The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict. James Frey
I’ve discovered there are two kinds of writers: those who plot everything out ahead of time and those who write “into a mist” that gradually clears as the story unfolds. Or a mix of both.
Whatever you’re most comfortable with is the way you should write. Neither method is right or wrong. What matters is that you find the way your mind and muse works and trust that natural process.
I’ve read a lot of writing books that tell you they know the only way to write a book. Well, that way is really their way. You need to find your internal rhythm and process and work with that. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn from others. I read widely, cull the gold from the dross, and I toss the rest to the side.
What ever your method, before you’ve finished your mayhem/suspense novel, there are things that have to be there for the book to work in the genre. These are tools that help me make sure my book has a strong foundation. If you plot ahead, you can use them to plan, or after you emerge from the mist, use these techniques in your editing phase to make your book as strong as possible.
Growing your idea or doing a post mortem on your idea using plot points.
Screenwriter Syd Field has a great method for discovering the main plot points of your story. I’ve heard them called “set pieces,” too. What it means is, if you’re writing a particular type of story, there are elements that you must have.
For instance, in addition to the elements common to a novel, a mystery would also have a murder, clues, a sleuth, an investigation, red herrings, and a reveal. These would be “mystery set pieces.”
A romance novel’s set pieces would include a meeting, a first kiss, problems that keep them apart and problems that bring them together, and an HEA (happy ever after).
Mayhem/suspense set pieces are similar to a mystery, but would also include: a problem to solve, a ticking clock, setbacks to overcome, investigations, reveals and endings.
If you’re mixing other genres into your mayhem, such as romance, keep in mind that you’ll need to weave these set pieces (or genre conventions) with your mayhem set pieces.
Depending on your target market, either the suspense will be your dominate plot, with the romance as a subplot, or the reverse. But, and this is important, if you can remove either the subplot or the main plot, and still have a story, you haven’t done your job. Both genre elements need to be integral to the story in the same way a skeleton is integral to the human body.
What I like about Syd Field’s plot points is that they give you a sort of road map within a road map. He uses his for screenwriting, but I find it very helpful when working on my novels. (I use a lot of screenwriting techniques in my writing. Because screenwriting focuses on the visual they help me see my story in ways that novel writing books don’t.)
Field identifies key elements or set pieces as:
- The Setup or beginning
- Inciting Incident
- Plot Point One
- Plot Point Two
The setup or beginning is the way your character’s world is before the problem arises. It may be included in your actual novel or it may not. It depends on the needs of your book. Some writers like to begin in the midst of the problem, or after the inciting incident, because it makes a better beginning.
If you’re not sure, experiment with it. Read a bunch of beginnings and try adapting those techniques to your novel. Keep pushing until you find the right beginning for your story.
We’ll talk about the set up more, when we talk about mood, scene and tone, but right now, we’ll just say, the story needs to begin.
The next plot point or set piece you need is the “inciting incident.” While it sounds important, it just means something goes wrong in your character’s world.
It’s the moment when your character sees something they shouldn’t, or receives information that is dangerous, or turns down the wrong street. Someone dies. Someone goes missing. A crime is committed. Something happens, something bad.
In Spy, the inciting incident is when Kel dives through the sunroof of Isabel’s car. This gives her the opportunity to change her life. Notice the inciting incident is just the beginning of change. The character still needs to make a decision.
When I was writing The Key, it took me a long time to figure out what was my inciting incident. It could have been before the story, when Sara decides to join the Air Force, but I think it’s when Sara lands on a mysterious outpost and she decides to go into the dark and scary building. This action changes Sara’s personal story and eventually that decision impacts the larger story in ways even I didn’t see coming.
The set up and inciting incident should happen in the first 100 pages of a 400 page novel. And they should be quickly followed by the first key plot point where your main character decides to act, that moment where he or she chooses to become involved.
They may have inadvertently gotten into the mess, but at some point they need to become proactive. When the bad guys push, they need to start pushing back.
Don’t feel bad if it takes you a while to isolate the key moment. Sometimes I can’t see it until I go back and look, but if you don’t find it, you need to rework the story until there is a key moment of character decision. It’s important that your character acts and isn’t just acted upon.
The middle of your story is the longest section and has this unfortunate tendency to sag. If your story is 400 pages, then by 200 page point, you should be midway through your story.
You may not know where that is when you first start. Sometimes knowing your midpoint only helps you in the rewrite, but at some point, you want to be able to see a story that is evenly balanced on either side of your mid-point in the page count.
If all the action is occurring in the first part and things slow down in the second half, you have a problem and you need to start shifting things around and/or brainstorming more conflict and action.
If you’re not sure your story is balanced, get some note cards and go through it, scene by scene. Lay all the cards out and count them. You can also color code them by scenes that reveal character, action scenes, character reflection scenes, etc.
This exercise is also useful in creating a marketing synopsis.
By the end of your middle third of the story, there should be another, key plot point that again, spins the story in a new direction. This could be finding out the person you thought was the bad guy, isn’t the main bad guy, but a minor bad guy.
If you’ve ever watched the show 24, they do this very, very well. That show could be a primer on how to make characters suffer and how to ratchet up the suspense.
This plot point also needs to steer or propel the story toward the climax, which should occur close to the end of the story.
Just reading this might make you feel overwhelmed. It can sound very clinical when you’re talking about plot points and spins and climaxes. Keep in mind that your book isn’t fixed until you want it to be. You can change anything. You can make it all better during the rewrite phase.
Part of being successful at writing mayhem and suspense is developing a feel for the ebb and flow of action. Looking for key action scenes is like a check and balance for your gut instinct. You need to be able to write them and then you need to be able to find them, but you don’t have to do any of it all at once.
I don’t know too many authors who don’t have their own black moment while writing a book. It’s a point when you’re sure you’ve written crap and that the story isn’t going to work, let alone end. I go through this every book. All I can tell you is, trust yourself. Trust your characters. Keep pushing forward.
You can always fix what you’ve written, but you can’t fix what you haven’t written. You can’t edit an empty page. Get something down, even if it seems over-the-top and outrageous. Don’t be afraid to push your personal envelope. The first draft is just for you.
Again, a lot of this will help you in that rewrite, help you be able to bring a critical eye to your work and see what’s there and what’s missing so you can make it the best book possible.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the climax and resolution. In a mayhem/suspense story, the climax and resolution are fairly easy to define. The climax should involve a black moment when all seems lost, a dazzling wrap up where the bad guy is thoroughly defeated, where the hero/heroine triumpsh and the problem he/she caused ends in a satisfying way.
Your mayhem/suspense climax should deliver on what you’ve promised all through your book. If you’ve promised a high profile, larger-than-life ending, don’t wimp out. Keep pushing until you deliver the goods.
I read this book with this unstoppable villain. All through the book, he dogs the heroine and heroine, is on their heels, almost getting them again and again. Then, the “stunning “ climax has the villain run out of steam just as he is about to defeat the hero. It was stunning…stunningly disappointing.
Don’t panic. In the next chapter, I discuss some ways to crank up the suspense and deliver on the smash bang ending.
The resolution is the wrap up of the disruption in your character’s lives and should be close on the heels of the climax. The resolution resolves your character’s life, not the story problem. They return to normal or to their new normal or they’ve lost normal forever.
If you’re writing a romantic mayhem/suspense, then the romance also needs to be resolved by the end of the book.
And don’t forget your subplot. It should have some of the set pieces of the main story, including a smaller climax and resolution. The best subplots are tied to the main story line, so that they all wrap up together. The best subplots mirror the main plot or contrasts with it.
What plot you make dominate and which you make sub depends on your personal preference and the market you are targeting. For instance, some romance publishers/readers like a fifty/fifty split, others prefer the romance or suspense to be dominant.
In my books, the subplot is a romance between the main characters, though in the later books in my Lonesome Lawmen series, I also had a subplot with some of my supporting characters. Your subplot/s needs to be tightly woven into your story. Once again, if you can remove it without harm to your story, you don’t have a subplot, you have a story within a story and you should connect it to the main plot or get rid of it.
If you’re having trouble with your subplot, try getting rid of it. Or set it aside until you’ve got the main story doing what you want.
I can’t repeat this often enough: your story isn’t fixed until it’s in print. You write and rewrite until its how you want it. If you don’t like deleting, create a file just to save deleted material. And keep in mind that nothing you write is ever really lost. It comes, it goes, it finds its place—just not always in your time frame.
Learning when to let go, when to delete, is as important as learning what to keep in. If you’re totally in love with a scene or even just a sentence or sentences, get rid of it. Love clouds the thinking. Save it somewhere else if you have to, but cut it out and keep it out until you’ve finished your last edit. By then you might have enough distance to see it properly.
To sum up:
Plot Point One
Plot Point Two
If you can find all these in your story, and they are nicely balanced on either side of your mid-point, you’re well on your way to having a strong mayhem/suspense novel.
© 1998-2016 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones.