by Michelle Knowlden
A plot is about things that happen. A story is about people who behave.
…from Roger Ebert’s Review of “House of Sand and Fog,” 26 December 2003
In this series, I hinted, I prevaricated, and now I’ll say it outright: Plotting is not writing.
You know when you are writing. It is work. It is exhausting. It means hours of research. You scrutinize the pace, go deep and deeper into your characters’ psyches, and churn out endless drafts. Your brain combusts at frequent intervals.
Writing is about story.
Plotting is the prologue to writing. The fun part! Plot tells what happens, hires the actors, and sets the stage. We defined “what happens” in part one (The Premise) and in part two (The Promise). Before we begin to write, let’s move the actors and dress the stage.
To recap …
In The Premise, we daydreamed a three sentence story description that includes the premise, our main character(s)’s involvement, and stuff we like to write. We also did some back of the envelope notes on characters and their back story.
In The Promise, we chose our message. We framed what happens: Act One (filter setting and back story for the present plot), Act Two (reveal imposters for twists and conflict), and Act Three (insert peril, rally the troops, and tie up loose ends).
And now? The Play!
Hire the Actors
Teasing apart what we’ve already sketched for our main characters in Part One, let’s scan the critical characters and ensure the entire cast meshes with the plot.
The person called from her comfort zone. In the first act, she will have good reasons not to enter the story. Before the second act begins, she will commit. Her first encounter outside her comfort zone in Act Two will demonstrate her weakness and others’ strengths in ways that frighten and illuminate. After enduring trials, acquiring allies, and facing the enemy, she will undergo a crisis. Victory comes at great cost. Her transformation will occur on the return to her comfort zone in Act Three where she will face the villain alone.
Note: you can have two main characters (typical for a romance). In this article, we focus on the hero who drives the plot. When you’re writing the story, the second main character may drive the emotional arc. This actor must be the foil to your plot driver by either helping or hindering her.
The person who teaches the hero in ways that guide her towards change. The mentor must die or betray her or otherwise leave the story so that she faces the villain alone.
The bad guy who may rule the hero’s discomfort zone. He certainly creates the crisis and chases the hero to their final confrontation. The showdown forces the hero to choose between her old self or transform to her new self.
The following blurb describes my second Deluded Detective book—Egrets, I’ve Had a Few:
Pam Graff faces challenges after her last blackout. Ghosts in her bedroom, egrets on the stairs, and an obsession with climbing buildings are her new normal after suffering brain damage.
But no problem solving a cold case, right?
Once a physics teacher, she now works as a private investigator who sometimes moonlights as a fake fortuneteller. With the reluctant help of high school students, a genius hacker approaching his expiration date and her deaf neighbor, Pam battles lawyers, family, and rogues to discover whether a young hero-in-training is alive or dead.
While the dangerously handsome uncle might be the reason Pam took the case, a series of odd coincidences force her to flee the FBI when she takes on danger of the killing kind.
Pam (our deluded detective and hero) begins with hallucinations that relate to a cold case. Pam is reluctant to take on an inquiry with a likely negative outcome. In the first act, she collects more details about the missing boy. Then stalls.
The interview with the uncle (the mentor) shapes the investigation for Pam. Since he is also a suspect, he disappears for most of the book, but not before he procures her commitment to the case.
At the beginning of Act Two and the first day of interviews, she hallucinates. Even her teenaged assistants perform better than she does. Should she quit? A new ally and an old one provide the backup she needs. Facing the villain costs a friend.
When she surrenders the false safety of her present delusions in Act Three, she can accept the truth of what happened in her past and that transforms her future.
Set the Stage
Act One requires an opening scene that will rivet the reader. We try contrasting or foreshadowing what’s inside and outside the hero’s comfort zone. Act One includes enough back story to understand the hero and what is at stake. We set the scenes where the hero vacillates between comfort and “adventure” so that the reader feels the hero’s uneasiness when she takes the scary path.
Some writers hate middles, and Act Two consumes two-thirds of the book. Since we’re not writing a book yet, I say embrace Act Two. Have fun with it. Fill it with arguments, adventures, a picnic for their first kiss, clues, a battleground, an abyss, and shocking revelations.
Stage Act Three for the dangerous return to the hero’s comfort zone, which now provides the setting for the final confrontation with the villain. Because of transformation, the hero’s world will change. Fade lights accordingly. Like the teaser that hooks the reader, the last image lingers in the reader’s mind. It’s the last kiss. The final whistle. It’s a wedding or a funeral. It’s the end and the beginning.
In Egrets, the setting for Act One alternates between her rooftop where she feels safe and her home, a place populated with delusions. To move her toward adventure, she hacks into a friend’s computer and has lunch with her prospective client. The data collected affirms her reluctance. The lunch propels her to commitment.
In Act Two, Pam has three interviews that include football, a shrine, and an El Salvadoran restaurant. She meets a suspect at a peewee baseball game. The fifth encounter leads to the crisis in a parking garage. The villain is unmasked, but the victory comes with a gunshot.
Pam’s transformation unfurls in hospital waiting rooms when she finally rejects safe obsessions for the uncomfortable truth.
The last image provides the happily ever after for the ghost and begins something new: the forging of a relationship.
Plotting populates the world, landscapes it, and tells what happens. We finished the easy part.
Now you can write your story. Take a breath. Begin.
Between 1992 and 2011, Michelle Knowlden published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. She also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology published by Tor and another for Daily Science Fiction.
More recent mysteries include the Abishag mystery quartet, Jack Fell Down (Deluded Detective Series Book One), Egrets I’ve Had a Few (Deluded Detective Series Book Two) and The Admiral of Signal Hill, all of which are available on Amazon.
She has also written a 1920s romance under the name Michelle Dutton, and collaborated with Neal Shusterman on several YA Sci-Fi stories, including Dark Matter (An X-Files Novel) for HarperCollins under the name Easton Royce and Unstrung, an e-novella in Neal’s Unwind world published by Simon & Schuster.
After leaving an engineering career of many years, Michelle lives in California with her family and writes full-time. Check out Michelle’s Amazon Author Page!
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