter.  A schemer.  A killer–just in my writing, of course.  But to me, plotting is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing mysteries as well as romances with suspense elements.

As with writing, everyone’s style of plotting is different.  I can describe my process, but it might not be the best one for you.  That’s for you to find out, if you haven’t already.

I’ve been writing for a long time.  My process has changed, become a little more streamlined, but I long ago discovered what works for me.

I’ve always had to plot things out before I write.  Over the years I’ve taken classes and attended talks on various kinds of plotting.

One thing I learned is that some people are “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants and don’t always know where they’re going.  That sounds especially hard to me if you’re plotting mysteries or suspense, but I suspect those writers at least have some sense of whodunit or how they dun it or why they dun it right from the first.

Others use The Writers Journey kind of plotting.  I gave that a try years ago, but I really didn’t relate to it well.  In case you don’t know what I mean, The Writers Journey is a book by Christopher Vogler that describes plotting by using mythic structure.  If you’re not familiar with it, you might want to at least take a look at it to see if it meshes with your plotting style.

So what’s my method of plotting?  I use a modified sort of screenwriting style, a three-act structure that often starts with a grabber and changes direction with plot points that each turn the story in a different direction in the next “act”, leading to a satisfying ending.

How do I figure all of that out?  Well, I start off with a stream of consciousness kind of description of my story and characters that I type onto my computer.  It’s subject to lots of changes and refinements until I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going.

When I’ve got myself heading in a viable direction, I start working with what I call a plot skeleton, an outline with lots of blanks to be filled in that I’ve created and modified over the years.  Part of it contains the blanks for a screenplay kind of plot.

I also have sections that need to be completed in which my main characters are described.  For my mysteries with ongoing protagonists I don’t necessarily do much with this part since I already know the main people, although I might describe some of the secondary figures who play a large role in the particular story as well as the villain.

If I’m working on a romance, I also go into detail about the external and internal conflicts between the hero and heroine and how they’ll work ‘em all out at the end.  Then there are character arcs.

I’ve added other elements over the years, too, but I don’t always go into detail about them.  They’re good reminders, though, about other points that each story may need to address.

Next, I put together a synopsis.

Years ago, this was the time that I instead did a very detailed scene list, describing exactly what would happen and when.  That worked for me at the time, but I now find that I don’t need–or want–something that structured.  My subconscious does a lot of the day-to-day plotting now, and it’ll tell me before I go to sleep at night what the scenes I’ll be working on the next day should contain.

As a result, a synopsis works better for me.   My synopsis may have a different purpose from your synopsis.  I can sometimes sell books in a series, especially mysteries, as “blind” submissions, which means that I don’t always have to describe what they’re about before I enter into a contract with a publisher for them.  On the other hand, I often still write synopses for sales purposes, too.

If I’m writing one mainly for myself, I will still run it by my editor before I get too far ensconced in the story, just in case she sees something she doesn’t like.  I’d rather change it before I head in the wrong direction and need to edit the whole thing later.

Then, as I write the book, I refer often to my synopsis.  Is it an absolute, immutable bible?  Not at all.  But I’m usually sorry if I veer from it too much, since my gut during the initial plotting seems to work better than straying away from what I first thought of.

That’s pretty much it for plotting and me.  Let me know if you’ve got any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them–or plot my next book around them!

Do you have any plotting methods to share with us?

Linda O. Johnston is the author of 27 published novels, with more to come.  She currently writes the Pet Rescue Mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime, a spinoff series from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries, also for Berkley .   The second Pet Rescue Mystery, THE MORE THE TERRIER, will be an October release.   She additionally writes paranormal romance for Harlequin Nocturne–the Alpha Force miniseries about a covert military unit of shapeshifters. The latest one, GUARDIAN WOLF, is an August release.  And watch for Linda’s upcoming Harlequin Romantic Suspense!

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