Story Logic

Nancy J. Cohen

The other night, I watched two recorded TV action adventure shows that gave me pause over their story logic. If I had written these sequences into a book, editors everywhere would have turned down my submission. What was wrong? Flaws in story logic jumped out at me. Whether the average viewer noticed, I have no idea. But as a storyteller myself, I couldn’t help but make note of them.


In Show Number One, two female characters were attempting to steal a precious artifact from a security-tight room. They got around the fingerprint analysis in a plausible manner and entered the vault-like space where the artifact was kept under a glass case and surrounded by an electrified cage. Various obstacles were placed between the door and the cage. But wait—one of these woman was an acrobat specifically chosen for this impossible task. So she vaults up to a series of parallel bars conveniently strung across the room and swings from one to the next, while her pal waits by the door. Finally, our acrobat propels herself over a gap at the top of the electrified cage. Inside, she swipes the artifact. Guards are moments away from discovering them. Commercial break.

When we return, the thieves are outside with their booty. Okay, how did they get from Point A to Point B? When we saw our acrobat in action, she used her two hands to swing and jump from one overhead bar to the next. How could she jump at all holding the heavy, bulky artifact that looked as though it would require those same two hands to hold it? Illogical. Nor did she have her friend present again to give her a boost up.

My editor would have caught me on that one. My solution? Have her wear a backpack so she could stuff the heavy tome inside for the return trip. Give her a tensile line to shoot to the overhead bar from inside the cage. Or have her rappel down from a ceiling vent like in countless heist movies. Don’t just have the two women suddenly appear in the clear with their prize with no explanation as to how they got away and avoided the guards.

Story Number Two proceeded well until the very end, when a bad guy got his comeuppance. One of the main characters called him on his cell phone as he’s in the bathtub with a beautiful woman. The caller mentions how his turn has come right before his companion stabs him. How did this character know exactly when he’d be in the bathtub with the assassin? If it were my story, I’d have video cameras tracking him. Or the assassin could have sent the caller a signal. It was too much of a coincidence that this person called right then, although the dramatic moment worked to provide a sense of justice.

What does this prove? TV writers might get away with flaws in their story logic, but it won’t work for us when we’re under an editor’s eagle eye.


Make sure your story flows logically and smoothly, covering all bases. You don’t want to give your readers cause to put down your book with a derisive snort.

Do you recall any movies or TV shows where the credibility stretched?

Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis

Jordan Dane



He’s flummoxed because these aren’t his hands.

I don’t know of any author who hasn’t been flummoxed (word of the day courtesy of James Scott Bell) by the task of writing a first synopsis. Do they get any easier to write? Not for me. Each story idea presents a unique essence that must be distilled into a short brief. Some authors sell books on proposal (with or without a writing sample), or they use the synopsis to be an initial outline of the story idea (a guide post), or an effective synopsis brief can be a part of a solid query letter or made into a quick pitch to an editor or agent. However you use a synopsis, I thought I’d share what has worked for me.


Key Elements to Writing an Effective Synopsis


1.) The Basics – Generally a synopsis is 5-7 pages long, double spaced with one-inch margins. Be sure to include your contact information on the first page and I would recommend adding a header on every page (in case an editor or agent drops your proposal and the pages get out of order). My headers have my name, title of the book, genre, word count, and page number (on far right). I often have a tag line that I list at the top, before the synopsis brief. If you are represented by an agent, I would list that near your contact information. A professional presentation will make you stand out in a slush pile.


2.) Writing a synopsis shouldn’t be about defining the rules of the game. It should be about why you’d want to PLAY it. Give the editor or agent or reader a sense of your voice and the color of the world you will build. Think of a synopsis as a lure, an enticement for them to want more. Rules are boring. Tell me why the game will be really good, or fun or scary.


3.) Whether there is quirky humor or a dark suspenseful undertone to your book, the synopsis should reflect these elements and not merely be a detailed “who does what where.” If your synopsis is boring, chances are any editor or agent will think your book will be lackluster, too. Give them something shiny to grab at.


4.) Pitch your book with a high-level synopsis brief at the top of your proposal. This pitch should read like a TV log line – a condensed 1-3 sentences about the main elements of your story – character highpoints, conflict, emotion, what’s at stake. No need for specific character names that will only be a distraction to what your book is about. If you get this short pitch right (sometimes called the “elevator pitch”), you can embed it into a query letter or use it on your website for a short teaser. An editor can use this short descriptive pitch of your book to her house and the committee that decides which book to buy.



[Part of this pitch is omitted for confidentiality. I REALLY wish I could share it, but I can’t.]

A depressed and aging widow gets a second wind when she pays a young handyman for services rendered on her unusual Bucket List, in an uncommon “coming of age” story.


5.) After the synopsis brief or the pitch, it’s time to introduce your characters. The first time a new name appears in your synopsis, capitalize their full name to highlight who the players will be. A writing sample will introduce your character to the editor or agent in a different way, but I recommend a brief summary of why  each of your main characters have earned their right to be a star in your story. Highlight who they are, what they want, and why they can’t have it. What will their struggle be? What’s at stake for them?



LILLIAN OVERSTREET has flipped the channel on her rerun life and given up. She’s convinced nothing exciting will ever happen to her. Her husband’s dead, her only daughter treats her like a doormat, and old age is creeping up on her like bad granny panties and has made her invisible. Her only reason to leave the house is her bowling team of widows – The Ball Busters. She’s mired in a chronic case of depression that has seeped into every aspect of her existence, until her daughter GRACE OVERSTREET-THORNDYKE hires “eye candy” to do the renovation of the family home. [This is only the basic set up and does not include the conflict, black moment, and ending highlights.]


6.) Not every aspect of your plot needs to be spelled out, ad nauseam. If there are five main suspects or key secondary characters, give the highlights of who they are and why they earned the right to be in your book and why they could be a game changer. This works for other genres, not just crime fiction. If there are characters who stand in the way of your hero/heroine, showcase who they are and why they are an obstacle.


EXAMPLES (Secondary Characters with sense of color/humor):


VINNIE DELVECCHIO is the only widower on the Ball Busters team. In the small town of Why, Texas, he runs a Deli where Lillian gets her meat. He’s opinionated and brash with a foul mouth. He teases the ladies at the bowling alley by saying, “If you gals ever need someone to slip you the sausage, you come to DelVecchio for quality meat.” Even though his mind is constantly in the gutter, Vinnie knows how to roll a strike, has his own bowling shoes and a hefty pair of designer balls, but he’s only on a “team of broads” for the view.


CANDACE and VICTORIA WINDGATE are twin sisters Lillian has known since high school. The sisters kept their maiden name after both their husbands died in the same mysterious boating accident. No one in town knows how the Windgate twins earned their financial independence or how much money they have, but rumors never run out of steam in Why, Texas. Neither of the sisters can bowl worth a damn. They only come to ‘Why Bowl – Family Center & Tanning Spa’ for the cheese fries and beer.


7.) The major plot movements should be highlighted so an editor or agent will know your story has meat to the bone. I like to use a 3-Act screenplay method and have posted about it at TKZ before at this LINK – I use a big “W” to remind me of the turning points to include in my synopsis. (Michael Hauge’s “Writing Screenplays That Sell” was the reference book that sparked my interest in structure and it has helped me draft my proposals.) The highpoints should show the stakes ramping up and the key turning points in the plot as well as the black moment when all seems lost. If there are twists in the plot (especially surprises), showcase those too.


Key Questions for a 3-Act ‘”W” structure:

Act 1 – How does your book start?

Act 1 – What is the point of no return for your character(s)?

Act 1 – What key plot twist will propel your story into the escalation mode of Act 2?

Act 2 – How will you up the stakes?

Act 2 – What is the black moment when all seems lost for your character(s) and how will your character(s) turn it around?

Act 3 – Do I have a plot twist for my readers?

Act 3 – How will your story end and how will you tie up the pieces?


8.) The ending should be spelled out. Editors and agents don’t like surprises and want to know how you intend to tie things up. If you are writing a romance, the ending is very important so the editor or agent gets a feel for your take on a romantic full circle. I’ve sold books without full disclosure of who the bad guy is, but generally you should “tell all.”


Even if you are an indie author and may never have written a synopsis or included one in a proposal to an editor or agent, it can be a good exercise to understand the essence of your book. A good synopsis will get you thinking about how to create an effective jacket cover description to entice the reader. Writing a synopsis is always a challenge, even if you are good at it, because it boils down your book into a teaser that you hope will lure a reader to buy your book.


For the purpose of discussion, tell us what works for you in writing a synopsis. (If you have any tips to add, please share them.) Or share what challenges you’ve had. Let’s talk, people.


What Makes a Critique Group Work?

Jordan Dane

Yesterday I attended the first meeting of my new critique group, the first group I’ve been in since 2004. I’ve never had much luck with such groups, probably because I was so new to writing that I didn’t know what to even want from a group. I had even started one and had to drop out, but this time should be different.

There are four of us. Very experienced authors. We have a mix of genres, which could make things interesting. I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in. I’m the only crime fiction and YA writer, but after our meeting and the fun we had brainstorming plots, it became apparent very quickly that genres won’t matter. Storytellers know how to kick start a plot.

Texas Hill Country Bluebonnets

We met in the beautiful hill country of Texas, outside Boerne. Gorgeous drive up to a member’s beautiful home. The scenic drive is enough to start the creative juices flowing. Our hostess had lunch prepared, something easy and way too yummy. She knew the other two authors and had gotten us together after I whined about not finding what I needed in a few of my local (larger) writers’ groups.

We chatted via email on what we’d like to get from our group. At first I wasn’t sure my goals would match up. Initially we had planned on meeting once a month to talk about the business of writing and maybe brainstorm on plot or scene issues, but after the meeting yesterday, we are getting together once a week and it will be much more on craft and pushing each other to be the best we can be.

Yes, we talked promotion and I learned some new things there and we shared contact info for promo things that worked for each of us. We chatted about plotting methods and storyboarding, but when we got to brainstorming a plot, that’s where my mind was blown.

One of our members had purchased three covers from a designer, images that spoke to her. None of us realized what her intentions were until we got into it, but she bought the covers BEFORE even knowing what any of the books would be about. Basically our session turned into a major Flash Fiction exercise of brainstorming what a new series would be about using the cover designs for books that didn’t exist. HA! When you get the right people together, the ideas flow and we had a blast doing it. We set the stage for a world she’d be building from those three covers that would be bigger than three books, something she could grow into. I’d never done that before and I can’t say I would recommend it as a method of plotting, but with the right people, you never know where things will go.

So we set up our basic crit group intentions as follows:

1.) We will endeavor to get together weekly and bring new material from our current projects. The author will read (& hand out copies of the material), but advance copies will be made available to the other members prior to our meeting for “track changes” feedback. This will allow us to focus on the reading.

2.) None of us are very interested in line edits (unless something is glaring), but we want to get feedback on character, plot, scene choice, motivations, etc. (Craft issues)

3.) We will help each other through plot glitches and even do a “getaway retreat” for serious plotting sessions on future books.

4.) We chatted about limiting our reads to a number of pages and/or a time limit per member, but none of us liked the rigidity. So as we get into this, we will be considerate of not overstepping each other’s time and bring what we need to read to keep us on any publisher’s deadline. We will stay until everyone gets what they need.

5.) We’ll rotate the meetings between member’s houses, as long as the commute isn’t too much on any one person. (Two authors are located more conveniently for all of us.)

6.) We are at four members and like that headcount. Whatever we say in the group will be confidential.

So that is a summary of my new crit group. I’m sure we will define things as we go, to suit the needs of the group, but I’d love to hear from you, TKZers.

For discussion purposes, my questions to all of you (who have way more experience than I do with critique groups) are:

1.) What works in your groups? What do you look for in a crit group?

2.) What doesn’t work?

3.) What do you wish you could add to your groups?

Jordan Dane’s Crystal Fire (The Hunted Series with HarlequinTeen) now available for pre-order. Release November 26, 2013.

“The Hunted – Strong characters and a wild and intense story.”
4.5 Stars – Romantic Times Magazine

Plotting visually:You’ve got to see it to believe it

Writing a novel can drive you crazy. There are all these characters running around yakking their heads off and doing weird things. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over any of it.
It makes me think I need one of those big ugly organizational flow charts you might see on the wall of oh, I dunno, the IRS? 
Crazy, right? Well, if I’m nuts than so is J.K. Rowlings. And Norman Mailer. And Joseph Heller. And Henry Miller.
Because all of them, I found out this week, make drawings and charts and elaborate maps to help them find their ways through the thicket of plot and characters. Check this out:
This is J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (Click to make image larger…you’re gonna need it). And below is Norman Mailer’s drawing for Harlot’s Ghost. (To see other famous writer examples CLICK HERE.)
At first this made me think of that axiom about sausage-making and the law, that it’s better not to see them being made. Don’t we all — readers and writers alike — want to believe that novels arise from some deep mystic well of creativity? But then I realized that no, I really enjoy it when I get a glimpse of the architecture beneath a novel. And like I said, it also makes me feel less…nuts.
We talk alot here at The Kill Zone about the difference between plotters vs pantsers. (ie do you outline or do you wing it?). But we never talk about the picture makers. I am a picture maker. I can’t keep control of my story, can’t control its pacing and rhythms, can’t really SEE where it’s going, unless I draw it.
I used to think I was alone in this but I found out many authors use some kind of story boarding. Some even use software for it, Scrivner being a favorite. My dear late friend Barbara Parker had beautifully rendered storyboards on her office wall that would have made any Hollywood mogul proud.  My scribbles aren’t nearly so neat but they do the job. It also something born of necessity because if you work with a collaborator, you both have to be literally on the same page.
My co-author sister Kelly and I happened upon our methodology by accident about nine books ago. She was visiting me here in Florida and one day I came home and saw this:
Kelly had written all our plot points down on scraps of paper and taped them to a board. (The wine is an optional but vital writing tool). We found this was a quick way to visualize our plot, move chapters or add things. It also acts as a chronology and time line, which is valuable during rewrites.We eventually graduated to Post-It notes. And the PLOT BOARD, as we call it, became more complicated as we refined our methods:
One Post-It per chapter, each with the salient plot points in that chapter. Usually, our Louis Kincaid books are written only from his POV so it’s all yellow. EXCEPT: we sometimes use pink for what we call “personal” chapters. This is because as we mix “case/plot” chapters with character-development chapters (ie personal) we are constantly aware of the need to keep the main plot moving. Too many pinks in a row? That’s death in a suspense novel so we find a way to distribute that extra pink stuff around. It’s all about pacing. This board above, however, is for HEART OF ICE, which is a more complex plot. It has five POVS, so we use a different color for each. Again, it helps with pacing.  
But we do more than just plotting on boards. We often need some pretty elaborate drawings, maps, and charts to keep track of things.
This board above was for THE LITTLE DEATH. The plot concerns multiple bodies found in disparate locations in Florida’s cattle country. Louis finds no connections between the murders until he digs deep into each victim’s life. This board helped up keep the victims’s backgrounds straight as well as where the bodies were found in relation to each other (an important clue).
Here is a board for A THOUSAND BONES. This book drove us nuts because the plot, about a serial killer operating over almost 20 years, was very complex. Its backstory begins in 1964 and the main plot moves to 1990. The killer left tree carvings with each victim but the carvings changed as he got older. We had to kept track of each girl’s backstory, where the body was found (the color coding), what personal items were found with each, and what carving.
We do a lot of family trees. This one above was for SOUTH OF HELL. Almost none of these characters appear in the book but we had to know who begat who, mainly because Louis happens upon an old family Bible that helps him solve the case.  In another book, ISLAND OF BONES, there is a weird multi-generational family living on a remote island in the Florida gulf and Louis discovers a cemetery where the headstones give him major clues. The family tree was so tangled our publisher even put a diagram in the book.  
Above might explain why, despite the fact I was an art major, I do not make my living that way. Seriously, it is a drawing I did for our book AN UNQUIET GRAVE. It is set in an abandoned insane asylum and because I was having trouble explaining to Kelly how I pictured the grounds and buildings, I drew this for her. The blue connecting lines? Those are the tunnels in which our hero Louis gets lost and almost killed.

One of the biggest problems I think many manuscripts have is that the reader can’t VISUALIZE the physical action ie the moving around in physical space of the characters. Because the writer has not done an adequate job of describing places and actions, we are confused. And maybe it’s simply because the writer did not take the time to “draw” things out in his own mind. It’s important that a writer be able to clearly SEE a story so that the reader can as well.

Speaking of seeing stuff…
This is our character board. We started it about twelve years ago just for fun. One day, feeling burned out after a hard day writing, we started thumbing through magazines finding pictures of people we thought looked like our characters. On here you’ll find Louis’s foster father Phil (actor Michael Rennie), his old boss Chief Wainwright (coach Bill Parcells), his lover Joe Frye (a young Charlotte Rampling), his best friend Mel Landeta (fellow author Jon King) and Roland the serial killer (a random shot we found on the State of Florida Department of Corrections website of mug shots). We did this for fun but, again, when you have two brains creating characters, it helps it you can visualize a real face.
Postscript: A couple days after I wrote this, I met with my critique group. They were having problems with a scene I had written where a character gets thrown out of a car on I-75. My mates couldn’t VISUALIZE what I had described and I found myself saying “Yeah but this is what I meant!” In frustration, I drew them a picture of the road and the swale, the car’s position, a little stick man body, etc. They all looked at me, shaking their heads, and one said, “Well, that’s not what you wrote.”

Bingo. Once I drew it, I realized I had everything wrong, including what side of the highway they were on.

What about you guys? I know we’ve got pantsers and plotters out there. Any picture makers? Send me your examples and we’ll do a follow up. Send them to killzoneblog at gmail dot com. (Sorry, gotta spell it out to avoid spammers) Show me your pictures!

Keeping a Dirt File

By Nancy J. Cohen

For mystery writers, having a dirt file is akin to keeping a gold mine in your house. What is it? I’m referring to a folder full of clippings you’ve taken from the newspaper or magazines that may be relevant to your work someday. I get out a pair of scissors whenever I read a paper copy of the Sunday newspaper. A recent issue’s headline caught my eye: Bomb Case Awash in Mystery.
As soon as I saw mention of a pipe bomb found under an SUV in a suburban neighborhood, I knew I’d hit gold. Suspect A noticed something strange under his car. It turned out to be a homemade bomb. He accused his wife’s lover of planting the device. This man, suspect B, said that he was framed by Suspect A and the wife. But it didn’t help his claim of innocence when the wife was found to have a $500,000 life insurance policy on her husband. Then the lover’s DNA was found on the bomb. But was it rigged to go off, or was it set as a false trail? To complicate the issue, police discovered videos of Suspect B and his stepdaughter having sex. Oh, man. I couldn’t have made this up! You know how truth is stranger than fiction? Here’s a perfect example.

When might I use this information? When I’m determining the suspects in my next mystery. I’m always looking for motives and secrets people may hide. Or an article like this might kick off a new plot. Think about the puzzles here. It seems an open-and-shut case about the wife and her lover trying to do away with the husband. But what if it’s really the husband and wife trying to frame the lover? Why would they do that? What if…? And here we go. Our imagination is off and running.

Stockpiling clippings doesn’t only apply to the mystery genre. For my science fiction romances, I obtain articles on futuristic technology, whether it’s on flying cars or electromagnetic weapons. Even the power of invisibility has a basis in reality. I have articles to show for these topics. I also cut out stories of true adventure travel. You never know when my hero might have to explore a volcanic crater or traipse through a jungle. Even off the beat pieces that tickle my fancy go into a general research file. You might need inspiration and one of these printouts could fire your imagination.
So are you a crazy clipper like me? I make sure my husband reads the newspaper first before I put holes in it. What kind of dirt do you look for?


Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Have you progressed at least midway through your story and then realized your hero is going down a black hole and you don’t know how to get him out?Recently, I found myself in this situation. In my synopsis, which acts as my writing guideline, I was up to the part where the hero, Lord Magnor, goes to the underworld to obtain a sacred book stolen by Hel, Queen of the Shades. To get there, he has to die. Circumstances with the heroine make him despair of their future together, and so he takes a poison pill that another character has given him.

Here is what my synopsis said:

He awakens underground in front of an iron gate. This leads to a gold-paved bridge that crosses the river Gjoll. Beyond is Helheim, where Hel resides. A giantess guards the gate and asks him for the password. If he fails to give the right answer, she’ll toss him in the river and it will carry him to the land of fire and eternal torment.

Magnor figures out a way past and meets Hel. She isn’t willing to give up the Book of Odin, not even for the mead he’s brought. So he creates a diversion and steals the sacred book.

Now this presented several problems. How does he get past the giantess when he fails to give the right password? How does he get into Hel’s palace? What kind of diversion does he create, and how does he steal the ancient relic?

I printed out these questions and sat on my “thinking couch” until the answers came to me. First of all, if he fails to give the right password, the giantess won’t throw him in the river. Instead, she’ll doom him to spend eternity in the company of other lost souls.
At that point, he has to find another way past the gate. He doesn’t have any cutting tools or acid to break in at some point farther down the line. And even if he could do so, how would he cross the raging river? What he does have are his wits, so he eases into the shadows and cheats by climbing up the rocky wall lining the chamber and gaining access to the opposite bank that way. In other words, he goes up and over instead of across. It’s the Kobayashi Maru solution from Star Trek. If you’re in a no win situation, change the rules.

So what about confronting Hel? He decides upon a frontal approach, stating his business to the palace guards in such a confident manner that he convinces them to allow him an audience with the queen. I’m glossing over the details but suffice it to say he states his case to her and she refuses to comply. Now we need a distraction so he can steal the book that rests in a glass case.

In the story, I’ve already planted the seeds for this solution. He’s been given a magic horn that is supposed to sound a warning when the demon, Loki, is near. But what will happen if Magnor blows the horn within Hel’s palace? He does so, and glass shatters throughout the hall, including the case protecting the sacred book. He snatches the artifact as Hel’s minions surround him.

Now what? The heroine has been told she must obtain a golden apple from the Fae to revive him. But fairies aren’t part of Norse mythology, which my story is based on. Here is what my synopsis says:
Erika must return him to the land of the living. She realizes how much he means to her and won’t risk losing him. However, reviving him isn’t easy. Aware that she only has a certain window in which to resuscitate the warrior, she saves him just in time.

Okay, how does she save him? Anytime you leave things vague like this in your synopsis or writing outline, eventually you have to come up with the details. Again, I’d already sowed the seeds within the story. Erika, a descendant of Odin, has inherited some of his shapeshifter powers. She cannot change her own form, but she possesses the power to manipulate the earth.

Odin also had the “breath of inspiration”, and this reminded me of the breath of life possessed by the Mord Sith in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. What if, instead of going to the Fae, Erika is inspired by the figurines of fairies she’s designed in her pottery studio? Fairies might not be real, but what about fairy dust? And so she uses her innate power to revitalize the hero with the magical dust she breathes into his mouth.

As you can see, whatever corner you back your hero into, if you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, the solution will arise from material you’ve already planted. So go ahead and gloss over these details in your selling synopsis, but be assured when you come to them in the story, the muse will help you fill in those plot holes. You can rewrite your synopsis accordingly.

So who else has backed a character into a corner, and how did you get him out?


By: Kathleen Pickering

Last Thursday, Jordan Dane’s blog discussed how we stumble upon, or in the more focused minds like the scientists of NOVA, discover plots that ultimately form our stories. I’m here to answer Jordan’s ending question on motivating, strange events.

Jordan, I’m discovering the strangest things that make me think of a book plot come from my own family–my sisters and my mother. (My two brothers are currently exempt.) I’m convinced the women in my family have been sabotaging my thirty year marriage and hence, giving me fodder to plot murder mysteries.

For example, today, my bathroom sink drain wouldn’t open. So, I climbed under the cabinet to fix it and found a pair of perfumed women’s Spanx stuffed in the back. Now, mind you, Spanx are not a lacy, black thong, but a highly constructed, beige spandex body slimmer, thigh length. Not at all sexy. See what I mean?


I laugh and post the photo on Facebook because it’s too freaking funny. Between the constant flow of house guests and the occasional pet-sitter, I know there is an answer other than the obvious insinuation that my husband has been having voluptuous women over when I’m traveling. Because after all, I would have to plot a murder mystery based on his unexplained demise, should it be the truth.

A phone call from one of my five sisters solved the mystery: “Oh, Kath. Ha. Ha. That’s mine. I was wearing it at your party in January and it got too uncomfortable. Ha. Ha. I’ll bet you gave Jimmy a rash over that one! By the way, can you take the photo off Facebook?!”

Or the time, when I picked up Jim’s suit from the cleaners, only to have the man who didn’t speak English very well hand me a folded wax paper bag with a woman’s bra . . . lace . . . beige . . . not mine . . . that the cleaner had found in the breast pocket of his jacket! I had been on my way to pick Jim up for a trip to eastern Long Island at the time. Needless to say, this “find” made for some colorful conversation on our two hour trip.

What did we discover upon arrival at my mother’s? “Oh. Ha. Ha. Isn’t that funny,” says Mother. “When you were here last week, I was picking up after everyone went swimming. Saw the bra on the floor, thought it might be yours and stuffed it in Jim’s suit pocket.”

Ha. Ha. It was my other sister’s. Or the other time, my younger sister borrowed my clothes and Jim pinched her rear-end because from the back, he thought she was me? Or the time my other sister took off her shirt in front of Jim thinking she still was wearing a bikini top? Here is a pastel of the women in my family, minus the artist—the one Jim pinched:

Mary alice pastel

The stories go on and on. So, I ask you? What kind of family would sabotage their unsuspecting brother/son-in-law with a wife in possession of an over-active imagination unless they were trying to trigger her homicidal story ideas? There’s more, but I’ve already over run my 300 word count.

The strangest things come from my family, Jordan. I will be writing an autobiography very soon.

NOVA Exposes the Mystery of Plotting

Yesterday I was celebrating the release of my first Young Adult book – In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen) – with my niece who helped me brainstorm some of the details. We had sushi which is our “thing” and Joe Moore’s post on fish yesterday probably had something to do with that decision. We also brainstormed on a new YA paranormal series proposal I was fine tuning. Joe’s topic of beta readers got me thinking about how I come up with plots and sometimes seek help to brainstorm certain aspects, once I get a general idea of what I’d like to do.

For my adult books, many have been inspired by news headlines combined with other ongoing research I do into crime fiction. But for my YA books that often enter into the realm of “Whoo Whoo” territory with ghosts, demons, and other spooky stuff, I have been amazed how my mind works to gather a plot I want to write. (Now I know this is primarily a blog for crime fiction readers and authors, but the process of finding that initial spark of an idea that turns into a full blown plot is still similar for me when I write my adult thrillers, so bear with me.)

So what do the following things have in common?

• A NOVA Science show on venomous snakes and spiders
• Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize winning Molecular Biologist, who studies the telomere of chromosomes
• Black bears in Asia being hunted for their gall bladders
• A NOVA Science show on “Decoding Immortality”
• Hopi Indians

THE ANSWER: Absolutely nothing.

That’s what is so strange about how my mind worked to put these things together to make the plot of my next proposal. The minute I saw the start of the program on venom and snakes, my main teen boy character popped into my head. I’d also seen CNN coverage on the hunted and exploited black bears in Asia more than once and it didn’t stick (other than how sad that story was) until I realized how it related to the boy in my series, a boy who lives with a Hopi clan. Then a new disease that I’d never heard of before was mentioned in the Decoding Immortality program and that leapt into my plot too, dovetailing into Elizabeth Blackburn’s studies on telomeres and longevity that I had seen not long ago. And before I knew it, I was feverishly jotting down notes and had almost all three books in my proposed series mapped out. (I wish I could be more forthcoming with specifics, but since this is a new proposal, I’m being purposefully vague. I hope you get the idea.)

YA books have made me focus on my process for plotting, since the realm of paranormal weirdness doesn’t come naturally for me—although my mother would disagree. But the way I’ve worked the last two book concepts, I let my mind work on the pieces until something clicks and I begin taking notes. Sometimes the note taking is important for me to visually see it on paper before I can pull the parts together in a cohesive plot. I still have to write the book and make it all seem plausible and real for the characters, but the way my mind has been stretched writing YA has made me wonder if this process of weaving strange unconnected tidbits together into a story will spill over into my adult books. Not the paranormal aspects. I’m mainly talking about the way I now connect the dots between my obscure (seemingly unconnected) research and a compelling story.

But I’d like to know what triggers a story in your mind? What usually inspires you? And what are some of the strangest things that made you think of a book plot?

Jordan Dane

In the Arms of Stone Angels (Harlequin Teen, Mar 22, 2011)
Reckoning for the Dead (Avon/HarperCollins, Oct 2011)

Propelling the Plot

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’m in a bit of a slump today as my planned trip to London this evening has been thwarted by a volcano in Iceland (one which, BTW, my husband and I saw on our trip to Iceland a few years ago – though it was dormant at the time). I don’t react well to disappointment (a trait which I need to overcome as a professional writer!), but I can hardly complain given how many people are stranded far from home. Still, I’m mourning the fact that I won’t be able to spend time with my folks over a pint, a bag of crisps and a pork pie..:(

Instead, I get to work through some plot changes to my current WIP based on the terrific insight of my agent (who always seems to know exactly what is wrong with my drafts). Now plot is not one of my strong points…that’s not to say nothing happens in my books (I don’t suffer from that particular literary pretension), it’s just that I often fail to ensure that my characters propel the plot forward. Despite being an outliner, sometimes I allow my characters to get swept up in the events that envelop them, reacting to the situation rather than creating and shaping the story themselves.

So how do I approach fixing this? After I have gone through the initial phase of despondency, hair-pulling and chocolate binging I approach the issue systematically (with my usual dose of neurosis).

These are the steps I plan to take this week to address my latest case of ‘plot deficiency disorder’.

  • First, revisit the fundamentals. What are the motivations of all the key players? How do these and their desired objectives conflict? I then ask myself – how can I up the stakes in order to heighten this conflict and thwart those objectives? Given that most of my issues arise in the dreaded ‘sagging middle’ these questions help me focus on what needs to be accomplished.
  • This step enables me to start brainstorming plot ideas and situations that can heighten these stakes and which ensure the characters drive the action forward. In this second step I try to remain wide open to all options and constantly ask myself ‘what if?’…leaving open almost all possibilities (except those that are inconsistent with the characters I have created).
  • Up until this point I make absolutely no edits to the manuscript – because usually (and this is the case at the moment) the bones of the story are solid and the characters are well developed. I usually start and end a book strongly (small comfort) but the last thing I want to do is start tinkering with the middle until I know exactly what I’m going to do. This is a delicate time as I have to ensure that any plot alterations do not destroy what is currently working well in the story.
  • Before I start editing I draw up a detailed plot map of the revised story and check that the new course of action is true to the characters motivation and that the stakes, now heightened, haven’t become ludicrous or comical…
  • Then and only then do I start rewriting…hoping, of course, that the new plot permutations propel my story to a successful denouement!
So how do you approach plot issues? What steps do you take to remedy a ‘sagging plot’? (All and any tips greatly appreciated as I have a long week of thinking ahead of me!)

I also strongly recommend reading the book Plot & Structure by my fellow blogger, James Scott Bell – it has some great advice which I only wish I followed more often!

Are You Motivated?

By Joe Moore

For most novelists, one of the easiest things to come up with is an idea for a story. It seems that intriguing ideas swirl around us like cell phone conversations—we just use our writer’s instinct to pull them out of the air and act upon them.

The next step is to develop our characters and stitch together the quilt of a plot that will sustain our story for 100k words. And right up front, we must consider what plot motivation will drive the story and subsequently the characters. Fortunately, there are many to choose from.

So what is a plot motivator? It’s the key ingredient that provides drama to a story as it helps move the plot along. Without it, the story becomes static. And without forward motion, there’s little reason to read on.

Here is a list of what’s considered the most common plot motivators.

Ambition: Can you say Rocky Balboa.

Vengeance: Usually an all-encompassing obsession for revenge such as in The Man In The Iron Mask.

The Quest: Lord Of The Rings is a great example as is Journey To The Center Of The Earth.

Catastrophe: A disaster or series of events that proves disastrous like in The Towering Inferno.

Rivalry: Often powered by jealousy. Remember Camelot?

Love/Hate: Probably the most powerful motivator in any story.

Survival: The alternative is not desirable. Think Alien.

The Chase: A key element in numerous thrillers including The Fugitive.

Grief: Usually starts with a death and goes downhill from there.

Persecution: This one has started wars and created new nations.

Rebellion: There’s talk of mutiny among the HMS Bounty crew.

Betrayal: Basic Instinct. Is that boiled rabbit I smell?

You can easily find a combination of these in most books especially with a protagonist and antagonist being empowered for totally different reasons. But the global plot motivator is usually the one that kick starts the book and moves it forward. Which ones have you used in your books? Which are your favorites? Are there any you avoid and why?

Coming Wednesday, September 9: Forensic specialist and thriller author Lisa Black will be our guest.