Plot/Storyline: Where Do We Go From Here?

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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Without a plot there is no story, just words on a page. So how do we create a good story? How do we go about making a plot work from beginning to end? We find out this week when our author panel discusses just that. As I mentioned in last week’s post on The Writing Process, there is no right or wrong to this, just different authors tackling the task in different ways. And if you’re new to this blog series and would like to meet our panel members, check out my introductory post to learn about the immense talent we have on board. As is often the case, life got in the way this week for a few of our panel members, so our panel only numbers ten this week, but they’ve all pitched in with some really great answers to my questions. So, without further ado, let’s Ask the Authors.

What do you think the function of story is?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture To make sure the story has a beginning, middle, and ending, and revolves around the plot, coming to a final conclusion. There seems to be a trend these days for the plot being shaky, and the story not coming to a final conclusion. Writers are imitating television story lines that go on forever, and this can be bothersome with a 400 or 500-page novel if there is no ending.

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) Touching the emotions of the reader.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre At its heart, the function of any story is to entertain. Whether you call it giving the reader an escape, or creating worlds, or whatever. At the end of the day, if it’s not entertaining, they’re less likely to read it; if they don’t read it, then nothing else much matters.

Now, how do you go about that?

Well, first and foremost, remember your goal IS to entertain. That means different things at different times, but mainly it means engaging the reader. Get them to like your hero and hate your villain. Get them to laugh at the funny spot and cry at the sad spot. Give them a rollercoaster ride. And make them care so much about those things that they can’t put your story down, they stay up until 3am saying, “Just one more chapter…” they get to the end and hate to see the story come to a close. They don’t want to say goodbye to these amazing new friends they’ve made.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak To present the author’s point of view on something, usually for entertainment purposes, but not always–sometimes a story is a call for justice, or a commentary on the state of the world or whatever.  The important part is that the author has a particular way of seeing things that their audience appreciates.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman To entertain and to provide an escape from the every day stress or mundaneness of everyday life.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil To entertain the reader.

What are the elements of a good plot?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture The plot can be simple or complicated with many twists. Depending on the genre, the author doesn’t want to stray too far from the main cause that sets the story in motion, so make sure the plot is solid and moves like a well thought out chess game.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre It has to move fast. I always give the analogy of a roller coaster: it needs some ups and some downs, some twists and turns, some fast places and some slower places. Without a hill, there is no drop. In order for something to be perceived as going fast, there needs to be a slower section. But for the most part, plots need to go from one interesting thing to another, and they need to do it as fast as possible. So we need to have “interesting things.” Hmm. What are those in your story? (They are things that a majority of people would consider interesting in a certain circumstance) and we need to go from one to the other quickly (that’s pace). One other big element of a good plot is, it needs interesting characters the reader can relate to.

Most of that isn’t hard to do, either. But where new writers screw up is they put too much extraneous information in the story, like describing the fact that the guy lives in a yellow, split level ranch home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms – I mean, who cares? If the police in your story are looking for a bank robber and witnesses say the bank robber ran into a yellow, split level ranch home, then that matters. Otherwise it probably does not. But that’s where people mess up their stories. They have good ideas, but they take too long to get to them and they make us wade through things that aren’t interesting. Alfred Hitchcock said, “A good story is life with the boring bit taken out.” That’s right. Anything you can’t read six times without wanting to skim it, that’s got to go.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Ehhhh…a year ago I would have been able to answer this with great confidence.  Now I’m not so sure.  I’ve been reading a lot more literary fiction lately, and it turns some of my assumptions on their heads.  I think I have to go with, “A series of events that present the author’s point of view.”  For example, look at the movie Pulp Fiction.  Why were the events put in the order they were, out of sequence?  Why not a different out-of-sequence order?  I’m sure there’s a reason, but I think what it comes down to is, “That was just how the director, Quentin Tarrantino, thought it would work best at the time.”  I do plan to pick the movie apart so I can kind of reconstruct what he was thinking and why he made the judgments he did, but I’m not that far yet.  It’s fascinating.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Conflict, resolution, and character growth.

It doesn’t matter how good your story is if you can’t get anyone to read it. The ‘hook’ is the angle used to grab the readers attention and make them want to read more, usually found at the beginning of the story, before they have a chance to lose interest.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart The core aspects of humanity: revenge, love, hate, betrayal, the end of days, friendship, war, sex. Readers do not want stories about every-day life, they want every-day life exposed, nude and straightforward told. For instance: the married woman who loves the neighbor next door; the man getting his family ready for Armageddon; a father who betrays his son to conquer his son’s wife; a revenge plan that does not work out; and so on. People live up to these things in real life and they read to know what happened there if that might happen in real life and how he/she can get ideas on those issues. I believe people do not read just for reading; they read because there is a link between themselves and that plot, and that connection should be largely understood and perhaps even studied. My novel Open/Pierre´s journey after war deals with war and revenge, there is a lot of sex elements mixed into the story. War walks hand-in-hand with sex, and the element of revenge is one of the most primitive instincts we have for self-defense. My plots are all into that: our core instincts.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Characters that the reader can connect with and or relate to, with a background rather than just springing up on the first page. A story that goes somewhere – i.e. some tension or event that the character must deal with. A good plot should also have a beginning to introduce, a middle to cover the “event” and an end to bring it to a conclusion.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Characters and a unique plot.  You can have the most original story, but no one will want to read it if they don’t connect with the characters.  You can have the coolest characters, but another run-of-the-mill story will make readers lose interest.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I think it is important to have a build up, then some action and of course romance and then the wind down.

What is the best hook you’ve ever written?

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) For both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, “Media Icon Dorothy Kilgallen was killed because she was ‘the reporter who knew too much.'”

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Hooks are fun, but they are also work. I will usually write several chapters (often a lot more) before deciding on the hook for the story, but usually I have my story idea in mind and I kick around the best way to open it and hook the reader.

Think about the most interesting thing in your first chapter. Try to start with that, and then address it as close to the first line in the book as possible, in the most interesting way you can think of. Sometimes that’s an argument. Sometimes that’s action.

Here are a few of my faves:

The killer clutched and re-clutched the big knife, his heart pounding as he eyed his prey. (Double Blind)

We immediately know we have a killer. That’s kinda gripping. Prey = victim, so this line evokes an instinctive predator-prey thing; we almost immediately imagine a little deer being stalked by a big, ferocious lion. Clutching and re-clutching indicates nervousness or excitement or fear or apprehension, but it gets the reader into the mindset of the killer, which is intriguing; most people aren’t killers, so they are interested right away. I’m really proud of that one.

Here’s another:

“Call 911! CALL 911!”

But it needs a little context, so I’ll give you the rest.

“Call 911! CALL 911!”

The man’s shouts ripped through the tasting room of scenic Hillside Winery. At the counter, Mallory lowered her brochures for 2017 vintages and glanced over her shoulder, unable to see who had called out. The other customers, two dozen or so elderly tourists and a smaller group that called the server by name, were looking around, too.

With confusion working its way into their expressions, nobody moved or called 911.

The man’s voice rose, straining with fear and urgency as his words boomed down the hallway and spilled over them. “Somebody call 911! There’s been an accident in the parking lot!”

A robust fellow, gray at the temples but broad in the shoulders and belly, pushed away from the tasting counter and headed toward the shouts.

“Martin.” The woman next to him reached out for his arm. “Don’t. You’re not on duty.”

He didn’t break stride. “A cop is never off duty.” (An Angel On Her Shoulder)

This one opens a chapter, but I love it:

Melissa had been able to pick locks as a party trick since she was a child, just never while somebody was shooting at her. (The Navigators)

Every day for years, Gina passed by the old white tower, often not paying any attention to it at all. Today, it called to her. (The Water Castle)

My absolute favorite is this one:

“Daddy?” (Poggibonsi)

I know, I know; you aren’t supposed to start a story with dialogue because it’s allegedly disorienting to the reader. I said it was a fave; I didn’t say it was good. But in defense of it, we learn a lot in that one word, and I don’t find it disorienting. “Daddy” means we have a child speaking to their father. Usually, daddy is used by a smaller child, more likely than not, a girl. And she is asking a question, so we kinda wanna know what she wants to know, but we’ve adhered to Vonnegut’s rule of making a character want something, and we did it in one word. She wants something; we just don’t know what it is yet.

That’s a lot from one word.

“No way.” Roger shook his head and left the kitchen. “You f*ckers are crazy.”

(The Navigators)

That’s the actual story opening to The Navigators, but it’s a good idea to start each chapter with a good hook if you can, as noted above. (And there’s no words with asterisks in the middle in the story.)

Say what you want about how hooky my hooks are, but overall they tend to grab readers and pull them in.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Right now, I’m in love with my near-future thrillers, so I’ll give you those:
–A near-future detective investigates a serial killer who knows what his victims really want…and will allow him to kill them in order to get it.
The Giver was what they called him.  He would give you whatever you wanted, for a price.  It was uncanny.  The Giver would find you when you were at your lowest point, offer you exactly what you needed, what you had to have more than life itself. (Mindsight, by my pseudonym Dean Kenyon) 
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I have a future story planned for my Unexpected series, but I have written a 5k section of it for an anthology that releases on 12 Oct. I think that must have a pretty good hook, because the anthology’s publisher has asked me if I intend for the story to be expanded, because she needs more! She was very relieved when I told her it would be a future work in progress to be expanded into a full novel of my Unexpected series.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan  You tell me.  😉

The stakes in the story give characters motivation to act and also let us know what is at risk if the characters are unsuccessful in their quest. But, you can’t save the world in every story. Sometimes the stakes are personal and affect only the protagonist. Other times the stakes are bigger and affect more than just the main character. Either way, the character is motivated to take action.

What types of stakes do you create for your characters?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture My plots tend to be simple, as my stories are character driven. The hero is always pitted against great odds, but s/he never allows the enemy to have the upper hand. Even injured, or seriously wounded, the hero goes forward. Whether it’s to save a small child or New York City, the goal is the same. Press forward.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre You don’t have to save the world in every book, but you might be saving the world from the perspective of one person. A lost puppy is the end of the world to a five-year-old girl. Robbing a bank and getting away with $1 million might be the world to a drug dealer who will be killed if he doesn’t get the money to the loan shark by noon. Being caught in a foxhole with bullets flying around your head is definitely the whole world in a story about a Marine storming the beach at Normandy.

So, the bigger the stakes, the better, but big is relative. If your reader cares about that five year old girl, the story about her lost puppy can be just as gripping as the one about the Marine getting shot at.

And the more emotion you pack in, that makes the ride worth taking.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I think a lot of my characters’ stakes are very personal and internal, but I love it when those personal stakes have external consequences.  “Who am I?  Do I get to stay a person, or do I get brainwashed?” That’s a lot of my characters.  But often the characters are balancing those stakes against letting murderers go free, letting people get eaten by monsters, letting the world end, things like that.  To paraphrase, “What good does it do someone to save the world, if they lose their own soul in the process?”

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy It depends on the plot. All characters have their own motivations. In those motivations comes the character growth. Save the world, save the girl, save themselves. It depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman For my paranormal stories, I create tension between the species – my Unexpected series is vampire and wolf. The first in the series deals with bringing peace. My characters have their own personal issues to deal with, such as grief at a partner who has died. In the meantime, rival packs are plotting against each other.

For my historical story, I had political machinations that interfered with the simple every day life, providing the tension as the characters had to navigate around the plotting of others to make their own way as they wanted.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I like to have personal stakes as opposed to “save the world.”  For example, in GOAT CHILDREN, Keziah struggles to come to terms with her grandmother’s dementia.  She isn’t saving the world, unless you count her own world as it crumbles.  Keziah must realize the grandmother she once loved is gone and discover how to best help the woman in her place.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil That varies from story to story, but I think since I write mainly romance, that there has to be some angst between the H & h.  And, there is always the risk of losing the love.  Maybe there is another involved and you have a triangle, but this risk is always there.

In any story, there is certain information the reader needs to know, like backstory, but big blocks of exposition can tire the reader and cause them to lose interest.

In your writing, how do you avoid info-dumps?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Here’s what I do, when I can. My characters may be driving on a highway, and one notices all the automobiles are black, then mentions a scene from their youth in conversation, like a country community during harvest, with lots of green tractors on the road. Our hero responds with a mission or period when s/he was in Europe and on the road to Monte Carlo driving a red VW, while the road was packed with black Ferraris. I try to make the back-story part of what is going on at the time.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre How to avoid info dumps, right? I’ll tell you the secret. Ready? Because this is something that almost every new writer struggles with. The solution is simple.

You might need a bunch of information about that character or about that city or whatever. Write it. Write it all. Write it down in as much detail as you need. Fill pages of notebooks or volumes of computer files.

And then leave it out of the book.

Yep. You read that right.

Characters should appear on page 1 as fully formed human beings. The story rarely begins at their birth and ends at their death, recounting everything in their lives that happened in between including potty training and every Friday dinnertime pizza topping discussion. Nobody wants to read that.

The reader knows the character had a life before the story started, so let your character act like it. Leave out the backstory.

If you feel you absolutely positively have to have some sort of backstory, write it down, only pull the essential few pieces, and then drip them into your story here and there. For example, you can explain away a ten-year relationship by having a main character’s friend say, “Well, that’s what Janice did to him.” There we go. There was a Janice. They spent time together. She did something to him, and he’s still feeling the effects of whatever it was.

One well-placed sentence replaces 5,000 boring non-related words of backstory.

Spread those little pearls throughout your story and let the reader sew them together – and reach their own conclusions about it. No spoon feeding.

For the most part, the writer needs that backstory information. The reader does not. Words to live by.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak My characters, I should note, lie a lot.  Sometimes they outright lie, sometimes they lie by omission, sometimes they just tell the story from their own point of view. So what I do is plan for the reader to find out a superficial level of what’s going on, something that doesn’t take a lot of time to explain, but that is fundamentally untrue in some way.  The truth comes out gradually, as it tends to do, which means that I don’t have to give a whole bunch of truth at any given moment.  I also bury a lot of info in descriptions of things.  Like the character will assume that everyone knows a lot of stuff about fairies in the 1920s and kind of just say something like, “I got a Daimler because they never make ’em out of fae,” and you’re like, “Wait, what do they make out of fae?!?”  I try to make it not feel like an infodump, but the answer to a question you had on your mind anyway.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy There’s an incredibly good scene in the original Terminator movie where Sarah Connor is with Kyle Reese and they are in a police car trying to get away from both the T800 and the cops. In that scene, full of adrenaline and action, Kyle explains the entire plot of the movie. Its a big chunk of exposition, but you don’t realize it because he’s telling it during an action scene.

That’s just an example on how you can drop important backstory into your novel. Use pacing.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne It is a slippery slope to give just the right amount of information away without boring the reader to tears! It took me several years and some rather nasty reviews to learn to fling only a cupful of information across the page as opposed to dumping an entire gallon of water at once. Since I primarily write in the suspense/mystery/thriller genre, readers expect a fast-paced story, not one laced with six sentences dedicated to describing a blade of grass or the color of a character’s eyes. It all depends upon the genre and reader expectation. Romance novels needs steamy, drawn-out love scenes full of vivid detail, so if the author skims over certain pieces of vital information, the reader might feel cheated.

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) Pace and good transitions.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart That is a great point-not too much information and not lack of it: the right balance of everything! I read nothing that over explains things; it can be a film, a book or a teacher during a class; so I try to avoid it by all costs with my readers. Sometimes, I think I prefer less information and leave gaps for the readers to fill them in than to overexpose them to a boring extensive description that simply bores them.

Actually, I have noticed there are two kinds of literature, one that is descriptive and that in engendered in time and space; somehow, it is grounded in that place. There are readers for those and they hate anything that is too subtle and not told in the book, endings that are not clear, and so on. On the other hand, there is another kind of literature that is classical, beyond time and place, it is more universal, and this one uses less information and is more grounded into emotions. These are the classics. What I write has more to do with the last one!

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I work in shorter sections of back story, sometimes I might use a couple of paragraphs of a flashback, providing the information the reader needs. Although sometimes a simple line can provide insight to a characters state of mind from their backstory – like this for an example – {Years of anger, hatred and jealousy powered behind the fall of his arm as he dropped the statue with as much force as he could on the back of his brothers head.}

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I always have critique partners read through to make sure info-dumps didn’t slip through!  While writing, though, I try to be careful to space backstory out a little at a time in each chapter.  If we get deep into the story and some information hasn’t come to light yet, I let it go – it must not be essential.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I usually throw the backstory in gradually instead of all at once.  Giving the reader tidbits here and there helps to keep them reading on.

Prologues. Some authors love them, others find them to be irrelevant, an unnecessary detour.

Are you in favor of prologues? What is the function of a good prologue?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture A prologue can help at times, but I’m not in favor of them. I used them in my JUR series. In fact, the first novel almost won an award for the prologue. It set the stage for the telling of the story. In my more recent novel, Pangaea: Eden’s Planet, the short prologue helped define the commander of the mission, so the reader understood her motivations. Even though the mission failed due to no fault of hers, she still feels responsible for the others.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne I love them, especially when reliving events in the past which have lasting impacts on the lives of the characters in the present. The same is true for epilogues. Both show the start and ending of the “event” and the reaction of the characters.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Here is the problem a prologue, and I will give you the best, most famous example of a prologue, ever: Star Wars. The very first Star Wars, back in the 70s, started out with that rambling scroll that kind of went up the screen and disappeared off into space, telling us all about how it was a dark time for the rebels or somebody, and blah, blah, blah… Then, in the first two minutes of the story, we see everything that prologue just told us. That’s proof that the prologue wasn’t necessary. (But because it’s become iconic, they have to start all those movies with that. Hey, if it made me a billion dollars, I would, too.) The fact is, if you skip that part and start right out with that little spaceship shooting at the big spaceship, the next 120 seconds tell you everything in the prologue – so you didn’t need the prologue.

And that’s my point. They’re bad for several reasons.

Most people who feel like they need a prologue are really not writing a good story in the prologue. They have this great story idea that comes later, and they feel like they have to spoon feed the reader to get them up to speed. Usually that’s not the case.

Additionally, they may write a really good story once the story starts, but they write a really horrible prologue. It’s all tell, tell, tell, and summaries, and stuff that isn’t written well or written to be engaging and interesting.

I almost always skip a prologue. I would say 90% of the time, the story is not better for having had the prologue. It’s often just an info dump-y backstory we have to wade through until the fun starts. Why do that to a reader? Why give them a chance to put the book down?

Some of the most engaging stories you read are stories where you kind of have to figure out what’s going on. Like this thing is already happening and I need to run to catch up.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Depends on the genre.  How are you gonna write a thriller with no prologue?!?

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I’ll use a prologue if I deem it necessary or if I feel I want to have it in there. The thing people need to understand about writing is that you don’t need to be pigeonholed into all these set rules. Write however you want to write. Let the story and the characters guide you, not the rules.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I do use prologues. Depending on my story, it can be the simplest form of setting up the rest of the plot, providing a simple introduction of the history of the characters and allowing the reader to engage with wanting to know more and how that introduction effects that character – usually my prologues are set years before the main story takes place, and can be the best way to avoid a major info dump later in the story.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I used to love prologues until my past agent told me to nix them because no one ever reads a prologue. Since then, I’ve tried hard not to use them. The only time a prologue seems necessary is to deliver a scene that took place years in the past.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Most of my books have prologues.  To me, the prologue is the hook.  It’s what makes the reader want to read more.

Subplots help to keep readers from getting bored when the main plot slows down, but they can also confuse the issues if not written in carefully. If they aren’t wrapped up by the end of the story, they can leave readers feeling cheated. Yet, they are vital to making your story believable, because real life isn’t linear and focused on just one thing, and neither should your story be.

What is your approach to subplots? Do you write subplots in purposefully, or just let them develop and see what happens? How do you assure that all the subplots are resolved by the end of the story? Or do you leave a few dangling, with the promise of more to come for the reader?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Hmm. In my novel, The Man In The Black Fedora, a subplot – or minor mystery – surrounds the man in the black fedora. He and his team (agents) rescue a young nightclub singer from the mob who is intent on killing her. She is brought into the team’s organization, but she isn’t told who the mysterious man is. The agents know who their boss is, and the reader can easily figure it out, but he remains a mystery to the nightclub singer. Throughout the story she keeps guessing at his secret identity, but the agents won’t tell her. About three-quarters into the story I do reveal his identity to the girl, and got in trouble for it. Readers said I should have waited till the end of the story to reveal the secret. However, there were already two mysteries to be solved, and I was merely using the man in the black fedora’s secret as a minor subplot, figuring I could end that mystery any time during the story. From the readers’ responses, I should have held on to the secret until the end of the story, though, (sigh).

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne There are subplots in the majority of my novels because in reality, everyone has their own agenda whether known or not. Your main character may be working on solving a murder because they loved the person who died, yet another character might be assisting in the investigation for reasons rather on the shady side! Subplots offer a great opportunity to steer the reader into a different direction while you build up a shocking twist with another character.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Subplots are awesome. They are what makes the story world go around. You have your one main story and then you have lots of little stories going on underneath, and in each one of those, we should have some sort of challenge that a character is trying to overcome. So in your main story you’re gonna have a big giant obstacle to overcome, and in your little subplots, you’re going to have smaller stuff to overcome. Overcoming the challenges or obstacles in the story is what makes the story really interesting, and typically the bigger the steaks and the bigger the obstacles, the more interesting story.

The same is true for tension. The more tension, the better the story, and subplots allow for additional tension – as long as they affect the main story somehow.

Usually I try to have all my subplots wrapped up by the end. My mind works that way. How do I do that? I outline. I look at the pieces of the puzzle I arrange them until I’m satisfied, and I make sure that all the loose ends are tied up by the last chapter. As a reader, I enjoy seeing that happen, and as a writer, I can tell you most audiences do, too. (To ensure the loose ends get tied up, make lots and lots of notes to yourself. More on that later.)

DeAnna Knippling

deannak With my ghostwriting stories, the subplots kind of have to be wrapped up tight.  I find that ghostwriting clients aren’t in for as challenging plots as I am in my own work 🙂  In my own work, I may leave a few subplots still dangling, but only if that’s kind of what the story is about.  I have one series that’s a near-future thriller, (Mindsight, by my pseudonym Dean Kenyon), and how difficult it is to really know everything that’s going on in the information era.  And that character, he just lies about all kinds of things and the books are a loose kind of report for his private detective agency.  So he kind of…just leaves some things out.  Like, if he’s going to do something that could get him fired or put someone in danger.  Oops, I forgot to write that down.  He always has a logical reason for it.  I try to hint at what he really did, though.  I’m using some of the loose threads in the next book, too.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My stories develop all on their own. Subplots and all. For my Unexpected series, a couple of those subplots are started in one book, and will conclude in the next book, although there are no cliff hangers as such.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Subplots always happen as the story progresses.  I love writing from alternate points of view, and as each character becomes more complex, more subplots blossom. Critique partners are great at helping me catch subplots that don’t have a solid resolution.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I’ve been called many times a big tease.  So my subplots always promise more to come.  I keep them open so that I can continue that story in another book.  I write a lot of series and this works well.  Keeps the series from dying too soon.

This question is for those authors who are plotters, and like to have the storyline laid out before they begin writing. What story structure do you prefer? (i.e. Simple Outline, Bracket method, Three Act Format. Beat Sheet.)

Mark Shaw

MarkAtSFTS (1) Chapter Headings with some description of content.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre Hmm. I don’t know what any of those things are…

When I get an idea for a story, I use an outline. My outline can be as simple as for main points. Romeo and Juliet, for example, has four main outline points:

  • Boy and girl want to be together.
  • Their parents don’t want them to be together.
  • They get together anyway.
  • Everybody dies.

In that basic structure, you know we’re going to have these people meet and struggle and get together and pay a huge price because of it. The subplots go in underneath that. Sword fights! Intrigue! Here and there, some comedy.

So for my story, I make a list of my main story points just like I did for Romeo and Juliet above, and then I lay out smaller points underneath for ideas and subplots and whatnot. By doing that, I know when my story is going. Subplots, too. As I write, I will get really cool ideas that can be inserted in, and I love, love, LOVE to think of a twist that nobody sees coming. Like halfway through you find out the guy you’ve been rooting for is actually a bad guy. (Well, from his perspective, he’s not a bad guy; he just has a cross purpose with somebody else in the story.)

My method is to think of all those little ideas and lay them out, and then see what works best, and then start writing. It gives me a series of writing prompts every day – the next bullet point on the list! Goodbye writer’s block. And guess what? If the bullet point doesn’t interest you very much, so you don’t want to write it – delete it from the list. The list should only be really interesting things that are happening in your story.

This allows you to oversee what happens in your story and make sure it goes where you want, but if you decide Romeo and Juliet should live happily ever after, hey – go with that! It’s your outline. It’s to guide you to the best story, not lock you into an arbitrary set of rules.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I plot on some things, especially when I ghostwrite. I use a simplified form of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
-Set up the story.
–Fun & games (a.k.a. “the promise of the premise”).
–Bad guys close in.
–Stormin’ the castle/final battle.
It doesn’t really matter what outline you use. The ability to go from “I have an idea!!!” to putting events in some kind of dramatic order is the important part. I feel that if you can “feel” a dramatic order to your events, you can skip the outline and pants it.
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy I do a simple outline with important plot points I want to touch on, character breakdowns, and often resolutions to problems…but not always. Too much plotting kills the story for me.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman On the rare occasions I need to plot – for a tight word count for example, I plan my chapters and will outline my manuscript with chapter heading and a simple line of text as to what is to happen in this chapter.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a storyboard.  It’s a sheet of paper that has 12 squares on it, each square representing a chapter in the book.  I write quick notes on what I want to happen in each chapter and work off that.  Sometimes I will follow that story board to the letter, others the story takes on a life of its own and it gets altered.

There is nothing worse for a reader than to be deeply involved in a story and discover a huge plot hole that the author missed. It could be as simple as the character had on a purple dress three pages back, but now is wearing a blue one, but I guarantee there are readers out there that will find it and make you aware of it.

Do you have methods you employ for avoiding inconsistencies in your story?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture You see this not only in books, but movies also. In one scene her hair is in a bun, the next scene it’s shoulder length. The hero may jump from 160 pounds to 190 pounds in two chapters. File cards come in handy for main characters. Write their descriptions down, and what they’re wearing, if necessary. And keep those file cards handy.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne I once mixed up the sex of a main character’s cat in the third book of a series. One reader ripped me apart for the mistake and to this day, I find the reaction odd. No one can write a perfect book because every single person involved from start to finish is human, which means mistakes will happen. If the biggest criticism I receive during a review is because of such a minor detail then I simply smile, because that means I nailed the big plot points and the only thing they can find to nitpick is a minor one.

I have numerous beta readers and friends read the final draft several times and incorporate their suggestions. I also send the final, final, final draft to my Kindle and listen to the robotic voice speak the words. It is amazing how many little things you can catch that way. Then, I make corrections and the final, final, final, final draft to my editor.

Dan Alatorre

Alatorre PLOT HOLE RULE #1: It’s not a plot hole if nobody notices.

Usually there is enough time between the first draft and the final version of the story for me to be thinking about any loose ends. Things randomly pop up in my head because I want to be sure to not have loose ends, and I think about my story a lot in my non-writing time. Did I remember to explain X? Did I give a reason for Y? I immediately make a note, then go check out if I dealt with the question.

In my most recent story, I wanted to have the killer confront a certain character, but there just wasn’t a convenient way to do it. So I made a note to myself. I had to address that before the final chapter. And I wrote other pieces of the story, but eventually I had to resolve that. If I had not, it would’ve been a plot hole. There have been others, but I become aware of them as I write, and I make a note to tie it up somehow.

Notes are big. Just dash off a line to yourself: Remember to have Mrs Dilger say X. That’s all you need. It’s like a checklist. As you address each one, cross it off the list. As you create each twist, think ahead about how it ties in and makes notes about things you have to do to ensure it does. I might have 30 motes to myself during a story, and at the ed I go through and double check that each one is taken care of.

I think people who outline tend to have far fewer plot holes anyway, and if there are still a few when you finish, your critique partners and beta readers should catch them. If they don’t, well… it’s not a plot hole if nobody notices it.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak With novels, I try to maintain a sheet with character names.  I have the worst time with names.  I find that if I describe the character vividly enough in each scene (which doesn’t mean at great length, just vividly), then I remember what clothes they’re wearing anyway.  If I screw something like that up, it means I did a bad job at the original descriptions, and I try to backpedal and add more details in.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Plotting as we mentioned before. I use a very detailed character sheet so that those things don’t happen.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I re-read for information if I need it. But I avoid most major plot holes by writing scene by scene, chapter by chapter in order, rather than having to sew up scenes that have been written randomly as the inspiration hits. I also have a trusted friend, who is also an author who will read through my manuscript after the first round of edits and tell me if I have missed anything in bringing the story to its conclusion.

Jordan Eliabeth

Jordan I always use an editor and a proofreader, as well as numerous critique partners.  I hate it when something sneaks by.  I’ll be kicking myself for years!

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I am lucky enough to have two editors who are very thorough.  They did deep into my stories and find those plot holes and make sure that they point them out to me.

I’ve been working to improve my interviewing skills, and one thing I’ve learned is that the interviewer must phrase the questions so they won’t be misinterpreted. It seems I still have a way to go in this area. So, for those who read ‘hook’ as ‘book’ in my earlier question, (lol), I figure this is a legitimate question, too.

What is the best book you’ve ever written?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I don’t know. My nonfiction books have probably made more money. I love writing children stories best. The JUR series was my break out series, and actually the most fun to write. But if I were to pick my favorite it would be between The Man In The Black Fedora and Pangaea: Eden’s Planet. Between those two, perhaps I would lean towards The Man In The Black Fedora. Both would make good movies.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne What a tough question and so difficult to answer.

For emotional impact on the ’ol heartstrings, I would say Ruined Wings. The story is a painful reality for far too many people in this world, including a close loved one, which is why I wrote the book and why it’s been turned into a short film. Addiction is a major, worldwide crisis.

The best mystery/suspense/thriller book I’ve written to date would have to be my latest novel, Fatal Agreements. Family secrets, revenge, murder, an old house, and southern charm! What more can you ask for in a novel?

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Thus far, I would have to say Ripper.  The story is a very erotic love story that is engrossing and will leave you on the edge of your seat that takes place around the Jack the Ripper murders.  The ending is a total surprise and will definitely leave the reader with a book hangover.

Well, it looks like most of our panel can agree that the function of story is to entertain and/or present a message, although they may disagree on other things about plot. A plot is like a completed puzzle, with all the pieces fitting together exactly. Those pieces include a beginning, middle and end, but you can’t just place the beginning of one puzzle with the middle and end from other puzzles because they won’t match up right to create a whole picture that’s clear. So, those pieces must contain the right elements, like conflict and resolution, character growth, good tension and pacing and an appeal to the humanity in all of us in order to fit together properly and form a cohesive whole.

There must be something at risk or no one will care enough to read on. The bigger the stakes the more your readers will care. The stakes can be internal or external, but even internal stakes should have external consequences. And there must be obstacles to your protagonist reaching their goals. It can’t be easy. What’s the fun in that? Where’s the tension. I had a professor who was fond of telling us to beat our characters up, and when you think they are as low as they can go, beat them up some more. It makes the triumph when they reach their goal that much sweeter.

Info. dumps can be avoided in several ways including weaving backstory and/or flashbacks into action and dialog. But, it also was suggested that you create questions that readers will then be looking for the answers to and won’t notice its exposition or have your characters lie, giving off subtle hints at things, but not outright telling readers what they need to know. A few authors suggested leaving backstory out, doubting that there is a need for it. And, they may be right in some cases.

Our plotters keep things straight with storyboards or outlines of some sort, and to avoid inconsistancies they use those outlines or make notes, character sheets or filing cards to avoid inconsistancies. Most panel members also utilize critique partners, beta readers and/or editors to help expose plot holes. Having your story read aloud with the author becoming a listener can also be helpful, because you hear things that you may overlook on the page. And I have to agree with Lilly Rayman that writing linearly, rather than jumping around in the story is probably also helpful in this respect.

That wraps up this week’s segment. I want to thank our panel members for all their great input, and thank my readers for joining us and tuning in. I hope you all will pop in next Monday, when Ask the Authors will take a look at “Setting the Tone with Point of View, Tense, Narrative Distance and Voice”.


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