Saturday, February 16, 2008

Plotting the Suspense

1. Plot (conflict-external/internal):
A well thought out plot with twists and turns is paramount in a romantic suspense. You need to propose three questions. Who did it? Why? How? Throughout your story, you will need to address those three questions and by the end wrap them up, not necessarily all at the same time. The who is your antagonist (villain). The why is his motivation for doing the crime and the how is your execution of the crime. This is where your main plot will come from and cause the protagonist external conflict and possibly internal conflict.

Once I have my concept I usually will develop my characters—at least the hero, heroine and villain. After I have a good sense of who they are, I can work on the plot which most of the time comes in stages. Usually in a book I will say that your characters are the most important part of a story, but with a romantic suspense the plot takes equal billing. If you don’t have a compelling plot, you will leave your readers dissatisfied, even if they love your characters. Someone who reads romantic suspense enjoys the hunt for the villain and the solution of the mystery whether it is a murder or some other crime. Ideally your ending or who the villain is surprises the readers.

So in a romantic suspense I like to have a mystery that needs to be solved. Usually this will be who is behind the illegal act. There are other types of suspense stories. One is where the reader knows the villain from the beginning. As I said earlier, an example of this type of suspense is an ex-boyfriend stalking the heroine.

In order to write a good story you must have conflict. It is what drives your plot. Without it, your reader won’t read past the first chapter. You will have both an internal and external conflict. So where does your conflict come from? The internal will come from your characters. What are their goals and motivations? What are their backgrounds? What molded them into the people they are? I think all stories need both internal and external conflict. Conflict is the base of your plot.

External conflict usually will be your suspense or mystery story (you can have other external conflict depending on the length of your story). When developing this, you need to keep building the tension until the climax. Throughout the story you will have peaks and valleys. Not only do you need real clues, but also you should have red herrings that are as well developed as the real clues (I will discuss this later). There should be different suspects, giving the readers at least three or four choices of who the villain is.

In a suspense I plot quite a bit before I start writing, but I still allow clues and red herrings to develop as the story unfolds, as I get a better sense of the characters. In Vanished several of my clues/red herrings came that way: the cowboy boots, the car leaving the area at the time of the crime, the burned boat with a body in it are several examples.

In a woman in jeopardy story where you may know the antagonist, you will develop your suspense a little differently, but you still have to have those cliffhangers and possible clues to what the villain is going to do next. The suspense comes from the unexpected often in these stories. Will the woman make it out alive? That question will drive your plot. By the way, you could turn that around and put someone else in jeopardy—a child or man. It doesn’t have to be a woman.

But above all, challenge your readers, keep them guessing and give them a merry ride.

So the steps to plotting are:
1) Brainstorming the premise/idea you have. This can be done by yourself or with others. I love to do both. Let your mind go. Anything is possible. Write down all the good ideas that come from the brainstorming. You could use them later to develop into a scene.
2) Research what you need to know. There are several ways you can do the research needed. A primary source can be an interview of a person in the field you are writing about. Secondary sources can be articles, research books, etc. Also you can do hands on activities to get the feel of something. I went to a shooting range to learn about guns and what it felt like to shoot different guns. Great experience. In some books you don’t need to research much, but in most suspense novels there is a good deal of research.
3) Map out your story. Write down the scenes you have come up with and then see how they fit together. Writing them on index cards allows you to move them around physically until you get the order you like. You should have several key plot points and several twists. The longer your story, the more key points and twists needed. A twist takes your story in a different direction. It could be another murder or the death of a suspect. All of this becomes your framework of your story. As you get deeper into the story, you will add more to this framework.
4) Analyze what you have come up with. Does the scene advance the story? Is each scene fresh and offers new information? Does the scene build on the intrigue and tension—romantically and suspensefully? Do you have time for reflection after each big action scene? Do your scenes make sense and are believable?

Margaret Daley

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