How do you plot an entire mystery novel?
How I craft plot has changed radically over the last four books. With BIG RED TEQUILA, I did very little plotting in advance. I simply began writing, then went back later and tied up all the loose ends, of which there were plenty. With each successive novel, I’ve done more outlining in advance. Strangely, this has made writing no easier — it’s only made the process harder in different ways.
My attitude about plot and how one develops effective pacing is evolving, but below are five points I stand by:
Rick’s top five tips on PLOT
5. Don’t write the parts the reader would skip anyway.
Most readers, from time to time, have skipped over portions of a chapter to get to the “good stuff.” For instance, many readers will skip a long paragraph of description so they can find the next line of dialogue. One trick for keeping the reader’s interest is to zoom in on the content they want to see and leave out the rest. Writers, especially beginning writers, tend to over-explain.
4. Distinguish between mystery and confusion.
It is good to keep the reader guessing. It is bad to keep the reader confused. The key to successful plotting is giving the reader sufficient information to keep them interested and engaged, but not so much information that they no longer care about what will happen next. The plot should be built in layers of compelling questions – “What will he do?” “What is his secret?” “Why does she hate him so much?”The reader should always have at least one question in mind, and be dying to find out the answer.
Beginning writers tend to believe that they must “set things up” before they get into the real meat of the novel. They want to introduce characters, history, and setting before they start on the central dilemma. Chapter one is often limp, because of this. Even worse, some writers are so hesitant to get to the point in chapter one that they put off the action even further by writing a prologue. The problem is, until we know the dilemma, we won’t care about the set-up. Get to the point! Often manuscripts are better if they start with chapter 2.
2. Identify the moral dilemma driving the novel.
The successful novel will haunt a reader because it deals with some ethical or moral dilemma that makes the reader wonder what he or she would do in the protagonist’s place. Action may hold a reader for a chapter. A surface dilemma like a kidnapping or a romance may hold the reader for fifty pages or more, but only a moral dilemma will hold the reader for an entire novel.
1.The protagonist must exert influence to solve the problem, and the antagonist must exert influence to stop the solution.The book must be about conscious choices, carried out in active terms. It must be about conflict. A book about random events happening to passive people will not be compelling. Coincidence is taboo – things can’t just happen. There must be a cause and effect.
How do you develop characters?
Character development is paramount for me. I firmly believe that plot and character development must occur simultaneously. Plot cannot be left to chance. Neither can characters be automatons who carry out actions envisioned in the author’s master plan. Below are some things
I try to keep in mind when developing my characters:
5. Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never.
A character should be primarily defined by the choices he makes, and the actions he takes. How does he respond to violence? How does he respond to love? Secondly, a character must be vividly but deftly describe through his speech, and through the initial view you give the reader (see #4 below). Never stop to explain who a character is when we can watch him in action and decide for ourselves.
4. Be impressionist rather than realistic.
Describe characters as Dickens did – with a single deft stroke. A laundry list of physical traits is realistic, but it is neither memorable nor compelling. A jarring metaphor for the character, or a focus on one mannerism or physical trait, can be very compelling.
3. Do not be afraid to use real people as models, but do not be constricted by your models.
It is very natural to use parts of ourselves or the people we know when creating characters. Do not be afraid to do this because someone might get mad at you. At the same time, let your character develop. Do not force them to do what the real-life model would do. Characters seldom end up exactly like the real people they are based on.
2. The reader does not have to be told everything you know about the character.
It may be critically important to you that your character has blue eyes, or went to Texas A&M. But if these details have no part in the story, the reader will not care. Leave them in your subconscious. If you are having trouble figuring out a character, fill out a character profile, or do some journaling in that character’s voice.
1. Your character must act, not simply be acted upon.
We care about characters because we are interested in the choices they make. We want to boo the villain, cheer the hero, and cry with frustration when the tragic figure makes the wrong move. A character who does not act, but simply receives information and is acted upon by outside forces, is not a character who will compel the reader. Remember, plot is what the characters do next. If the characters do not create the plot, the plot is hollow.