Many writers have commented—and written books—about constructing a plot. This information is helpful. It’s part of learning your craft. No one wants to write to a formula, but knowing formulas that work gives you freedom to deviate from them wisely and creatively. Rules are made to be broken, but first you have to know the rules.
Basic story structure—common to stories that have been told and written since man’s earliest days—consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. In today’s fiction, we might refine that to include an opening scene, an inciting incident that changes everything, a series of tension-building crises, a climax, and an ending (not necessarily a resolution). Even “pantsers,” those who write without an outline, keep a basic structure in mind—or create one in revision.
One of the hard truths I learned writing my first book was that producing a cohesive story takes more than putting lovely words on a page. It takes more than creating a believable setting and interesting, memorable characters. Writing a novel requires an understanding of story-telling—what it takes to keep the reader turning pages. This is especially true when you’re writing a mystery where the idea is to pose a question like “Who killed so-and-so and why?” and then gradually unfold clues until the answer is revealed.
Weaving a plot requires planning, but how a writer plans can vary. Story structures that have proven helpful include:
1. Classic Story Structure (Dean Koontz)
2. Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell; used by Tolkien in The Hobbit)
3. The Seven-Point Story (Dan Wells; e.g. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter)
4. The Snowflake Method (Randy Ingermanson)
5. The Four-Act Structure (Joyce Sweeny’s “The Plot Clock”)
6. In Medias Res (Toni Morrison’s Paradise is an example)
7. The Plotting Roadmap (Jane K. Cleland)
8. The W Plot (Mary Carroll Moore)
Certain structures work better for some genres than others. Some methods work better for plotters than pantsers—and vice versa. The method that works for you might depend partly on how your mind works, so it’s not a one-method-fits-all kind of thing.
In a classic mystery, whichever method you use, part of the planning process involves keeping track of story lines and clues—making sure you’ve revealed enough information (both real clues and red herrings) to keep the reader guessing and yet to justify the final outcome. As certain questions are answered and suspects are eliminated, other questions must take their place.
Keeping track of all this can get complicated. Some authors use file cards. Others use story-boarding. I use a spread sheet.
This spread sheet is part of the one I created for my second Kate Hamilton mystery, A Legacy of Murder. The background colors represent major divisions of the story (acts). Among the details I keep track of are: chapter and scene, date, location, main characters, mini-synopsis, page range, and total pages in the chapter.
My system may not work for you, but it works for me.
If you’re a writer, are you aware of plot structure as you write—or are you one of those lucky ones for whom story-telling comes naturally?
If you’re a reader, what is one of your favorite stories, and why?