Article of the Month
STARTING SMALL AND BUILDING PLOT
c. 2002 by Alicia Rasley
I'm going to create a character here, and give him some trouble, and see how his trouble develops into a plot. (I don't mean to be sexist, but I have this image of a burnt-out cop, you know? And it is a HE. Not a she. And he has this little scar that splits his eyebrow, and I want it to be from a knife fight with a criminal, but he tells me it happened when he fell off his skateboard when he was 12. So I'm afraid the protagonist is a HE here. :)
What I'm going to do is just start small and ask myself questions, and see how much plot I can build from the barest suggestion of a character. This is just brainstorming, raw and unedited, a plotter at work. So don't expect much!
Let's call him Jack. He's a burnt-out cop. (Why burnt out? Three years as a homicide detective, and he doesn't like people much anymore because the
ones he meets on the job are either dead or murderers. <G>)
So what's Jack's central strength? I think it's his empathy, oddly enough. He can imagine very well what it feels like to see a gun pointed
at you and realize it's your last moment on earth. He doesn't have any
kids-- he's scared to-- because he can imagine all too easily what it
would be like to have to walk into a morgue and identify a tiny body and
know you're going to live in grief and horror until you die. He can even
imagine what it would feel like to take that ultimate power of killing,
to find meaning in destruction.
And so he's good at his job of tracking down murderers, and it's killing
him inside. But if he stops empathizing, he won't be good at his job,
and if he quits his job to stay sane, he won't be able to help those who
Now I ask myself-- what are the problems that come with the strength of empathy? All strengths are going to come with some problems or issues. So ....
Problems that come with empathy:
- hypersensitivity covered with callousness
- avoidance of people off the job because they might have problems
- difficulty finding joy because he hangs out with unhappy people
- maybe substance abuse, alcohol probably, at least in the past-- drowning the pain
- alienation from others, both those on the job who don't feel as much, and those off the job who don't understand
- inability to let go of failed cases, because he's haunted by the injustice.
Another question: What does Jack value? What matters to him? I need to know this because he's only going to be motivated to act if something he values is put at risk. I'm going to make one a "negative" value, something that wouldn't be considered good or healthy by many people.
- Justice-- he wants to bring the bad guys in and make them face justice
- His friends in the homicide dept.
- The families of the victims because in some weird way, they're the only ones who understand.
- (And the negative one) His own alienation, because it protects him.
There's a character, or at least part of him, but no plot. Well, I am
famous for having written 250 pages of a novel about a spy and forgetting
to put in an espionage plot (it was, however, a fascinating character
study :), so I won't make that mistake here. A homicide cop should have
a homicide plot.
BUT... I'm wary of the "just another day on the job" problem. If he
investigates 20 homicides a year, I don't want to center a plot on one of
them. This has to be SPECIAL. So I'm thinking it should happen OFF the job.
But then there's the problem of plausibility. This is meant to be a
somewhat gritty, realistic story. He's not Miss Jane Marple, finding
murders wherever he goes. So I'm thinking that he has to -seek out- the
murder of the plot, not just stumble on it. That is, in this case, he's
an enthusiastic troublemaker. But since he's a burnt-out cop, I don't
think he'd be all that excited about going over to the next county and
volunteering his help. I think he'd maybe only be enthusiastic about
going after the one that got away-- the murder he couldn't solve.
See, there's trouble. Something's been eating away at him for years, and
now he's going to go try to solve that.
But I want some catalyst. Maybe his boss is getting worried about him,
and doesn't want to lose her best detective to burn-out, so she insists
that Jack take a vacation. And (she's got connections) she even manages
to fix the FOP raffle so that Jack's the one who wins the round-trip
ticket to anywhere. And she tells Jack that he has to go somewhere, has
to take two weeks off.
Why does Jack's mind go back to his college years? Maybe (or is this too
much a coincidence?) he gets something for his 10th year reunion in the
mail. (Maybe the interfering boss finds it in Jack's trash and that
initiates her scheme to get Jack out of the precinct for awhile?) And
he might remember why it was he never graduated-- because his girlfriend
Denise was kidnapped and murdered junior year, and no one ever solved
the crime, and he decided he wanted to be a homicide cop and get other
murderers if he couldn't get this one.
Reunion is good in this context. :) So say he goes back to the reunion,
and remembers that he always assumed it was someone Denise knew, and
maybe that someone will be there.
And he decides to look up Denise's old roommate Ellen, who had been
knocked unconscious during the kidnapping and could remember nothing of
the event. She's now a counselor at the college.
There- we've set up the basic trouble, and the plot situation, and now I just have to figure out how to develop trouble at every point of the story, using what I know about the character as a catalyst.
Okay, so we have Jack coming back to his college reunion, and he's hoping
to be able to solve the murder of his girlfriend. Now this makes him an
But enthusiastic troublemakers require motivation too. So my first task
might be to make sure that he has enough motivation at this particular
moment (ten years after the crime) to re-open the investigation.
Let's say he gets the reunion brochure and tosses it, and the boss finds
it and insists that he go. What's going to make him think about the
crime? Well, of course, it would be hard NOT to think about it. But what
makes him think about it in terms of reopening that old wound?
Could he see something in the brochure, like that the class president
Walt is the one organizing the reunion, and Walt's just done great for
himself, is a millionaire– and Jack always suspected he killed Denise
because Denise broke up with Walt to start going out with Jack? Or maybe
he notices in the class notes that Ellen is now working there as a
counselor or a professor, and he wonders if she now remembers what
happened that night.
But something should serve as the catalyst for action, especially when
that action might lead to great trouble. There's a tendency in mystery
and suspense novels just to assume that anyone would investigate a crime
or plunge into danger, but that's not really plausible. Even a cop might
be reluctant to pursue a crime on his off-time, unless he had some
personal connection and/or something specific set him off.
So something in that reunion brochure draws him back to the reunion. But
he's not dumb. In his job, he generally has to identify himself as a homicide cop as he investigates, but there's no requirement for that here. And Jack isn't the kind of guy who would be sending in announcements of his promotions and awards to the alumni magazine, so he can assume no one back at Melville College knows he's a cop. He can go as just another alum, back for the reunion, and investigate without alerting anyone to his purpose.
Now notice that this eminently sensible and well-motivated action, going
more or less incognito, helps in the external plot... but will definitely
cause trouble in the romantic plot when Ellen finds out what he's really
after... probably after he's charmed her into falling in love with him.
(You know she always had a secret crush on him when he was dating her
roommate. :) But we'll get to the romantic plot later.
Think of decisions and actions like the above one as "time-release
grenades" that are set in one scene and will go off later in the story.
This will not only link scenes in a cause-effect dynamic, improving the
coherence of the story. But this also creates suspense.
Remember always that your reader is well-educated in how to read books, and if you just put a bit of extra emphasis on some decision or action of the
protagonist, the reader will realize, "Uh-oh. Something's going to happen!" For example, maybe Jack could pause and take his badge out of its case and bury it in his luggage. That would give a concrete action that would show his "going incognito". But keep it up, keep the pressure on him to be deceptive– especially if ordinarily he's proud of his job and his reputation for honesty.
So we confront him with the need to lie, or be deceptive, -especially- in
Ellen's view. Like say the first day there, he's at some cocktail party, and one of his professors asks him what he does, and he says, "Uh, I'm in... security." And the professor says, "Securities? Well, that's interesting. Let me ask you about this stock my broker recommended..."
....and Ellen is standing there listening and assuming that Jack really is
involved in stocks and bonds because that's what he said, and when she
knew him, he was completely honest, almost to a fault.
Each time he's deceptive, he's getting himself into more trouble because
more people think he's something he's not– and that's going to make him
feel guilty. :)
But it also gets him deeper in trouble because his "disguise" allows him
to investigate without the bad guy getting nervous about some homicide
cop on his tail. So Jack is going to get VERY close, uncomfortably close,
to the bad guy before he reveals himself.
Now to see how he can get into trouble and make trouble work for him, it
helps just to brainstorm a bunch of things that can happen in the
external plot, and then think about how to make them more dramatic (that
is, WORSE :), and how to order them in a sequence from least trouble/risk
to most. What's important is to keep coming up with actions– he should be
a trouble MAKER, not just a trouble GETTER. :)
For example, he can (in no particular order):
- -visit the scene of the crime– the little house where Ellen and Denise lived.
- -read the local newspaper and the student newspaper from that week.
- -interview the landlord and get a key– maybe pretend to want to rent it?
- -check Denise's old class schedule to see who was in class with her.
- -re-read the emails she wrote to him (did they have email back then? <G>)
- -look at the photo display assembled for the reunion looking for her picture and who she was with.
- -confront Walt (somewhere exciting, like at the big dinner).
- -check out Walt's alibi.
- - go and question the head of detectives who was assigned to the case.
- -demand that Ellen go over that evening with him again.
- -take Ellen back to the house and force her to sit in the room where the kidnapper got in.
- - find out something bad about Denise, like she was having an affair with a married man when she was supposed to be his girlfriend. (Maybe learns this from Ellen?)
- - get Ellen to turn over letters Denise wrote to her mentioning the other man.
- - figure out who the other man is– some professor? the dean of students?
I feel like I'm not getting enough physical action in there, so I might
think about him going up into the attic of the house, or breaking into
the professor's house, or something like that.
At some point, the bad guy is going to have to realize that someone is
back on the trail, and maybe suspect Ellen, not Jack, and go after her.
If there's a villain, we have to assume he's not going to sit around and
wait to be caught. He's going to be fighting back somehow. So that will generate more trouble.
Now things shouldn't go perfectly according to plan for Jack. Things
should go wrong.
BUT... I don't want Jack to seem like a bumbler. I don't want him
stumbling around making stupid mistakes. If he makes a mistake, I want it
to be one the reader will understand– like assuming Walt might be a
suspect only to find out that Walt was at the Student Leader Training
Seminar in Dallas that week. Or maybe he doesn't make a mistake but someone
betrays him– like the old detective calls the dean of students to
complain about the alum who has been asking around. Or maybe he takes a
chance too many, or does something to protect Ellen or Denise's memory.
That is, he probably has to make mistakes in order to get deeper into
trouble, but the mistakes shouldn't be a result of stupidity but rather
of the inevitability of problems with any investigation.
More than anything, however, we'll sympathize if the mistakes happen
because of something he values (protecting Ellen, say) or because of his
internal conflict (guilt about Denise's death) or his central
strength/weakness (he's reluctant to push Ellen too far because he can
feel how badly the experience traumatized her, but she NEEDS to confront
it again to move past it).
Now one thing to keep in mind is that grenade set early in the book
(always try to set one of these!)-- his deception about his job/identity.
That should explode at the worst possible time. Either his refusal to be
honest causes trouble (that is, he gets arrested and he can't show his
badge because it's in his suitcase), or his deception causes trouble
(Ellen finds the badge and realizes he's been lying to her and refuses to
trust him again)-- or both (she is so mad, she refuses to bail him out of
jail or bring the badge to him <G>). But don't forget that first big step
into trouble– see if you can have it cause ripple effects throughout the
Now what about the ending? The last act is the crisis/dark
moment/climax/resolution. That's when the trouble explodes and then
finally resolves. Just some thoughts:
Crisis: When the worst that can happen... happens. The disaster. This is
the emotional bottom of the story, when it seems that the protagonist has
lost all chance of succeeding, or has given up too much for the sake of
If possible, this should come about in part because of the central strength/heroic flaw, or the internal conflict: For example, maybe Jack's guilt makes him persist even after he's been threatened, and he ends up getting arrested, and Ellen finds out that he has been lying to her, that he's a cop. She's
furious and tells him he can rot in jail; she's not going to bail him out. But finally she relents and says she'll come down to the jail and get him.
But she never shows, and he realizes she might have been kidnapped, and
here he is stuck in this jail cell and unable to get out and save her,
and no one will listen to him, and he's used up his phone call calling her.
That's the crisis– he's stuck there and she's in grave danger. The
trouble is as deep as it can get right now, and it's all (or partly) his
The Dark Moment: Immediately following the crisis comes the dark moment, when the protagonist experiences despair. This is often when the pro
comes face-to-face with the necessity of confronting and conquering the
internal conflict that helped lead him/her to the crisis.
When all is lost, when there is no hope, then choosing to do the right thing, or the difficult thing, is the last resort... if the pro can find the courage.
The despair is necessary, however, to force the pro to determine what
really matters, what he/she must do. It is this despair that forces the
pro into analysis and action, and propels him into the climax and
resolution of the conflict. The decision made during the dark moment
leads to the action that brings on the climax.
So maybe Jack does something he never thought he could do– maybe trust
the local head of detectives who has betrayed him, or maybe use his expertise
to tie up the jail guard and escape from the jail. The trouble has to be
bad enough to make him despair and reach down, way down, to take some
action or make some choice he couldn't have made before.
The Climax: This is, by definition, the resolution of the external
conflict. It should be as dramatic and as confrontational as you can make
it within the scope of your plot. Think "face to face", think
"confrontation", that is, make it as immediate and dynamic as possible.
But most of all, let the event be powered not by random chance or
coincidence, but by the protagonist's decision in the dark moment to
sacrifice (fill in the blank) or use his great strength and seize the
last chance to make the world right again.
So maybe he uses his empathy to figure out where the bad guy would have
taken Ellen (maybe where Denise's body was found?), and together he and
Ellen vanquish the villain.
The Resolution: Never end a book on the climax. That will leave the
reader disoriented and unsettled about the meaning of the story events.
Just as the climax resolves the external plot, the resolution resolves
the internal plot. You got this guy into trouble– now it's time to show
that he's all the way out of it. :)
Use the resolution to
1) restore the fictional world to order,
and 2) show what has changed because of the story events.
Remember, however, that the resolution scene, like all scenes, must be
centered around an event. What event can show, in an actual or symbolic
way, what has changed because of the events of the story-- specifically,
how the protagonist has changed?
What can show that he has regained his faith, or she has reconciled her alienation from her family, or the truth has set him free?
In a romance, what can show how overcoming the external and internal conflicts has made this couple more able to love and accept love freely?
The more focused this scene is on providing the answer to those questions, the more closure the readers will experience.
So maybe in the end, Jack and Ellen go to visit Denise's grave. Or maybe
neither has ever been able to talk to her mother, and they go together to
see her, and go over an old photo album, able now to share grief and also
celebrate Denise's life. And maybe Ellen gives him his badge back finally. <G>
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
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