Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Just Plotting Along

Whenever I teach I'm asked by newbies how to write that boring middle section of the book, the part between the electrifying opening and the dramatic conclusion.

"You mean the plot?" I always reply.

Sayings and axioms abound about plotting, and I'll paraphrase a few here. Elmore Leonard said the famous "Don't write the parts people skip."

Other oft-heard quotes are, "Write a great beginning and a great ending and string them as close together as possible" and "Chase your characters up a tree, then throw rocks at them."

Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler are credited with variations on "When things get boring toward the middle, kill somebody" and "When it slows down have two men burst into the room with guns."

All of these sort of touch on the central idea of plotting, namely, conflict. But none are really helpful except in the most general sense.

So here's what I do.

1. Give the characters at least two goals. A story goal, and a personal goal.

In my Jack Daniels series, the story goal is for Jack to catch the bad guy. Her personal goals are fixing her relationships and getting a good night's sleep.

There's something inherent in the human brain that desires order and completion. We want to fit all the puzzle pieces together and live happily ever after. So the first step on this journey is deciding where to go. This is the first stitch on the way to completing the quilt, and it gets the reader's attention and makes them subconsciously want to see it through to the satisfying conclusion.

2. Don't reveal everything at once.

It's natural, once you have a great idea, to want to spill everything immediately. But suspense, and reader interest, is piqued by the opposite--only give a little at a time. Ask questions, but don't answer them until later.

Questions keep the pages turning. The obvious question, "What happens next?" is what both your characters and your readers should be thinking.

In my book Afraid, both the reader and the main characters have no idea what is attacking the town until the second act; all they get are glimpses and pieces. Figuring things out is a lot more satisfying than being spoon fed.

3. Prevent the characters from reaching their goals.

The boring middle part of the book shouldn't be boring at all. This is the part where the author really gets to antagonize his main characters, heaping more and more conflict on them.

What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your character? Make it happen. What will be impossible for them to overcome? Do it.

Along with being genetically wired to desire completion and order, we also like there to be a struggle before all is well. Adversity, conflict, and tragedy allow for admirable human attributes such as courage, love, and perseverance to blossom. We like winners, especially underdog winners. So heap on the abuse.

4. Subtext is subtext.

Sure, you may have an important theme to the work. Yes, you may love the written word and want to be as eloquent as possible. Of course you want to explore human nature, make the reader think about deep issues, and create realistic characters with complex motivations.

But don't do any of that at the expense of the story, dammit.

A story, in it's purest form, is: "Here's a mess, clean it up."

We're storytellers. Not charactertellers. Not themetellers. Not poets. The goal of a story is to present a problem, then solve the problem.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

But don't base your career on an exception.

We've been a species of storytellers as long as we've had a written history, and probably longer. The Epic of Gilgamesh is over 5000 years old, but the basic formula still remains the same.

Here's a mess, clean it up.

But Joe, you want me to follow a formula? Aren't formulas cliche and derivative and the work of hacks?

Not if you do a good job.

My wife hates going to the movies with me, because I always whisper to her what is going to happen next. It's not that the movies are the work of hacks. It's just that the more you understand about the storytelling process, the better you can predict it.

Of course, once you're able to predict it, you can do the unpredictable.

This isn't about muses or inspiration or magic or creativity. It's more like architecture than art. Yes, you can be dynamic and expressive and imaginative, but there are still rules.

Learn the rules.


Anonymous said...

*laughs* Sadly, that question might have come from me!

I think it's a problem of all the writers who start out with "What if..." scenarios.

We start with a neat idea.

But an idea isn't a plot.

We create a world in which that idea could exist.

But a world is not a plot.

We put characters in the world and have them interact with that idea.

But characters are not a plot.

Storytelling is plot. It's a skill, and it's not always easy to get out, but I totally agree that it's the heart of the process. It doesn't matter how incredible your world, how engaging your characters, and how ground-breaking your idea...

...without a plot, all you've got is a paperweight.

JA Konrath said...

Nicely put, Tami.

Anonymous said...

Newbie here. Well put, Joe, and Tami too. This is a problem I know firsthand. I finished the first draft of my first novel a couple of months ago and started revisions last week. The draft has a number of problems (and that number has a popular search engine named after it), one of which is that when I started it, I wasn't very familiar with the basic three-act structure for novels. As a result, my middle sags all the way down to the basement, and the ending comes out of nowhere. I'm trying to fix it on the second draft.

At the same time, I'm outlining my next novel (I didn't outline the last one at all), and I'm working hard to get the structure right early in the process -- especially that all important Act Two -- so that the revision process can be more about the paint and the window treatments, and less about replacing the support beams and load-bearing walls.

Davin C. Goodwin said...

Tami, you're not alone. I also asked that question at one of Joe's classes.....

A personal goal is a great suggestion. I'm in the middle part of my WIP, and I am getting a little bogged down. Expanding on the persoanl goal(s) might help a bit...

But shouldn't the personal goals seamlessly blend with the "story" goals?

That's the hard part......

JA Konrath said...

But shouldn't the personal goals seamlessly blend with the "story" goals?

Think of it like a smoothie. It does blend, but it is made of up many separate ingredients.

Look at Vertigo. It was a muder mystery, where the hero was afraid of heights. Two goals there--catch the killer, overcoming the fear. Naturally, it ended with confronting the killer on a high tower.

We don't have to meticulously plan every single thing that's going to happen to our hero. The fun of writing is the spontaneous directions it takes, and spontaneously building on previous bits. But it still comes down to conflict, and for there to be conflict, there must be goals.

JA Konrath said...

especially that all important Act Two

I've never consciously thought, "and now Act 2 begins" when I was writing something. I don't restrict myself like that. But I am aware of what my characters need to do, and what I need to do, in order to keep the story moving forward.

The first act is being introduced to the goals and the conflicts.

The second act is the conflicts escalating and becoming more in focus.

The third act is when the characters figure it out what needs to be done and then go and do it.

They don't have to be 33% each, and there can be plenty of twists and turns and playing with structure.

But ultimately it is cleaning up a mess.

Anonymous said...

One trick I use to keep the middle going is to give EVERY SINGLE character a secret (in addition to goals). That way, I can put any two characters together, and, as they each pursue their own goals, they keep bumping against each others' secrets, confounding simple interviews, creating red herrings, and introducing more questions instead of spoonfeeding answers.

Henry Perez said...

Very well said, Joe.

I’m in the process of wrapping up the outline for my second book, and I can echo each point that you made.

I had the opening for this book more than a year ago, even before I’d finished writing KILLING RED. I knew the ending at roughly the same time.

Here’s what I’ve discovered during the process of plotting two thrillers——the middle is actually the most fun to write.

Most openings are tightly structured devices. That’s not to say there isn’t ample room for invention and creativity, but if you’re writing a crime novel there are certain specific marks that you must hit. Otherwise, your readers might not be drawn in early enough to want to continue reading.

Endings, by necessity, are a product of what came before. Sure, the goal is to keep the reader asking, “How will it end,” as long as possible. But the resolution cannot be truly independent. Even the most surprising and satisfying conclusions are usually the result of a well-crafted set-up.

The middle section, or second act, however, offers the storyteller an opportunity to stretch out quite a bit. This is where you can create that sequence that stays with the reader long after they’ve finished the book. It's where you can introduce interesting and memorable minor characters. It’s also where you can take some chances, push yourself and your characters.

Yes, there are rules here, also——avoid writing any scenes that fail to advance the plot, keep ratcheting up the conflict——but these demands are much more general.

Finally, any mistakes made in the middle portion of a novel are usually the easiest to fix. On the other hand, if you’re told that your opening fails to engage the reader, that’s a major concern. Likewise, if the ending doesn’t work it may be a sign of larger structural issues, and that can be a very big deal.

But fixing the middle is often just a matter of trimming something, or better yet adding some action or killing off a character. You know, the fun stuff.

JA Konrath said...

Good tip on secrets, Adrian.

Nice to see you here, Henry, and I agree. The middle is also where the writer can misdirect, drop clues, introduce sub-plots, and generally stretch his creative wings. There is a lot more leeway.

I know you're good at second acts because I read and blurbed Killing Red. Cool cover.

Gayle Carline said...

This post is definitely a keeper. I'm finding that an outline is helpful for keeping that middle part moving forward, but not at such breakneck pace that I reach the final curtain too soon. Actually, it's not so much an outline as a list of "things I need to introduce/address". In addition, I occasionally throw monkeywrenches into the main character's scheme to see what she will do. Which is a lot of fun, altho I don't recommend trying that with people in real life. They get pretty pissy.

Unknown said...

"We're storytellers, not themetellers" is valuable advice. I find myself intoxicated by a theme or symbols, and then rewrite to bring out the story.

Thans for helping us "newbies."

Aim said...

This is a very timely post for me. I picked up one of my WIP with the intent of finishing it (duh) and was totally stuck with where to go next. This helped me think it through a bit and try to decide if giving the characters goals would propel or kill the story. You Rock!

PokerBen said...

Joe, awesome post! I really enjoyed it.

"Here's a mess, clean it up." - brilliantly/blatantly said.

I wish you posted more often, I get so much from each of your posts.

Jim said...

Joe, very good insight for those starting out. I have never personally thought of writing in terms of a beginning, middle and end. What I do is start the book with a bang and then let it spin increasing out of control (typically as you suggest, with more and more conflict). The secret is to keep that conflict going until the very last page and then not only wrap it up, but shock the reader at the same time.

PokerBen said...

Also, just wanted to say how anxious I am to read "Killing Red" Henry, it sounds great!

Leslie said...

Wow! Where do you teach? I'd LOVE to take your classes.

Joan Mora said...

Enjoy your blog--really helpful! I like your direct style. Thanks for the hints. Timely, as I'm plotting a new manuscript.

Anonymous said...

This is a very smart post--it's got meat to it. Thanks for your insight into what is important and what can be left for later.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Familiar, yet very useful advice Joe.

Sadly, LIM is not in the cards for me. Think you'll attend B'Con next year though?

Henry Perez said...

Hey Ben, thank you for the kind words! I hope you'll let me know what you thought of Killing Red after you read it.

Jude Hardin said...

Story goals, personal goals, and also scene goals. Scene goals might lead the character one step closer to his/her story goal, or they might lead down a dead end street. Either way, they help move the story forward through the second act.

Stacey Cochran said...

Random Google Adsense Update.

Yesterday, I made $26.00 in a single day from the ad on

This is by far the most I've made in a single day this fall, but just for the sake of argument that would be about $9,490 annually if I could maintain.

The numbers have been closer to averaging about $3/day... or a little over a thousand/year.

I've received two checks so far from Google, and I've started a spreadsheet to divert the money into publishing.

Basically, the thousand+ dollars I'll make in the next year will go directly into paying for cover art, ARC copies for books, postage for sending out review copies, etc.

And it's all a numbers game. The more eyes you have on the site (provided the content is appropriately meeting visitors' expectations), the more money you'll make.

Depending on how this goes in 2009, I may actually have a business model in place to start my own publishing company by 2010.

Ad money pays for books and advances, books in-turn sell for profit, diverting more money back into website, author interviews, publicity, etc.

As always, check out for more info.

God willing, I'll maintain my Google page rank in the coming year (if that falls off, the money will dry up very quickly).

JA Konrath said...

Congrats, Stacey.

Check out CreateSpace. I've been thinking about how to use that to my advantage.

Stacey Cochran said...

Congrats, Stacey.

Check out CreateSpace. I've been thinking about how to use that to my advantage.

Thanks, Joe. I used CreateSpace a year or so ago to produce a DVD, which has sold about 200 copies to date (more than tripling the original upfront cost).

Now they have a book "ProPlan" publishing program (I just looked this up). The ProPlan is free through December, and here's how the base price per unit for a 228-page 6x9 Trade Paperback compares with Lulu.

CreateSpace (with free ProPlan) - $3.58/unit

Lulu - $9.06/unit

Guess which one I'm going to use.

Blair K. said...


Love your books and blog! Found my way here from your wonderful Absolute Write post about bookstore signings. (Which I'm preparing to do next month, when my first book, a Cajun music memoir, comes out. Gulp.)

But now I'm starting to write fiction, so I loved this post. Especially the line about "it's more like architecture than art."

I just completed the first draft of a mystery, during NaNoWriMo month. ( A crazy idea, I know, but it helped me deal with pre-book jitters for my "real" book.)

Under pressure of time, I basically wrote a bunch of linked scenes, where bad stuff kept happening and the main character kept trying to figure it out. I figured it would be too spare and disjointed, and that eventually I'd have to add a lot more transitional stuff, background, etc. It was so different from my first book.

But after re-reading, I think I won't need as much as I thought. It's supposed to be a different rhythm than nonfiction. If I add in the "parts that people skip" I'll be working against myself. Yes, it needs lots and lots of revision--but probably not that kind! Your post really drives it home.

Thanks again from an ex-Chicagoan.

Blair Kilpatrick
Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music (U. Press of Mississippi, 2009.)

Anonymous said...

I know I'm incredibly late to this post, but I'd still like to extend thanks for all the insight here.

Great stuff.

Unknown said...

I agree with you on almost every aspect you mentioned here, except the part about characters. I belive that even if you have a very good plot, if you lack the character development then your story will not go anywhere. Your readers will find them boring and unimaginative and since your story will not move forward without the characters, the plot alone will not save it. For me a good plot is just as important as great characters. One cannot exist without the other.