Plots and plot twists

Tonight, I’m thinking about plots.

Nominally, a plot is absolutely required. You can’t tell a good story without one. Stephen King had one with the Dark Tower books. David Weber has several with the Honor Harrington books, the Safehold novels, and the Empire from the Ashes books. These are but two of the many authors that I’ve read. The thing about the ones that I enjoyed?

They all had a compelling plot. Or, plots and sub-plots.

Tom Clancy, may he rest in peace, was a master at gripping plots. I only hope that I will be able to match his plotting ability. David Weber, who is a great guy (and his wife Sharon is just sweet,) has a gift of his own. I will gladly read anything by either.

But “plot” is the topic tonight.

Let’s go back to Jack from a couple of nights ago. He’s our maybe-not-the-best guy. He’s found himself trapped in our world and he can’t help but get kicked four times too many.

Let’s say that he is set in the Renaissance era, a clerk to a lawyer. He has a stuffy office, really tiny, and to add insult to injury, he has to share the office. He’s getting bumped a lot while he’s trying to write. Ink is spilling on his clothes, and he doesn’t make much to replace them. He sees people that aren’t much better off than he is. Jack doesn’t eat a lot, since he doesn’t make a lot.

See what I’m doing? I’m defining a background. With this background, a plot might just suggest itself.

On one hand, Jack could spend his nights at the pub, getting drunk and bemoaning his lot in life.

On the other hand, he could decide to become a criminal. Hey, he works in a lawyer’s office. I’m pretty sure he could see things to do or not do.

On the gripping hand, he could be in the right place to contribute when the hero needs help with the Big Bad – or become the hero himself.

If he becomes the hero of the story, then the backstory (a war, or savage rulers, or famine, or something) could be the cause of the situation that Jack finds himself in and that he has no choice but to do something about. Create drama – put him in the position that the alternative is death or a fate worse than death.

If he is a supporting character, then the plot is established before he is brought in. It’s up to you.

So, here’s a plot. The kingdom is peaceful, but that peace only comes at the cost of several hard-fought wars. This means that the royal treasury is low, there are a lot of veterans with conditions that they didn’t have when they went off in the service of the King, and to top it all off, winter is coming. There hasn’t been a lot of the men around to plant the crops, much less harvest them, and the King and his advisers are just a little bit stuck. They have to figure out what to do to get through the winter, and do it quick.

So, they decide to levy heavy taxes. It’s either that, or go back to war.

Jack hears about that, sitting in the lawyer’s office scribbling away, and shakes his head. He’s never going to do that, not go into the King’s service and maybe get sent off to war. Nope, old Jack’s staying right where he is.

About that time, a neighboring sovereign, with a little more resources and a lot more meanness decides the time is right to go hunting. He starts to attack the kingdom that Jack is a subject of, and it’s ugly. It seems that this aggressor king has a general that very competent, very strong, and very vicious. This uber-general sacks the outlying towns, and starts the rape, pillage, and burn routine.

The subjects are outraged. The King is outraged, and worried. Jack is outraged, worried, and upset.

Why “-and upset?” Well, you tell me. What could fit in the plot to do that?

So, to advance the plot, Jack gets told “you’re in the Army now, son,” and hilarity ensues (so to speak.) He has to make it through Army life, in alternating chapters, while the Hero or his stunt double rides bravely forth.

Probably with half his face painted blue, but that’s another story.

I won’t lay out the rest of the plot for you. You know, I might want to write this one out one day and submit to somebody, but this brings me to the other part of tonight’s post. For now, old Jack is resigned to KP, drilling, and trying to remember the parts in his Springfield M3 shoulder fired weapon. Okay, I’m kidding about the M3 rifle. I’m thinking about something useful.

Plot twists.

Plot twists are just that – something to set you on your ear and make you yell out, “Oh no, he did’ENT!”

And I can think of one. Several, really.

It’d be too easy to say that the opposing general would turn out to be the Hero’s long lost brother during the climatic battle that finds them fighting to the death, one about to strike the deadly blow that will end the war.

What about the other general being Jack’s son, or former partner in the law firm, or even better…

How about the general being female, and she’s the woman he loved and lost?

So – here’s another subject that I’ll save for another post. Conflict.

You know old Jack is going to be torn. At this point in the story, the plot has to go somewhere, but it could go anywhere. You know how you want the story to end – the kingdom back at peace and recovering, Jack’s in better shape, and maybe there’s a setup for another book. But before you get to the end, there has to be a beginning and a middle. In other words, a plot.

So, sit down and make a plot, then write to the plot. As you get more accomplished in plotting (ahem) then plot upon plot will unroll in the infinite spaces of your mind even as you write scene after scene.

Happy writing!

-JB Steele

Thoughts about background

Background for your characters is important.

Let’s say you have some guy that wanders aimlessly. He seems to be someone that seems to always be in the trouble spots or the tight spots in your story/book/epic/whatever. He’s a little irritating, too. Your main character is getting suspicious because this guy always turns up at the various crime scenes rubbernecking or he’s always in the crowd when, as in the The Princess Bride, the evil Prince announces his upcoming marriage to the female lead. Or, any such other happening. You can’t help but notice him, but unless he is introduced to the reader properly, this character is just going to confuse the story.

So, in your plot, you carve out a little bit of time to introduce this character. I’ll call him Jack. Jack’s a quiet guy, but he’s had a rough life just like all the other guys in his socioeconomic class. He’s got issues, but he’s plodding along and really trying not to hurt anyone that doesn’t need it. Jack doesn’t have the best of luck and it seems that he can’t get ahead in life. He’s resigned himself to always be the overlooked. Jack gets up, does his work or whatever, and comes home to an empty house. Probably his empty house is either freakishly neat or a total dump. Jack doesn’t go out of his way to be rude to other men during his day, but he doesn’t try to be nice either. He keeps getting kicked while he’s down, so why bother?

Then one day, the female lead dashes in, and she’s being chased by a minion of the Big Bad. She is scared out of her mind and trying to get away from the minion, who has this maniacal gleam in his eye. He obviously doesn’t want to sell her tickets to the square dance. Jack looks up to see her… and stops the attack. He rescues the young woman.

That would be it for that little bit. Simple, formulaic, and you kind of want to root for the underdog Jack. You know, maybe things will start to look up for old Jack and he’ll get the girl, to boot.

But what if Jack was misogynistic like all get out? What if you had earlier in your story wrote Jack as embittered by being kicked down four times too many in life, and he hated women? Suppose all the background that you established for him didn’t match this act? Here he is, more bitter than week old coffee brewed too strong. He hates women. If it wasn’t for biological urges, he’d just as soon see them all packed away somewhere far away. And he really dislikes blondes, like two of his ex-wives. But, he saves a woman from getting kidnapped, or raped, or murdered, or turned into an undead revenant. Why?

Now, if the hero of the story was an investigative sort and found all this out, he would be seriously wondering just what Jack’s role is in all of this. He has the Big Bad to worry about, too, but Jack gives him fits. What is Jack’s secret and how does he fit in with all this? The hero is going to be thinking, and rightly so, that this Jack guy is acting out of character for what he’s supposed to be. Is he up to something?

He’s going to be wondering pretty hard about Jack.

And, if you establish the background of your characters just right, so will your reader.

In this example, there are a lot of questions that other characters are going to be raising about Jack. But, there would be no reason to be raising those questions (and therefore creating drama for your plot) if you didn’t first describe Jack in such a way that when he later saves the princess, it seems like there something about Jack’s character that no one knows – yet.

So who is Jack, really?

Finding out who he is could be a viable subplot in your story, and if executed correctly, would add nuance and all those different shades of gray that set off the main plot.

So, let’s say that the hero is chasing after the Big Bad, who’s got the princess this time. She’s fighting him and spitting and clawing and being totally disagreeable. He doesn’t care. The hero is falling behind, and the Big Bad is about to escape.

Except – that there’s a hidden sidekick that has all his demons wrestled out. Jack shows up and slows the Big Bad down enough to allow the hero time to show up.

This leads into the idea of the plot twist, which couldn’t happen without establishing a background for your characters. Take the time early in your story to do that establishing, because in the middle of the book, when your plot is supposed to be getting hot and heavy is too late. If you do character development then, except in certain flashbacks, you just mess up the tempo of the book and have to pick up the pace again.

Next up, the plot and plot twists.

-JB Steele


Writing as a hobby and writing as a business

In both of these, maybe the word communication is a better choice. In both of these, you as the author have the need to communicate something to the reader. Hopefully that turns out to be readers, plural, but there are instances in which all you need is a single person.

The difference is, a hobby is fun and business isn’t always.

I’ve written many reports. I used to work in the corrections field, carrying the tools of the trade – so to speak. One of those tools was a pen. Whenever something happened behind the fence or in a cellblock or wherever, that something had to be documented. In those reports I had to be clear and concise, and to be perfectly honest, being concise wasn’t always the easiest thing. I was clear, and no one that ever read a report of mine ever had to follow up with me again, other than the pro forma first time. Sometimes, not even then.

Which brings me to another point. Be honest in your writing. There were several times in those situations that I could have been in serious trouble, but by writing honestly, I avoided it. I won’t go into the situations in any specificity, because of privacy concerns, but all of those was the things that corrections/law enforcement have to deal with in almost a daily basis matter. Jokes in a work context is often not a good idea and can cast you as the writer in a bad light.

What does this have to do with writing as a hobby?

Be clear about what’s happening with your antagonist, or any characters, for that matter. If the Big Bad is about to beat the crap out of the Hero who’s been chasing him through twenty-six chapters, and you’ve come to a point where the Hero is dangling over a cliff and escapes, be sure be clear. Let your reader know that when the Big Bad is beat up by the Hero (or the Sidekick) don’t just say, “A mighty punch ended the dastardly villain’s plans.” Jokes can show themselves, but don’t go wild.

Instead, try this.

Blood dripped as the battered man rolled away from that yawing cliff edge. A red trail marked his travel, and he looked up to see a hated face.

Murchinson buffed his nails and leaned on the baseball bat. He was impressed that Lieutenant Bailey could keep going, and the crime boss wasn’t sure if that was just plain stubbornness or if it was dedication. He didn’t care.

“This has been very fun, but I have a previous appointment and I don’t want to be late.”

He raised the aluminum bat. The flickers from the flames danced around and glinted off the metal. Murchinson grinned happily. One more dead copper. He sang to himself as he tensed his body for the fatal swing. The lieutenant looked up, one eye swollen shut.

A sharp whistle cut the smoky air. Murchinson turned to see what was happening, right in time for a heavy punch to land in his face. The bat dropped out of his hand, landing on the lieutenant’s broken fingers.

Sergeant Wilson glared at the criminal. His uniform was ripped almost to shreds, and his duty belt was in bad shape. His pistol was missing a magazine, and his reloads was gone.

“Sorry I’m late. I had to write some parking tickets on a van. Seems it was illegally parked in a handicapped slot.” He landed another blow deep into Murchinson’s gut, and followed it up with a left hook that put him down for the count. Wilson handcuffed the unconscious man, then scooted to check on the other man.

Bailey struggled up with the sergeant’s help. He squinted at Wilson.

“Was there really a van out there?”

“No, but I had to say something.”

Footsteps sounded, moving insistently as more cops came into view, headed to contain the scene. Sergeant Wilson shepherded the injured man to the rear, and gently convinced him to stop being a fool and get on a stretcher. EMS checked him out.

Wilson looked at the scene. Six months of round-the-clock work, and it ended as suddenly as this.

He needed a vacation.

So there you have it. More detail other than the “mighty punch.” While it is dramatized, it is also honest in that a cop might very well have to act in this way.

Just my thoughts for tonight. Have fun with the written word.

-JB Steele