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.


11 comments on “Excavating a Plot”

  1. Having disagreed a LOT with the first post in this series (I was going to write an in-depth counter argument but just didn’t get time) it’s cool to find one that does resonate with me…

    ‘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.’

    You couldn’t have summed up what I did with my latest novel better. That’s exactly it, and why it took so much redrafting and checking of lines with hidden meanings and getting the pre-figuring right. Ever since I wrote one really cool plot twist about eight years ago I have, admittedly, been obsessed with them. That’s the beauty of crime writing, whether you do it in a contemporary world or a futuristic one like I do: it relies on exactly what you’ve described to make it good.

    1. True story! You read series like Harry Potter, where minor details from the first book show up as huge elements in the last book, and you wonder, “Did she plan that from the beginning?”

    2. I can only imagine! I’ve thought about writing a series. I’ve also thought about making the book I am currently writing into a series. But there is so much planning and in the end, you really need to decide what is useful and what isn’t. And if it is worth having a series. If you are writing a series currently, best of luck!!

  2. This is exactly why I read books. I love it when the onion keeps growing more and more layers as you dig through it…I think I mixed that metaphor a little too much. It’s also hard to know when you’ve dropped too many hints about an upcoming plot twist and spoiled it, versus when you haven’t dropped enough and people will be confused when it happens. Such a precise balancing act!

  3. I think it is interesting how many different ways writers can reveal a plot. Usually, at least for what I read, the plot is placed in the middle of the book. You have a lead up to the characters, you get attached and then the breaking point is placed in. I recently read a book however that is a 5th book to a series, but the 5th book was never planned. However, the author was so attached she couldn’t let the characters go yet. The 5th book reveals the plot within the first 60 pages. And the rest of the 300 is dealing with the plot she just dropped in the book. I found this interesting because if you are a great writer, you are able to keep all your characters interesting and keep the reader hooked throughout the entire book.

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