Nancy Drew was my first plotting teacher. Kidnapped, bound, gagged, trapped in the dark hull of a ship and sailing into unknown peril. Would Ned rescue her? Would Nancy escape on her own? Or would she perish in some terrible, torturous way?
Fascinated and worried, I couldn’t flip the pages fast enough to find out what happened next.
Plot is all about “what happens next.” The mystery series I read voraciously as a child thrilled with cliffhangers and dramatic climaxes. I loved mysteries so much that, at age 14, I wrote on a writing school application that my goal was to have a mystery series of my own someday. The writing school rejected me for being too young, but two decades later, I was the author of my own mid-grade mystery series.
In mystery novels clues (plot points) are placed along the way to make readers desperate to keep turning pages to reach The End. Since I cut my writing teeth on juvenile series books, plotting is one of my favorite parts of writing.
If Nancy were solving “The Mystery of the Perfect Plot,” she’d start off by interrogating the suspects—the characters.
#1. Great characters are the heart of good plotting.
Characters and plot are a marriage; each plot-turn should be motivated by what your characters wants. Don’t only plot by listing an outline of events. Plot your characters’ inner journeys, too; give even minor characters motivation—something they want—to enhance plotting.
For instance, using Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) as an example, the story isn’t simply about 24 kids battling to the death. The heart of the story is about Katniss as she fights to survive and save the people she loves. Her emotional journey (inner plot) is why readers love this trilogy.
#2. Open your story with a WOW!
Ask yourself what moment changes everything then jump-start your book into a scene that’s active, compelling, and foreshadows characters’ inner and outer journeys. Study the opening pages of your favorite books looking for character details, setting and motivation.
#3. Shove your characters off a cliff.
I love to shock, tease and tantalize readers with cliffhangers. It doesn’t have to be a dangerous situation: He shoved a gun into her face!. It can simply be a question: “So which one of my friends did you sleep with?” Or a realization like this chapter ending from my book Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery (Flux, 2012): “And I know with certainty this curl was cut from a dead body.” Keep those pages turning by sparking curiosity with cliffhangers.
#4. If your middle sags, try liposuction.
Okay, confession here. I always get stuck in the middle of a book. Once, when I was writing a mid-grade about a mermaid, I got stuck in the middle and told my writing group I was going to pull the plug on the ocean so characters drain away; end of story. But I didn’t give up and was proud of the finished book.
When plotting middles, expect a moment of writing crisis. But don’t panic. Come back later to fix plot problems in the rewriting stage. Suck up your anxiety and keep writing.
#5. Reaching a satisfying climax.
I like books to have a cyclical feeling to them. My Dead Girl Walking trilogy (Flux, 2008-2010) opens with my directionally-challenged heroine going to a party. In the final book, the last scene finds her at a similar party, but she’s gone through a journey that has changed who she is outwardly and emotionally.
Know what your characters want and reflect this motivation in the climax. If your character doesn’t get what she wants, she needs to have learned something from the journey. Your ending should have the profound feeling of a new beginning; resolute yet hopeful.
In the plotting school of Nancy Drew, endings come with rewards like an old clock, jewels and praise. Writers seldom receive gifts of jewels and old clocks, but praise (fan letters) from readers is priceless. May your plots lead you into the hearts of readers and onto the shelves of bookstores.
|Linda in the library|