Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Plot

I (Donis) am not here today. I'm at Scottsdale Public Library participating in a day-long mystery-writing workshop sponsored by our local Sisters in Crime chapter. I'm conducting a session how to plot a mystery novel. A bit ironic. I have all kinds of advice about techniques and formats, but in the end, I believe that there are no hard and fast rules on how to successfully create a plot.

I’ve just been reading a book on writing by Norman Mailer entitled The Spooky Art. My first thought when I picked up this book was that Mailer didn’t really need to write anything else to sum up the art of writing, for in the end, it really is a spooky art. If it works, it works, or as my mother used to say, nothing succeeds like success. Having said that, writing is a craft, like any other art, and just like a musician or a painter, a writer has to begin with the basics and know the technique of his art inside and out before he is skilled enough to know how to effectively depart from it. My favorite metaphor is that you can study music theory until you have a Ph.D., but then you have to practice til your fingers bleed, or you’ll never be a master violinist.

Mailer has a few thoughts about plot that resonated with me when I read them. “We live in and out of ongoing plots every day of our lives,” he said. “Only our own life story is not missing most of the pages. One could make the case that our love of plot come out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that is so often missing in our own existence.” That is, in our real lives, we never really get the whole story of how and why something happened. This is why a well plotted book is so satisfying. And finding out the entire story of how and why something happened is the whole point of a mystery novel.

Mailer goes on to say, “The decisions you make while writing fiction can leave you uneasy. If your characters come alive, that’s fine. They will carry you part of the way. But finally, your people have to make what might be termed career decisions. [I love his way of putting that - 'career decisions' - i.e. if my heroine does this instead of that, it's going to affect the entire rest of the story. D.] ...Such choices are non-operative for writers who have the story complete in their mind before they begin. So I repeat : I look to find my book as I go along. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself. Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.”

When it comes to plotting, whatever works for you is what you should do. I have an author friend who said she creates a 150 page outline before she begins writing and sticks with it it religiously. Of course, she’s a lawyer. Another friend always writes a long outline, then departs from it about ten pages in.

I’m more like Mailer. I start with a murder. I usually have an idea of who did it, and why, but when I begin to write, I think of Alafair as a stand-in for the reader. She looks at this body, and wonders who did it and why, then follows the trail wherever it may lead her, and it may lead her to places I never thought of. One thing I always keep in mind when plotting is that mystery readers are quite sophisticated. They have seen it all and know all your tricks, so you really have to be devious and inventive in order to stay one step ahead of them.


Diane said...

Enjoyed your post. Plotting is something I focus on once the first draft is completed. I focus on the murder, characters, and atmopshere then I come back and fill in the holes (and there are many, protagnoist can't be here on this day because she was there sort of thing) in my plot. I find this the most tedious part of writing but I'm a newbie, maybe it will grow on me.

hannah Dennison said...

I do wish I could be at your workshop today Donis. Can't wait to hear more about it. Great post!