When I was much younger, I had a subscription to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which published short stories with mystery and suspense themes. These types of works tend to be plot-driven, with twists and turns that keep readers guessing until the last page. The best insert subtle clues to where the story is headed, so readers find themselves saying at the end, “Of course!” Lesser efforts often throw in unexpected plot twists or introduce characters in the final moments in a type of “Deus ex Machina” ending that can lead to a disappointing outcome if not done well.
My own work tends to be more character driven but I still benefit from the techniques I picked up from reading those mystery and suspense tales all those years ago. Essential to any character driven story is giving those populating the story something to do and others with whom to interact. One technique for starting a story, as outlined in some of the writing workshops I’ve attended suggests one should give a character the perfect life and, at the beginning of the story, take it all away. While I never quite go this far, I do try to answer the question posed by a fellow playwright from his workshop, “How is this day different from all the others?”
For Rebecca Asher, the start of the story finds her at the beginning of her last day on Earth. Leah Walker’s day will include meeting the grown-up daughter produced by donating her ova eighteen years before. Christine Messner is chained to a wall in the home of a man neither realizes is her father on the day she escapes to begin her journey of becoming The Phoenix. David Cairo begins his day as a low-level tech support worker with a crazy idea, and ends it as the multi-billionaire CEO of his own startup.
Writers have almost as many approaches to plotting as there are authors. Thomas Pynchon sends his characters on wildly convoluted absurdist adventures which often end with ambiguous conclusions. Flannery O’Connor crafts dark morality plays which expose the flaws of her characters, often leading to starling outcomes. Kurt Vonnegut tests the characters and society in his work, often finding both lacking in character and substance. Despite the approach, each author crafts (mostly) satisfying narratives with interesting protagonists undergoing major changes.
In my work, I often try to build the plot as I go along, and sometimes take a meandering route through the narrative without abandoning the main focus of the story. I like to build on each element introducing characters and inserting twists as I guide the reader toward the intended outcome. In my current work in progress, Worthy, I begin with a wide focus and slowly start to narrow the story as it reaches the main narrative. I’m telling the backstory of my play Another Mother, the plot of which is incorporated into the novel
Sometimes I have a reasonably clear idea of where I want a story to go, other times, I’m devising the plot as I write the story. Mockingbird, from Fables of the New South, started out as a standalone short story loosely based on the myth of Echo and Narcissus. Developing short plays from even shorter comedy sketches, I learned that the best way to expand a story is to introduce a new character. Every time I introduced someone else in Mockingbird, the story took a different turn.
Mockingbird also gave me the opportunity to include and expand upon two characters who’ve been in my head for quite a while, Claire Belmonte, a minor figure in the play Rebecca Too, and David Cairo, the lead from an unfinished novel I started in the late-nineties. Each of the characters has his or her own arc and Claire’s section sets up her origin story later in the volume.
With Claire’s story, Phoenix, I had already devised the background on a walk at Stone Mountain one morning. Getting it on “paper” presented a few additional challenges, mainly with how in depth I wanted certain scenes to be. The finished product bears little resemblance to some of the ideas I developed along the way, but still retains the basic story I developed on my morning walk. Oftentimes, less is more, but Phoenix sets up the first of several stories featuring Claire, making her a vital figure in the universe of the story.
Whether character or plot driven, stories benefit from strong characters and interesting situations that engage them. In my work, I always look for novel ways to bring characters together and to deal with the consequences of their interactions. In addition, I always try to instill the action with an additional layer to give the plot extra meaning. The overall goal, however, is to engage the readers and to entertain without overwhelming.