Monday, August 27, 2018


Henry James said that plot is characters under stress.

When I began working on my second Geneva Chase novel, Darkness Lane, I sent the first hundred pages to my editor at Poisoned Pen Press. In it, Geneva is sober, cooking meals for her and Caroline (Geneva’s ward) in their warm, cozy kitchen, and she’s sworn off married men.

In the first chapter, I wrote about an abused woman who waits until her drunken husband has fallen asleep and then covers him with gasoline and lights a match. By the time the police arrive, the fire department is vainly trying to put out the blaze and the husband is long past screaming.

The cops find the woman standing on the curb with a plastic cup filled with Merlot. She looks at the officers and says, “I’m just toasting my husband.”

A page later, we find that a fifteen-year-old high school girl has gone missing. She happens to be Caroline’s best friend.

A good start? I thought so.

My editor, in her diplomatic but honest way, sent back a critique essentially saying that she could see how I was putting the puzzle pieces in place, but Geneva, my protagonist, was too suburban.

Oh my, God, I’d made her boring!

My editor went on to say, she hoped that the part of the abused woman torching her husband wasn’t being used as a ‘billboard’, a ruse to bring the reader into the story but once you’ve past it, no longer is part of the narrative.

Oh my, God. It was!

Finally, my editor said that in the first hundred pages…NOTHING HAPPENS!

Oh, my God. She’s right!

Two weeks later, I’d rewritten that first hundred pages. After review, my editor came back and told me that the first hundred pages are dark and it feels like everything is right on the edge of disaster. Keep writing.


I put the characters under stress. I made the abused woman a secondary plot line, something that would merge with the disappearance of the high school girl. I brought in two characters from an earlier book I’d written but was never published, bad guys—really bad guys.

Geneva had to have it coming from all sides. Teenage Caroline became a pain in the ass. The publisher of the failing newspaper where Geneva is working is threatening to sell the publication to a media conglomerate, screwing his employees into the ground. A teacher at Caroline’s school disappears at the same time the high school student has gone missing. Geneva discovers the body of the student’s father, brutally murdered.

Geneva starts drinking again.

Characters under stress.

Australian writer, Ian Irvine said, “Conflict forces characters to act in ways that reveal who they are – and nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their troubles.”

He goes on to say, “Stories are about adversity. Happiness can be the ending of the story, but it can’t be the story itself. Why not? Because happy characters don’t want to change. Happiness doesn’t force the characters to act and thus reveal themselves and, if the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.”

Plus, stress and conflict create plot twists. When I write, at some point, the characters take on their own lives. I’m along for the ride. They seem to create their own dialogue, move through a scene without my guidance. And just like real life, things happen that I didn’t see coming. Some of my best plot twists just seem to have happened on their own.

Crazy? You bet. But aren’t all writers a little nuts?

And because your characters are under stress, it can feel uncomfortable to write the scene. It’s painful, not because it’s bad prose, but because your characters are struggling with the obstacles that YOU’VE given them. They’re your characters. You created them. You’re making them suffer.

Overcoming dire obstacles under stress is what draws the reader into your story, advances your plot, and makes your characters more sympathetic.

Have a great week and I hope to see you at either/or the Poisoned Pen Press Mystery Conference in Phoenix over Labor Day weekend and/or at Bouchercon, September 6-9 in St. Petersburg, FL.

1 comment:

Roland Clarke said...

Stress helps even writers, but too much leads to meltdown - at least in my case. Does a character meltdown lead to murder? Perhaps I should kill a character and not the screaming grandkids.