Plotting: "It Is the Cause, My Soul"

I am filled with doubts. Why isnít Steinbeck filled with doubts? I think heís had one lousy day of doubt throughout the time of East of Eden. Is it because he has so many outside interests? Probably. I have so few. I've never been a hobby person, and when I start working on a project, all I can think of is finishing the damn thing And thereís Steinbeck, building desks, carving oars for his sons, buying a boat, decorating his little house in New York. Should a future Nobel Laureate have a little more angst? I'd certainly appreciate it.
Journal of a Novel,
October 12, 1994

Writers get asked the "idea" question all the time. At the end of a public appearance or a reading, the writer inquires if there are any questions and invariably someone wants to know. "Where'd you get your ideas?"
     I suppose every writer has a different answer to this question. For my part, I frequently wish there were an idea store somewhere. I could hop on over, make a quick purchase, and sit down to work. But it's not that easy. Yet without having an idea, there is no way for the train to leave the station.
     For me, ideas pop into my head from several sources. The first is from character. Sometimes I decide that I want to write about a particular sort of character caught up in a particular sort of situation, and from that grows the expanded idea of the novel from which grows the plot.
     An example of this would be my novel Missing Joseph, in which I made a conscious decision to write about the death of a perfectly good person at the hands of another perfectly good person. Given that as my starting point, I began asking myself a series of questions about these two individuals, starting with the most obvious: "What would prompt a perfectly good person to kill another perfectly good person?" Answering these questions allowed me to expand the idea to encompass the arc of the story so that ultimately I had the beginning and the ending. Developing the characters themselves would give me the rest.
     Sometimes, however, I develop an idea based on a challenge. In a seminar I attended with her as instructor, P. D. James once said that a writer cannot create a scene from the killer's point of view after the killing has occurred because the killer would naturally be thinking about the killing, and to make the killer think of anything else would not be playing fair with the reader. I .took this as Phyllis's laying down the gauntlet of challenge. Then and there I decided that I would write a book in which scenes would take place in the killer's point of view after the killing, scenes in which the killer would indeed be thinking about the killing, but scenes in which I would make the reader believe that the killer was actually thinking of something else. Thus was For the Sake of Elena born. Similarly, when Sue Grafton told me that she'd tried to write K Is for Kidnap but finally tossed the effort out, I decided to see if I could write a kidnap novel. Thus was In the Presence of the Enemy born.
     Ideas are everywhere if you remain alive to them. I also get mine from intriguing newspaper stories (Well-Schooled in Murder), from a beguiling turn of phrase (Playing for the Ashes, explained to me at dinner one night with my English publishing team), from some topic I find interesting and wish to pursue, (Deception on His Mind), from something I've heard and never forgotten ("Remember, I'll Always Love You"). The point is that I work with the idea. It doesn't plop into my head, all of a piece, as a finished plotline. I think about it and ask myself questions about it until I can develop it into an expanded idea from which I will draw my characters. These characters I will then develop in turn and they will work with me to design the plot.
     So what is plot, then? Here you were, believing that plot was all about coming up with a story and applying characters to it, and I appear to be telling you something altogether different. That is indeed the case: Essentially and most simply put, plot is what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.
     Consider an example for purposes of elucidation: Sudden widowhood alters the status quo of Mary Jones, who was previously happily married. How Mary Jones learns to cope with her widowhood, the challenges she faces, the difficulties she surmounts, and the changes she experiences as a result all constitute the plot. I call her sudden widowhood the primary event. It is that which gets the ball rolling in the novel. It might take place at the beginning of the novel; it might have taken place before the novel opens. nut it gives the novel its sense of direction. More important, it gives the writer a sense of direction.
     To have a plot, it goes without saying that you must have characters, but you would be amazed to discover how many would-be writers don't realize that you also must have conflict. A number of years ago, a hopeful novelist asked me to real1 his timeless epic and comment on it. It was sixty-five pages long, he told me, and heíd reached the end of the story. He'd thought it was going to be a novel along the lines of the work of Robert Ludlum, and he couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, why the whole thing.--which was some sort of nuclear holocaust occurrence, as I recall-played out in so few pages. I said, "What's the conflict?" He stared at me, amazed. His reply, "Oh!"
     So thatís what you need in order to have a story that is capable of being rendered in an interesting, compelling, and artistic fashion: conflict. Now you also must have events that occur as the conflict unfolds, and these events must be organized with an emphasis on causality. If they aren't organized with an emphasis on causality, what you end up with is either a picturesque novel in which we explore episodes of someone's life without there being a relationship between these episodes, or characters engaged in a tedious search for a plot. The first -- the picaresque novel -- is definitely a type of book. It's not my cup of tea, but some people love them. The second -- characters in search of a plot - is just bad writing.
     To avoid bad writing, think of the events in your novel as dominoes. Let's call them dramatic dominoes. The first event in the novel -- and for that you can read "the first scene" -- must trigger an event that follows. In a first-person narrative or a narrative with a limited third-person point of view, the first event will trigger the event that immediately follows it. In other words, something in scene one causes scene two to happen. In the types of books that I write, which have a shifting third-person point of view, the first event must trigger some later event in the novel, but not necessarily the one that immediately follows it.
     The key here is to remember that scene one is the first domino. It knocks the next one over and so forth. I f that doesn't happen, you have failed in your duty to make your scenes causally related.
     Additionally, your plot has to have high points of drama in which the reader is-one can only hope-deeply involved. In a crime novel, this is fairly straightforward business since there are many events in the course of an investigation that can provide the reader with what my editor would call "that frisson of excitement." In a crime novel, you can use the actual killing to do this. You can also use the discovery of the body, a scene of menace, a character at risk. A chase scene, etc. But in any kind of novel, you can create that frisson with a scene of direct conflict between characters, or a scene of discovery or revelation of information, or a moment of personal epiphany.
     Beyond that, your plot must have a climax, and the climax itself must have a climax. I call this the "bang within the bang." In Missing Joseph, for example, the climax is a chase across the moors in which the detectives pursue the killer and her daughter, homing in on a place called Back End Barn, where they believe she is holed up. Their scramble across the moors in the snow, their arrival at the barn, their bull- horn announcements to Juliet Spence, and one police constableís fool- hardy dash into the barn constitute the climax of the novel. The moment when a shotgun goes off in the barn constitutes the climax within the climax. Literally, the bang within the bang.
     Post climax, you must have resolution (although John le Carre, in an example of flagrantly risky writing, ends his novel Singer and Singer in the middle of tile climax!). During this part of the novel, you are tying up the loose ends and illustrating the nature of the change that has occurred in the lives of your characters.
     That all sounds fairly straightforward, doesn't it? Why, then, do people reach sudden dead ends? Why do they become afflicted by the dread writer's block? I believe it's because they don't create their characters in advance and they don't have enough craft in their repertoire. Put another way. they have no toolbox to root through to repair a mistake in the house they're trying to build.
     Skilled writers know that what you're supposed to do is continually open up your story. You do this by creating scenes in which you lay down -- but do not answer! -- dramatic questions. You do this by making sure that if you do answer a dramatic question in a scene as the novel progresses, you've already laid down another. You do this by making partial disclosure instead of giving out all the information you possess. Most important, you do this by creating suspense.
     Sometimes would-be writers forget that all suspense actually is is that state of wanting to know what's going to happen to the characters and how it's going to happen to them. Sure, there are other kinds of suspense: Is the bomb going to explode before our hero rescues the precious puppy to which the dreadful bomb is tied? But if a novelist is doing her job, no matter what kind of novel she's writing. it contains suspense because it contains characters the reader cares about.
     Really, that's the key. Create characters who are real to the reader, who evoke an emotional response within the reader, and you create suspense because the reader will want to know what's going to happen to these people once the status quo is shattered by the primary event.
     One way to do this is to give the character an intention. In Shakespeare's Richard III, the wily Duke of Gloucester -- our boy Richard -- intends to pit his two brothers "in deadly hate" against each other. He intends to plant a phony prophecy in King Edward's ear that George plans to murder Edward's heirs. He intends George to be imprisoned as a result of this phony prophecy because he intends to clear the way to the throne for himself We learn all this in his opening soliloquy, and he's such an engaging rascal that we get caught up in wondering if he's going to manage to carry it all off
     Similarly, Jane Austen gives us the news of Mr. Bingley's arrival in the neighborhood in the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice. From the first moment, Mrs. Bennet intends that he should marry one of her five daughters. The story grows from there.
     The point is that intention produces interest in the reader. It produces anticipation. If the reader cares about a character, the reader anticipates the problems he's going to face. We care about Macbeth, an unstoppable and tremendous war hero. Once he kills King Duncan at the behest of his Machiavellian wife, we hunker down and wait for the disasters that will follow.
     Using time also works to promote suspense. So does creating tension by making a promise to the reader in the beginning of a novel. Of course, a promise made to the reader is not a specific promise. It's something that triggers anticipation: The gun that is introl1uced in the beginning must be used by the end.
Perhaps the most useful thing I've ever heard about plot was something said years ago by California novelist T. Jefferson Parker at a writing conference: "When my story stalls out on me, I've played my hand too soon... I always keep this in mind because the type of novels I write require information to be played out with great care. If I give something away too soon, the entire house of cards collapses. Think about this when you're doing your own writing.

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