In any book, the primary plot is where the heavy lifting gets done. It’s what the book is about. Those of us who write genre fiction know there are both restrictions and freedoms. Genre stories are always about a single theme.
- Adventure — salvation quest
- Romance — overcome obstacles to find love
- Science fiction/fantasy — ramifications of asking “What if…?”
- Western — land, water, and a chance to start over
For mystery novels, it’s solving murder. Period. No, it wasn’t always like that, and there may come a future time when it’s different again, but for right now, it’s murder. There is a little more leeway in mystery short stories. Some are about revenge, theft, or uncovering secrets. For thrillers, it’s how much damage will be done, and to whom, before threat is quelled.
Here’s the primary plot of any mystery novel
- Someone dies.
- Someone investigates.
- A limited number of suspects are identified.
- Clues, red herrings, and obstructions confuse the issue.
- Likely, a second person dies. This death strikes the investigator closer to home than the first one.
- Danger rises; prices are paid. There may be additional deaths.
- The final clue is uncovered.
- There is a show down between good and evil.
- The characters resume changed lives.
Keeping all those balls in the air is a lot of work. It’s what we writers lose sleep over, discuss endlessly, and buy writing software programs to help us do. Learning how to do manage our primary plot is what our lifetime commitment to writing is all about. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. If there were, I’d put it in this blog and we could all meet on some restaurant patio to eat nachos and the adult beverages of our choice. Instead of the magic bullet, here are two thoughts I had recently while attending a great writers’ convention.
To plot or not to plot
Each writer has a different take on how much of the book to plot out in advance. I once met a writer who claimed to have a 150 page outline for a 300 page book. That seemed excessive.
The shortest premise for a book was, “I met someone who has an idea for a mystery about a dinosaur detective in Los Angeles. He doesn’t quite know where it’s going yet.”
At first I thought she meant the protagonist was an old-styled, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking LAPD detective. No, she meant he was a Velociraptor named Vincent, and that idea evolved into Anonymous Rex and two other books by Eric Garcia.
Is it better to plot extensively or not? This question surfaced once again at that writers’ convention. My take on this we need to learn to do both. It’s like having different tools in a tool box. Sometimes we need a hammer; sometimes we need a screwdriver. The two are not interchangeable. Plotting and not plotting are not interchangeable. At some point in the story we need to be able to plot down to minute details. At other points, we need the confidence to wing it and trust that the writing gods will smile on us.
Plotting has nothing to do with what comes next
At the writers’ conference, I had lunch with a fellow writer. In answer to the question, “What are you’re working on?” I received a long list of “and thens.” . . . “and then she decides she has to go back to Vancouver . . . and then she runs into an old school friend . . . and then they try to find out why Harold divorced his wife . . . and then . . .”
I found it hard to care, and then, going home I tried to decide why. It was because after the entire recitation I had no clue what was happening inside the character. What motivated her? What internal struggles did she face? How had she grown because of the experience?
“What are you working on?”
- Answer #1 starts: “University student Jo Fleming survives by driving a cab at night.”
- Answer #2 starts: “Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life.”
- Which one grabs you? #2 would certainly grab me more. In fact, it might evolve into an entire book blurb.
A Week to Kill
Every night, Jo Fleming cruises downtown Toronto stalking the person who ruined her mother’s life. When she finally meets the man of her nightmares, they are both a long way from the corner of Bloor and Dundas. With a week to kill in a posh resort where three Canadians have already died, Jo revels in the opportunity to plan a perfect murder. But, she, not her quarry, may be the fourth Canadian tourist to die. Desperately running from an attack, she is horrified to realize the only person who can save her is the man she hates enough to kill.
The primary plot is about what challenges the protagonist, and how her life unravels. Stop plotting what comes next, and try working on how life gets worse and worse for the characters. It’s a great way to approach our primary plots.
There’s more. I hope to see you back on August 26th for secondary and tertiary plots.