My husband, a nuclear engineer, once mentioned to me that mathematicians try to create elegant formulas. A longer, clunkier one might get the job done, but a simpler, elegant formula is the goal. I realized that should be the goal of writers too–plotting elegantly.
The Bourne Identity
The best way I know to explain plotting elegantly is to use the storyline of the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity. By the way, it’s a terrific international thriller, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read on.
Jason Bourne is pulled out of the ocean by fishermen without any idea of who he is. As he slowly uncovers his past, he believes he’s an assassin for the CIA, a conclusion that sickens him. His handlers are searching for him, thinking he’s gone rogue or turned traitor. Bit by bit, Jason remembers what finally drove him to escape from his life as a government killer and prompted his amnesia.
The writers could have created any number of backstories to explain why Jason rebelled against his handlers. He could have been an angry young man, taking revenge on the world, until that revenge proved worse than his rage. Or he could have been so empty and purposeless that joining the CIA gave him a chance to feel important, like he was making a difference. Then he falls in love with a woman, maybe a doctor, who shows him that all life is sacred.
Those scenarios and others would have worked. But the screenwriters came up with something elegant. Jason finally remembers his last government hit. He was assigned to sneak onboard a yacht and kill the dictator of an African country. Jason slips into the main cabin, puts the gun to the dictator’s head, and stops. The man’s children, ages five to thirteen, have fallen asleep while watching TV with their father. Jason bolts from the cabin. He can’t bring himself to kill a man in front of his children. Or worse, have to kill the children along with their father so there are no witnesses.
The reason for his amnesia is simple and compelling, so elegant. The writers lay some groundwork. While Jason and the woman, who is helping him evade the police, stay a night with her brother, we see Jason hanging around the brother’s children as they play outside in the twilight. That night, the woman finds Jason checking on the children. These scenes have much more meaning after the single, flashback scene at the end when Jason is on the yacht.
Too Many Clients by Rex Stout
Plotting elegantly doesn’t just mean for the overall story. Each plot point can be given an elegant polish. In Too Many Clients, the body of a wealthy, powerful man is found wrapped and left at an excavation site. Detective Archie Goodwin discovers that the man kept an apartment in a nearby building for his many affairs.
When Archie questions the building’s superintendent and his wife, they confess that they found the body in the apartment and moved it so no one would know about the clandestine rooms. Since they’ve admitted to moving the body, maybe they had some role in the man’s death. Archie asks why they covered the body when they left it at the excavation site. The superintendent replies that the man was dead.
From the way the superintendent says it, as if that was the only decent thing they could do, Archie believes he and his wife are innocent of the crime. It’s a small point in the entire novel, but it’s elegantly done.
For more tips on writing plots, click here.
Your turn. What plots have you read or watched that are elegant?
I noticed “elegant plotting” in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie.
When Hastings (the narrator) lets the sleuth, Hercule Poirot, know about the murder of the lady of the house at Styles, Poirot responds like this:
Tears came into his eyes. “In all this, you see, I think of that poor Mrs. Inglethorp who is dead. She was not extravagantly loved – no. But she was very good to us Belgians – I owe her a debt.”
I endeavoured to interrupt, but Poirot swept on.
“Let me tell you this, Hastings. She would never forgive me if I let Alfred Inglethorp, her husband, be arrested now – when a word from me could save him!”
Ah! The elegant Poirot!
I learned to write mysteries from reading about Poirot and Miss Marple in high school. Thanks for the comment!
Hi I’m writing a Mystery and might I ask a question about Clues?
When the “clue” is made known, do I hold off a bit letting the reader know what the Sleuth thinks about it?
I’m just started reading “The Body in the Library”, and there’s a point early on (where I’m at in the reading!) where Miss Marple notices a blonde hair. Marple only makes note of it, then later does something about it. Is this how I should handle clues? I seem to know how to present them, just don’t know how to respond to them: A. When the clue is first introduced, and B. After the clue is introduced.
I’m currently, um, okay, I’m about to read “The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery”.
How to handle a clue depends on whose POV you are writing from. I write in first-person from the POV of my detective. So whatever she’s thinking, I need to let the reader in on.
Let’s say Rae. my main character, finds a footprint. “I didn’t think it was made by anyone in the house. Too big. And why was such a big man standing in the Smiths’ flowerbed?” Later, she works this clue into her theory that solves the mystery.
Or you can just note the clue. Rae looks into a dropped backpack. “Just books, keys, and cough drops.” But later in the mystery cough drops tie the criminal to the crime and Rae remembers where she saw them.
If you are writing from the POV of a Watson-type character, then he or she can wonder about and note clues, but the detective will pull it all together.
I write fair-play mysteries, presenting the clues so the readers can solve the mystery with detective. A good way to test if you are playing fair is to ask yourself this question: once the reader reads the solution, can he go back through the book and pick out the clues the detective used? If he can’t, then it isn’t a fair-play mystery. It could still be a good story, but it’s not a mystery in the classic style.
I like the “fair play” of presenting clues to the reader along with the detective!