Thursday, May 14, 2015


Lately, I've been thinking about story structure – how it takes shape, and how to best achieve an effective plot.

This stems from two recent visits (and conversations) with Edgar-winner SJ Rozan and screenwriter and show-runner (Dexter) Clyde Phillips. These writers have very different takes on plotting and structure, and my discussions with each was fascinating.

SJ says plotting, for her, is like driving cross country at night: she writes to the edge of her headlights, knowing only that much of her story in advance. Clyde, accustomed to working out his plots on a storyboard before writing a TV script, has a novel-crafting process similar to the way he plots his TV shows: he outlines books meticulously (upwards of 70 pages for a 350-page thriller).

For me, a writer whose process falls somewhere between the two mentioned above, I find it fascinating to talk to SJ and Clyde because I can see – upon reading each writer's work – how their process plays out. Clyde's novel Unthinkable is airtight and sparse, and the end is absolutely wonderful – you will never see it coming. SJ's novel Winter and Night is every bit as satisfying but completely different – full of rich details and descriptions. I would recommend both books. And you will see each writer's process as you read.

As we all know, there are no rules to writing, no one best way to do it. When it comes to plotting, you find your way (literally and figuratively) as you go. Below, is a writing activity I've used to teach some elements of plotting. If you try it, let me know by e-mailing me. I'd love to read what you come up with

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotline Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories cinematically? By using scenes to convey the story-line. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Read the following plot-line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which you could begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.
  1. Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.
  2. She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.
  3. After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.
  4. Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.
  5. Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.
  6. Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.
  7. Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.
  8. Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”
  9. Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.
  10. She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.
  11. In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.
  12. Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callous?

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