The story is not in the plot but in the telling. Ursula K. LeGuin
Where do you get your ideas? That’s probably the question that authors get asked the most. For purveyors of mayhem the variation would be, “How on earth did you come up with that?” (Usually accompanied by a look that is half admiring, half horrified.)
For the high concept writer, ideas are often ripped from the headlines—or from looking down the road to what could be in the headlines next week or next year. You need to be able to look at what’s there, give it a spin, and imagine what could be to stay ahead in this challenging variation on the genre.
But headlines aren’t the only places for ideas. Sometimes a scene can spark an idea. My husband and I went to this fundraiser at the zoo in New Orleans. It was at night, formal dress required at the zoo. Picture bright, bright lights, women in gowns and men in tuxedos, with pools of deep dark and the sounds of the animals all around.
My first thought was, “Wow, this would be a great place to kill someone.” I may have said it out loud. And that might have been when my husband started asking our kids for an autopsy. (It ended up in Dangerous Dance, btw.)
Ideas can start with characters, with an overheard fragment of conversation, with a death, an act of blackmail—almost anything can trigger an idea of you’ve got your mayhem antennae out.
You’ll probably find each book develops from a different place if you continue to write mayhem/suspense books. But each and every book needs to start with an idea that has lots of mayhem potential.
Ideas can simmer for a long time in your head, taking years to become whole books. They can come fast and furious. They can come to you in unexpected ways.
The Spy Who Kissed Me started while I was watching the first Gulf War on television. I found myself wondering what would happen if someone stole one of those smart bombs. Or three.
Did you catch that? If you hear yourself asking what if, you’re probably on the path to a story.
The Last Enemy grew up out of a snippet of a nightmare and my first experiences in the online world. I was fascinated by the idea of how well you can know someone you’ve never met. How that could work for, and against you, if you were on the run from a killer.
Out of Time was the result of a question, that lead to another question: what would happen if a woman traveled back in time and messed up her family’s history? What if she had to go back and fix it?
The Key was the result of a character and too much time watching a show on television. I actually started writing it, just to get it out of my head. I didn’t write science fiction, so it wasn’t a “real” story until I passed the one hundred page mark and realized that Sara, my main character, knew she had a story to tell and was determined I was going to write it down.
It turned out to be a lot of story.
No matter where your ideas come from, there are some questions you should be able to answer as you begin to construct a solid, satisfying mayhem/suspense novel.
Do I have enough peril to keep my characters in trouble through a whole novel? Is there enough at stake for my characters? Do I have to rely on natural disasters to sustain the conflict? (You can complicate your characters lives with natural events, upping the stakes, but they shouldn’t be a crutch you throw in when you need something to happen. Dead bodies and bullets flying however…)
When I was writing A Dangerous Dance, I realized I had a problem. In my original synopsis, Dorothy comes back to Louisiana because of an election. I realized this wasn’t creating enough peril, so I threw in a murder, then upped the stakes by tossing in a ticking clock for the killer. Without giving too much away, this sent my story off in some interesting new directions, some that even surprised me.
Is my peril logical and believable within the world I’ve created? (It doesn’t have to be “real” but it does need to make sense within the confines of your book.)
Fictional mayhem has gone in some interesting directions in the last few years. Heroes can be vampires, elves or dragons and readers are eating them up because the authors make the reader believe in these strange new “realities.”
My books tend to be set in the “real” world, but let’s face it, most “real” people don’t solve murders and if danger threatens, they run from it. I actually used this to my advantage in The Spy Who Kissed Me, by having Isabel keep trying to get out of danger, instead of being determined to solve the mystery.
In The Key, Sara is an Air Force pilot and part of an expedition to a distant galaxy, so she has good reason to be in the story, but I pump it up by having her temper get her into additional trouble—character feeding into, and helping to drive the plot forward.
Do my characters have to stay and resolve the situation? If they can leave and reduce the peril, then you need to rethink your plot.
To believe your story, the readers have to believe that your character has no choice but to deal with events as they arise in your story. Usually, in a mayhem story, it is the threat to life that drives the story forward, but you also have to make it believable for that threat to continue. If your story can be resolved by the character doing something sensible, like calling the cops, then you have a credibility problem.
The one thing you don’t want to do in a suspense story is have characters that look stupid (known as TSTL – too stupid to live). Readers can sympathize with a character who loses her temper, but not one who goes where no reasonable person would go.
Again, you’re looking for the appearance of real, not actual reality. Real people often do terribly stupid things. Heroic characters don’t get to go there without really good reasons.
Is my peril imminent? You need a fast ticking clock, not a calendar, when trying to ratchet up suspense. There is no suspense if your problem will come to a head in a few years. You want to put the pressure on your characters and keep it there. They have to solve the problem by X time or Bad Things will happen.
So, were you able to answer a resounding yes! to every question?
Okay, so now we know our characters are going to have a problem that they’ll need to solve in order to save their life or the lives of others. You’ll find it helpful, both during the writing and after, if you can express that problem in one to three, concise sentences. It’s like a story target for you to aim for while writing, and a pitching tool when you’re done.
In the movie business, it’s called a log line. Someone has to do something or something bad will happen.
My log line for Last Enemy is:
An author must script her own survival when she’s targeted for death by a hit man.
Put quite simply, she’s going to die if she doesn’t do something to stop it.
For Do Wah Diddy Die I went with:
Luci Seymour – sexy & free spirited – returns to steamy New Orleans in search of the father she’s never met. She finds murder, mayhem, love and adventure when her timing puts her directly in the sights of an elderly hit couple and a con man’s last scam.
This was a hard log line to write until I figured out that Luci just got in someone’s way. Once I realized this, the story began to come easier. If you’re blocked or stuck, sometimes just trying to write a logline can get you moving again.
For The Key I went with:
When Air Force Pilot, Sara Donovan, joins Project Enterprise, she knows she’ll be traveling dangerously far outside the Milky Way. What she doesn’t expect is to find is a mysterious, hidden city that might have the answers to her baffling abilities and her mother’s past—a past that wants to pull Sara into the same danger her mother fled.
This was also a hard logline to write, mostly because the story was big and went in a lot of directions. I finally “got” it when I focused on the personal—on Sara. What was her problem?
For Out of Time:
What happens when a twenty-first century woman on a mission to change the past meets a thoroughly 1940s man trying to stay alive in the hellish skies over war-torn Europe.
Instead of using my two story questions in this logline, I focused on the essential problem—changing the past—to figure this one out.
Taking a step back from the particular, for the broad strokes, the essential problem in all of these stories is: not getting killed. Each logline either states or hints at this as part of the story problem.
You can kick it up to high concept by adding: saving the city, the country, the world, the known universe. It’s also nice if your logline can reflect the personal stake—because your character has a personal stake, right?
The Key is probably my most high concept book, since the stakes are very high for a lot of people, but Sara also has a very personal stake in the story, because of her puzzling abilities and her questions about her mother. Having public and personal stakes actually helps you kick it up another notch when you’re writing the book, even if the book isn’t high concept.
What makes your story unique and enticing, of course, is the next step in the basic process, but it does help if you can home in on your basic conflict right from the start. Again, with a good logline, you’ll not only have a better chance of staying on target with your plot, but you’ll have a useful marketing tool when you’re ready to start querying editors.
Which brings us to our first story question:
What comes first? Character or plot?
While the suspense novel is plot heavy, the reader has to care about the characters. You can start your novel from either a character or a plot, but both have to be strong and well-developed when you finish.
Sometimes you’ll start with plot. Let’s say you have a clever mayhem/suspense idea. You’ll need characters to make it happen, which means you’ll need to create the characters that would be found in your particular story.
Who will people your plot in a believable way? And when I say believable, I don’t mean in the real world, I mean in a way readers will believe. (Remember the vampires, dragons and elves I mentioned before. Readers will believe a lot if you do your job right.)
I like taking characters that are ordinary and get into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have to dig into themselves to overcome the danger. But I have written books where my characters actively seek out the danger.
In Byte Me. Phoebe is a thief bent on revenge against the man who killed her sister.
Out of Time features a character who thrives on risk taking before she travels back in time.
And as I mentioned, Sara of The Key, is an Air Force pilot. Obviously she has no problem with danger.
The last two are still “fish out of water” stories, though, since Mel travels back to World War II and Sara ends up in a distant galaxy. Clearly I have an affinity for “fish out of water” tales—a taste that is reflected in my reading, too.
As you begin to explore your own ideas, you’ll probably find yourself drawn to particular ideas and themes. It’s good to get to know yourself, and what you like, if only to make sure you don’t get stale. It’s okay to reinvent the wheel—or the fish out of water story—as long as you actually reinvent it and don’t just endlessly recycle it. You want your readers to wonder how you did it, not feel been there, done that.
If your idea begins with a character or characters, instead of a plot, then you need to figure out how to put them in peril. What is it about their life that will create the peril and what is it about their character that will drive them to solve the problem and survive the peril?
This was my problem when I began working on Missing You. I’d written stories for both of Luke’s brothers, so with this book, I had a character in search of a story. It helped that he was a homicide detective, but I also needed the plot to be large enough to bring his brothers into play, and they were both US Marshals.
And if that weren’t enough, I had to find him a wife. That meant she had to seem wrong for him at first—or at least there had to be uncertainty—but in the end she had to be perfect for him. I gave Amelia amnesia, mostly because I wanted to. What Amelia does remember does not give either of them much comfort. Again, those public and private stakes in the outcome help drive the conflict and the action.
They also help create story questions you have to answer. These naturally keep the story moving forward, if you’ve done the right work for your novel.
But whether a book comes easy or hard, what I drive toward with all my books is that moment when the characters spring to life and begin to help me tell their story. We’ll pick up character creation after we deal with plot.
© 1998-2016 All rights reserved. Pauline Baird Jones.