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October 3, 2019

My Kingdom for a Plot!


Warren C. Easley is the author of the Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery series, the seventh installment of which, NO WAY TO DIE, is now available. In this blog post, Easley explains why plotting a mystery is not as easy as some people may think. He also discusses the pros and cons of being an "Outliner" and a "Pantser" --- and what he considers himself to be.

To paraphrase one of Shakespeare’s kings --- you know, the one they found under a parking lot in Leicester a few years back --- “A plot, a plot! My kingdom for a plot!” I love to write, always have. Give me a scene, any scene, and I’ll flesh it out for you. Give me two people caught in a face-to-face encounter, and I’ll capture their dialogue. Show me a setting, and I’ll bring it alive, replete with sights, sounds, smells and touch. But put all the elements of a novel together in a coherent, believable plot? That’s a task that gives me pause.

Plotting a mystery, you might argue, is easier than plotting, say, literary fiction. After all, there are some pretty clear rules in the mystery genre. For example, unless you’re a Louise Penny or a James Lee Burke, you had better kill someone off in the first 50 pages of your book, since the patience of your readers (and publisher) is notoriously short. And you also need to build in an event that signals the approaching climax and ensure that, in fact, you end with a bang, not a whimper. This leaves the “slushy middle,” which must never be slushy, so all manner of clever devices should be inserted not only to drive the plot but to keep the pace brisk and the tone engaging.

Easy, you say?

One school of thought says outlining is the answer. Achtung! What we have here is a need for discipline, we’re told. Put your mind to it, and the plot will seamlessly unfold in an orderly sequence. This group of writers proudly refer to themselves as Outliners. I tried outlining in my early writing without much success. The experience was a little like driving in a dense fog. I could see a small distance ahead and very little from side to side. Sure, I could get something down on paper, but after a short burst of writing, the outline would have to be rewritten. Those pesky, unruly characters of mine kept asserting themselves in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

The other school of thought says that the plot is an organic element that must be allowed to evolve as the story progresses. In other words, the plot builds outwardly, informed primarily by what already has been written. Enter the Pantsers, an equally proud group that flies by the seat of its pants, metaphorically speaking. This laissez-faire approach may sound appealing, especially to those like me who dislike planning ahead. But the other side of that coin is that the story can easily bob and weave itself into chaos, a kind of literary proof of the law of entropy. And I can tell you from experience, there is nothing more painful than backing out of a corner into which you have written yourself. It invariably involves trashing a lot of good work.

Of course, authors should adopt a strategy for plotting a novel that works best for them. I land somewhere between the extremes of rigid outlining and unfettered evolution, although I admit to being a Pantser most of the time. I didn’t plan on using a hybrid strategy. It turned out that was the only way I could get a book written and keep my sanity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to figure out how the book I’m currently writing is going to end.