What opening lines would you write about this photo for a mystery story?
Like I said last week, I think plotting is my weakest writing skill. But writing short stories has helped my game in this area and provided me with several insights. One of those is to use my greatest writing strength to bolster my weakest one. For me, that means allowing my characters to inspire plots.
I have to see my main characters in my head as clearly as I do people in reality. I have to understand their personalities as well as my kids’. When I have that strong of a grasp on my characters, plot points pop up.
After I wrote the basic storyline of my first published short story “Debt to Pay”, I felt I needed more tension in the confrontation scene. In my story, a teenage boy and his older brother find a millionaire who crashed his plane near their remote home in Wayne National Forest. The millionaire begs the brothers to hide him because he knows his plane was sabotaged but has know idea who wants to kill him.
During the confrontation scene, the millionaire’s wife and her boyfriend come to the cabin and discover their plot to kill the millionaire has failed. What does the wife do? How could her decision add tension?
I considered the character of the wife. She is greedy. So greedy that she married for money. So greedy that she plotted to murder her husband and inherit his money. So what would a greedy person do? Assume others are as motivated by money as she is. The wife offers the brothers money to kill the millionaire right then and there.
When I realized this was the wife’s motivation, I was stunned at how logically the scene worked itself out. It seemed like my characters had wrested the story from me and developed the plot on their own.
Here are some personality types that can help lead you to plot points:
- Curiosity or nosiness. This character is likely to discover something he shouldn’t know. Depending on his sense of morality, he can use this knowledge to help others or take advantage of it to help himself.
- Bad temper or caustic tongue. This character hurts others by losing her temper easily or with cutting remarks. She can either be unaware of her affect on others or well aware and enjoys inflicting abuse. Either way, other characters will have a strong reaction to her.
- Impulsive. This is a great trait for causing trouble. Or saving the day.
- Patience. A character can endure tremendous hardship with this trait. Or wait a long time to enact the perfect revenge.
- Control. Almost no one likes a person who wants to control others. Like the bad-tempered or sharp-tongued character, the controlling character will spark strong feelings and reactions from others. The lengths to which a controlling character tries to maintain control will lead to all sorts of plot points.
How do characters inspire your plots?
How would you write the opening lines for a plot for a romance involving rain boots left out in a storm?
Plotting seems to be my weakest skill, so I’m always interested in improving it. I snatched up 20 Master Plots (and How to Build Then) by Ronald B. Tobias when I found it at the library. The edition I read was published in 1993. A newer edition was published in 2003.
Mr. Tobias categorizes the twenty plots in chapters with titles like “Quest”, “The Riddle” (of particular interest to this crime writer), “Temptation”, and “Sacrifice.” For each plot he summarizes classic examples. In “Quest”, he uses The Wizard of Oz and the legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece. In “Sacrifice”, he describes the plots for the movies Casablanca and High Noon. The 1949 film noir D.O.A. is the example for “The Riddle”.
Before he gets to the master plots, Mr. Tobias has five chapters on some basic principles of plot, including story vs. plot, creating opposing arguments, and the inseparable link between plot and character. Some of his points I already knew and appreciated the author’s confirmation. Others were new to me. Some I disagreed with, such as Mr. Tobias doesn’t like plots that exist solely to deliver a “gotcha” to the reader. I loves those kind of plots in short stories.
Warning for Worriers
When I first had my kids, I tried to read What to Expect When You are Expecting from cover to cover and gave myself a terrible case of anxiety. Every time I read about a particular developmental problem or disease, I worried that one of my children was exhibiting those symptoms. I learned I should only consult the book when I had specific need, such as a teething problem.
It works the same with books on writing.
If I pick one up without a specific purpose in mind, I imagine my writing has every problem the author of the advice book outlines. If your mind runs this away too, then only go to writing books when you want help in a specific area. When several agents told me to work on “show, don’t tell”, I bought two book on the topic. When I thought my dialogue could be better, I checked out a book from my library.
What resources have you found to help you with plot?
In August, I will focus on plot in our writing. And my prompts will borrow from an activity we did at an ACFW chapter meeting. We each brought a food for lunch. The writing exercise after lunch was to work a randomly selected food and genre into a story. I had to write a thriller with a casserole being a major plot point.
So for the sparks this month, I’ll provide a photo and a genre, and you can provide the first few lines. Use the photo above in a thriller. Here’s my opening lines:
“As I hid the thumb drive in the hollow heel of my boot, I caught a flash of movement in the tail of my eye. Jerking out my gun, I crouched below the window and peered out.
A toddler? Yes, a toddler was tromping through the weeds in the backyard of the empty house.
I scanned the surrounding woods. No one else in sight. What was a toddler doing out here?”
Now it’s your turn? What’s the plot?