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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Basic Rules for Plotting," By Eric Dontigney

Plotting is one of those core elements that stress writers out. The underlying thought that drives that stress is this: “What if it I can’t resolve the novel?” It’s a fair concern. Most of us have read novels that were resolved only by the grace of a deus ex machina. Even though I don’t plot my novels in advance, I still need my novels to progress and resolve in satisfying way. In other words, I need to think about plot and how to deliver that progress and resolution.

To solve that problem, I’ve developed some general guidelines that I keep in mind while I’m writing.

1. There must be a compelling reason for people to stay in the situation other than, "I need these characters to be at place X in the final act."

We’ve all seen at least one horror movie and, if you’re me, yelled something like this at the screen: “Come on! You can’t be this stupid!”

The reason we think or yell these things is because no one even remotely rational would stick around in that situation. We’d look at our dead friend or the super creepy house obviously owned by Satan and run for our lives. This holds especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where the stakes are often life-or-death.

You must give your characters reasons for being where they are, whether situation or personal. Either way, the reader needs to know them. Are all the escape routes blocked? Is the character driven by some archaic code of honor? Are they on a mission from God? Whatever reason you pick, get it on the page early on. That keeps people like me from yelling at your book.

2. The complications must arise in a way that feels organic.

Ever heard of Checkov’s Gun? It’s a piece of advice for good writing that goes something like this:

“If you put on a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must go off in the next.”

It’s an oblique way of saying that things shouldn’t appear that don’t have a purpose. There is a corollary principle that you can draw from this.

“If you need a giant robot in the third act, you need to establish the presence of a giant robot in the first act.”

Let’s say that I’ve got the intuition that I need to wound my main character somewhere in the middle of the book. Yeah, I could have him or her get into some kind of accident, but that’s not very satisfying. That leaves another person or thing intentionally hurting him or her.

I could manufacture some kind of conflict in the middle of the book. That works okay if I’ve got my character in a natively hostile environment, but what if I don’t? I need there to be a plausible reason for violence.

That means I need to set up a deeply antagonistic relationship between my main character and another character who is not the big bad. This works for me on a couple levels. If I get there and my character does need to get wounded, I’ve built in an organic reason for it. If I decide my character doesn’t need to get wounded, that antagonism still serves a purpose. I get an ongoing, organic source of tension.

In essence, I’ve built myself a scenario that supports several outcomes without marrying me to a specific plot-point.

3. Characters must stay in character.

This is one of those things that drives me absolutely insane about a lot of television shows. The writers start with the conclusion of the episode in mind. Then, they make one or more people act out of character to get everyone from point A to the desired point Z.

Yeah, Arrow, I’m looking at you.

Let’s say that you’ve written a character as smart and reflective. You can’t make that person abruptly act stupid and short-sighted because you don’t see another way to get them where you want them. It’s makes smart readers step out of the story and start asking questions like:

“Gee, why did this smart, level-headed person suddenly start acting like a dumb rage monkey?”

That’s not to say that a smart, reflective character can’t behave stupidly. They can with the right build-up. If you want them running into a bad situation in a fit of blind, irrational rage, you have to slowly push them that direction over the course of the novel.

4. The resolution to the main plot problem must follow logically from the rest of the book.

I really can’t emphasize this enough. If resolving your novel requires a miracle or some other unlikely event, you need to reread your book and try again. If you can’t find enough threads to pull together a plausible explanation that doesn’t rely on deus ex machina, you need to do a rewrite. The logic of the resolution doesn’t need to be blindingly obvious, but it must be there. This is what helped me get a handle on this problem.

In the end, all novels are mystery novels for the reader. You’ve created a problem and, even if you know the end, the reader doesn’t. Ideally, they won’t know until they read the last chapter or two. This is as true for a book about the internal politics of a Midwestern farming family as it is for any murder mystery. The one sacrosanct rule of mystery novels is this:

“You must play fair. The clues must all be on the page.”

A discerning reader ought to be able to look back at the novel and point to the breadcrumbs that inform the resolution, even if those breadcrumbs are obscure.

So there you have it, four of the basic rules I use to get from page 1 to page last with a plot that holds together.

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it!

“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at

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