Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly

Last week, I gave some examples from movies and books of what I considered plotting elegantly. This week, I list six tips for plotting elegantly–three for how to recognize when you’re not plotting elegantly and three for how to fix the problems.

Three Clues to When You Aren’t Plotting Elegantly

Too Much Explanation. If I find myself writing pages and pages, trying to explain a plot point, something is wrong. This is a particular pitfall for mystery writers. We have to explain the mystery at the end, but we should be as concise as possible. After sending the manuscript for A Shadow on the Snow to my publisher, I didn’t look at it for several weeks. When I went back to work on the edits I received, I was shocked at how chatty my characters were in the last chapter, over-explaining the solution to the mystery.

Your Guts Say No, But Your Brain Says Yes. When it comes to my writing, I go with my gut. If I reread something and my gut gets sick. I know something is wrong. When I reread the climax for Shadow, I cringed . Nothing technically wrong with it, except that I’d seen or read something like it about a thousand times before. And it felt mean. I could do better, write something original that flowed elegantly from the traits of the characters.

No One Will Notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a section, toward the end of an editing session, and thought, “This isn’t great, but no one will notice.” I’m tired of editing, my creativity is ebbing, and so I want to skip the mediocre section. It’s much better to flag it, let it sit awhile, and come back to it when I’m fresh.

Three Tips to Help You Plot Elegantly

Let Your Characters Act Naturally. If you know your characters like you know your relatives, they can help you when the plotting turns clunky. Often when my plot limps along, I realize I’m forcing my characters to act contrary to the way I’ve designed them. If I’m forcing an introverted character to act extroverted, and haven’t given any reason for this change in behavior, I’m in trouble. If a certain behavior is essential to the plot, I need to find the character most suitable for it.

Examine Your Setting. In a previous post, I write about how to “Maximize a Setting”. Are you taking advantage of everything a particular setting has to offer? My main character Rae Riley works as a check-out clerk in a library. One advantage of this setting is that it’s public, so I can have just about any character walk through the doors. It’s also a place where Rae learns to conduct research because she interacts with librarians. This fact gives my nineteen-year-old MC a plausible reason for knowing what a microfim machine is and how to use it to look up old newspaper article.

What Would the Reader Like? Until I tackled Shadow, I didn’t understand how critical keeping future readers in mind is. In the middle of my novel, Rae has a personal breakthrough. I got all warm and fuzzy writing it. After polishing it, I realized I couldn’t let all these cuddly emotions continue. Readers might overdose on the sweetness or grow bored. I had to let something bad happen. Even mean. I forced myself to give my main character a major setback. That setback led to more clues and hugely helped the plotting of the mystery.

Writers, what do you do when your plot starts to sputter and clank? Readers, what’s one of your favorite plot?

Plotting Elegantly

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?

Swindle Series by Gordon Korman

I’m moving from last month’s theme of setting to this month’s theme of plot. This story component is the one I struggle with the most. Characters pop into my mind with little effort, exploring and describing settings is a delight, but plotting–that’s where the hard work comes in. If you fall into that camp, read a book from the Swindle series by Gordon Korman. These middle-grade novels are densely plotted, but they’re easy to study because they’re written for ten-year-olds. They’re also a hoot.

The books feature six middle school kids and their whacky adventures as they attempt to foil the plans of crooked adults. In the first book, Griffin Bing is swindled out of a million-dollar baseball card. His parents and the police are no help. Only one thing to do: steal it back.

The plots depend on the personalities and talents of the six kids:

  • Griffin Bing–the Man with the Plan
  • Ben Slovak–smallest kid, a worrier, and Griffin’s best friend.
  • Logan Kellerman–professional actor (the books take place on Long Island)
  • Antonia “Pitch” Benson–athlete
  • Melissa Dukakis–science whiz
  • Savannah Drysdale–animal lover

Zoobreak

In this second book of the series, Savannah’s pet monkey Cleo disappears. While on a school field trip to a zoo that motors up and down in the east coast in a paddle wheeler, the kids discover Cleo on exhibit in the ill-kept boat. The owner, Mr. Nastase, says he has proof of purchase of the monkey. Again the parents say they can’t do anything. So Griffin decided to spring Cleo.

The execution of the zoo break, all the twists and turns, is so much fun to read and even more helpful for a writer to analyze. Such as, once the kids sneak aboard to free Cleo, Savannah is so appalled at the living conditions of the other animals that she insists they take them all or she’ll remain on the boat. If she gets arrested for breaking and entering, at least, the cops will see how awful the zoo is. This plot twist is in keeping with Savannah’s personality, which was established in the first pages.

The kids free the other animals and are about to make their escape when they can’t find the boat they used to row over to the paddle wheeler. But Griffin remembers a yellow box he used to help Ben reach a vent. It’s a life raft.

Once the kids makes it home with the animals, Savannah plans on calling a scientist at a well-run local zoo. But the woman is out of the country for two weeks. The kids now have to divide the animals between their homes until the scientist returns. Eventually, this proves so difficult that Griffin devises another zoobreak, this to to break animals into the good zoo.

Unleashed

This book is second to last in the Swindle series by Gordon Korman. The school science fair is coming up. Griffin and Melissa both have entries, and a rivalry heats up, with the friends taking sides. Then Melissa’s invention disappears.

This one is so much fun because you think you’ve picked out the adult the kids are going to face off against, and Mr. Korman pulls a hilarious switcheroo. This story is also heaped with plot twists, but every one makes sense from the way the author lays his groundwork throughout the story.

For another book recommendation on plotting, click here.

What books do you recommend to learn about plotting? Or what book does plotting exceptionally well?

Whenever You Can Walk Your Settings

Although the internet provides myriad opportunities to virtually visit sites around the world, I still find nothing helps me understand a setting better than walking through it. Whenever you can walk your settings.

In June, my husband, kids, and I explored the coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina, the third oldest community in the state. We’d been to the town many times before, but we’d never stopped in its cemetery. It’s so old that instead of being called a cemetery, it’s the Old Burying Ground. With the sky turning black as a storm approached, we ventured into the dim graveyard, the thick tangle of live oak branches pressing in around us, adding a ton of atmosphere.

No pictures or virtual tour could replicate what we experienced that day.

Five Benefits of Walking Your Setting

  • Walking slows me down. Even if I’m looking for a setting for a car chase, I still want to walk it. Walking helps me sees details I wouldn’t notice if I drove by or looked at photos. It also slows down my brain, allowing me to appreciate my surroundings.
  • Walking allows me to use all five senses. The photos above a can’t convey the hush of the cemetery, which contrasted with the strengthening winds, or the crackle of dead leaves underfoot, or the smooth surface of the marble headstones.
  • Walking allows me to absorb the atmosphere. That probably sounds artsy, but I think creative people know what I mean. Most locations give you a certain feeling. A doctor’s office might give me an uneasy feeling, and I can’t figure out why until I realize it has some similarity to an office where I had an unpleasant experience. It helps my writing if I give my setting a mood as well as a physical description. Experiencing the atmosphere of places in reality enormously aids my ability to create moods for my settings.
  • Walking gives me confidence when writing. Because I’ve actually visited the places I’m writing about, I can write with confidence. If someone thinks it’s unbelievable that a character can’t get cell reception to call for help in an Ohio state park, I know he’s mistaken because because I’ve been to Ohio state parks that don’t have reception.
  • Walking is cheap. If it’s difficult for you to travel for research, walking settings where you live or ones you visit regularly saves you both time and money. When I had to find a town outside of Ohio in which my main character Rae finished high school, I picked the coast of North Carolina because we have vacationed there.

If you write science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction, try to find some equivalent in the current, real world. If your space opera occurs on a desert planet, arrange a visit to a desert. If your historical romance takes place in Victorian London, and you live nowhere close to Great Britain, find a city that still has Victorian architecture. Or a living museum where guides dress and act like people from the period. If the princess-in-disguise from your fantasy hides out in a stable, volunteer to work in one.

For more tips on writing about settings, click here.

Do you walk your settings? How has walking inspired your writing?

Take Advantage of the Weather in a Setting

I was stumped. While writing A Shadow on the Snow, my YA mystery, I knew I had to describe the weather. The mystery is set in mythical, rural Marlin County, Ohio, during the winter. The weather had to be mentioned. But except for a few key scenes, when the weather added to the plot, my descriptions seemed lifeless and pointless. After wrestling with the problem, I came up with a solution on how to take advantage of the weather in a setting.

More Than Just Scenery

I wrote in my previous writing tip, “Maximize a Setting”, how an ice-and-snowstorm plays a critical role in a chase scene in my novel. But what about the weather in a scene where it doesn’t directly affect the plot. Unlike in a movie, which automatically captures whatever background is behind the actors, I had to deliberately add descriptions so readers could imagine where the characters were interacting. But descriptions as mere descriptions seemed worthless. Could I have the weather assume another role?

Setting the Mood

I decided to use the weather to set the mood for the novel. In the opening chapter, when my main character Rae is feeling good about life, the day is cold but dazzling with sunshine. As she investigates who is stalking her, the weather grows more dismal and oppressive. A breakthrough comes after the snowstorm. The weather is sunny again. Then it grows bleaker as the story proceeds to the climax, which takes place on a foggy evening.

Once I’d given the weather definite purpose, I found it much easier to write.

An author who wrote about the weather very effectively to set the mood is Melville Davisson Post. I’ve reviewed his short stories featuring the detective Uncle Abner, who solves mysteries in pre-Civil War West Virginia.

Other Ways to Use the Weather

  • It can remind characters of a previous event, and I can work in some backstory.
  • It can reflect the mood of the main character. A main character bent on revenge can travel through scenes in which the weather becomes increasingly violent.
  • It can reflect the relationship between characters. The course of a marriage could be charted by the weather. If a couple gets married on a stormy day, that can foreshadow trouble to come. Or if the weather was perfect on their wedding day, the couple holds on to that memory when they run into trouble.

What books have you read that to took advantage of the weather in a setting?

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