Excavating a Plot

The biggest reason people read books is to find out what happens. Who is the killer? Why’d he do that? Will he survive? Will she get the guy? Will she reconcile with her parents? There are a million variations.  But my personal favorite, and in my opinion the most interesting, is: What the fuck is going on?

No, not ‘What is going on, I have no idea where I am, who is talking, do I even know what day it is?’ I mean ‘What is really going on?’ I mean ‘What is the deeper conspiracy, the real motivation, the hidden secret of this plot?’

After a two week absence (which I do, but don’t, apologize for because I was at the beach – and to keep up my cred I’ll let you know that I stuck to my writing schedule, even on vacation), here is the third post of a five part series on simple (but maybe not so obvious) tips to make our stories better.  If you’re interested, here are parts one and two.  Or you could, you know, scroll down like a normal person.

Today’s topic is Excavating a Plot.

This is a simple and short post.  It’s food for thought.  It’s not an answer.  Because this is a topic we all have to consider and then decide on for ourselves.  Some books are up front about their plot, some books reveal it in the very last line.  Withholding information might work great for one story, but kill another.  Timing the revelations in our books is always important, no matter where those revelations come.

And there.  You already have the gist of this post.  What is going on?  How soon do we reveal what our book is about?  How many layers does our plot have?  Some books have just one or two layers – a murder and an investigation.  Some have many – a murder, an investigation that leads to a conspiracy, a conspiracy that leads back to our character’s past, our character’s past leading to the revelation that the stakes are much higher than a single death; maybe higher than a single city, a single state or country.  (Disclaimer: yes, I do realize those are just thriller stories, insert whatever version works for you).  

Layered plots really are onions, and one line dropped in the outer layer, one paragraph that shows us how much more we don’t even know yet, can make us want to find out what the center of the onion holds so badly that we can’t put the book down (hopefully among several other reasons).

So there you have it.  Layered plots, and deciding when to uncover them, are powerful tools, especially when you lay the right hints for a reader from the beginning.  Many of us simply go through our plot and hash it out like beats of a drum, one scene after another until the end.  It’s important to go back and consider whether you put the information in the right order, whether it has the right timing, whether you put in enough, but not too many, tantalizing hints.  Making a reader question, and want to answer, what is going on in your story is a great skill to have.

Because the truth is that every book is a mystery until you finish it. The trick is making people realize how much they don’t know.