Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Be My Guest - Susan Malone

Thanks so much, Susan, for giving us something to consider with our writing.


What makes for an effective plot?  How do you keep a tale moving?

Plots are really the simple part. The difficulty comes in the telling—creating the story effectively and believably, with the right cadence pulling all of the elements together.  You can outline any book out there (including your own) by simply jotting down what happens in each chapter.  But is that the plot?  Or the storyline?

The plot is the gist, the point, and part of the theme of the book.  And the storyline is how you get from point A to point Z.  I.e., the plot is the entire forest, and the storyline, the trees.  Both organization and structure come into play here as well, the organization being the road map that the structure bolsters up.

So, once you have your plot clear in your own head—boy finds girl; boy falls in love with girl; girl dumps boy; boy spends rest of the novel trying to win girl back—the real work begins in regard to moving along the plot, otherwise known as the fleshing out of the storyline.

Many factors come into play within the specter of creating interesting and believable storylines and plots. First and most important (in that everything hinges on it) is focus.  Most often I see storylines that ramble.  One might begin with a bang-up cliffhanging scene, which really pulls in the reader and sets a great tone, leaving us champing at the bit to turn to the next chapter. But then, that next chapter wanders off to Brazil somewhere (a setting which then never reappears in said book), often with different characters entirely, and the thread of the narrative is lost. What just happened to your plot? Your storyline? The protagonist in whom I’ve just invested my trust to take me through the course of this book? In other words, where are we, and who the heck are these people?

Or, the narrative is going along fine, except the writer keeps drifting off on tangents that sort of relate, but don’t add one thing to the plot or characters.  An old adage in this business says to not take readers down a road that doesn’t lead directly back into the main stream—those readers just may take that road and not come back (i.e., put down the book and not pick it back up).  A good litmus test for every single scene in the book is: Is this vital to my plot/characters?  Can I lose the scene and lose nothing of real value (except, of course, brilliant writing :) ?

Pacing is key, and by design.  It doesn’t just happen. This relates to focus, as again, without it, everything pretty much falls apart.  But pacing includes a variety of factors, even the cadence of your voice.  Does your prose and sentence structure relate directly to the type of book you’re writing?  As an example, the long, rambling nature of Faulkner’s prose would be completely out of place in a Thriller, where the style required through so much action is short and crisp, in places, almost staccato.  Next, are your plot points strategically placed?  Plot points are what make your story move.  You’re looking overall at roughly three major plot points, and a host (nine or so) of minor ones.

I see a lot of belabored minor points—where the writer spends way too much time beating the reader over the head with some issue—and conversely, big holes remain that the reader can’t bridge.  Spend your time creating the important things, and then you can tell the lesser ones.  Yes, some of this is by feel.  But much of it’s logic too.  And when you focus on the nuts and bolts, the feel will eventually come.  Writing is an odd amalgam of art and skill, with the latter feeding the former at just the right times.

See, writing books is simple.  Just decide on your plot.  Then outline how you get from A to Z.  Organize it with effective plot points.  Make sure the pacing fits the book.  Stay focused.  Simple.  We only run into problems when we confuse simple with easy.


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to Traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who has never found anything related to writing easy. 

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  1. This was a great reminder. And I did not know about that 'wild cards' thing - thanks!

  2. Okay I'll say it- I didn't know that. I always thought plot and storyline were interchangeable. Thanks for teaching me something new! :)

  3. Just what I needed with coffee this morning as I try to put the finishing touches on this WIP in front of me. Keyword: FOCUS.

  4. Susan, Thanks for your post! I think many writers just don't think about how important word count is as a highlighting method. By lavishing word count, you're saying, "Look at this! It's important!" You advise authors to spend their word count on the "important" plot points—which is dead on—yet many of my clients aren't at all sure what's important in their own stories. So I take them back to the drawing board and help them make the decisions that inform story structure—decisions they hadn't bothered making before writing the first draft.

  5. Does it advance the plot? The mantra of every writing doing edits.

    Great points. It's so easy to decide the cop will find the coffee mug, a vital clue to the murder. But when? And then you have to write all the words leading up to the discovery... Sure. Easy.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. I tend to focus on tiny details. I hate it when they don't line up, and I work on them so aggressively that they tend to eat up the rest of the book. I've hired an editor to help me pare it down.

  7. Chris reads post, learns that he must be focused, spends rest of his life trying to figure out how.

  8. Very helpful post and comments. I don't think I had stopped to think about the difference between plot and storyline. Like Lauri, I always thought they were the same thing. Some instinct had me keeping them separate in my own writing, but I had never defined the two this way.

    Christopher, I do hope you always leave your quirky comments. It is fun to see what you are going to say each time you visit.

  9. Enjoyed the post. Sometimes, as writers, we add in "stuff." We think it defines the character or it shows how "bad" the bad guy is or how he got that way. We need to stay focused on the plot.

  10. You do make it sound simple--way more so than I feel it at the moment, just sinking (blissfully) into a new novel. I like the plot vs. storyline distinction. And you're right--pacing is key. Thanks for the post!

  11. Much to think about here! Will be resharing, for sure. Thanks for sharing. Murder those darlings!

  12. Yikes, you mentioned the word, outline. I'm dismal at those. As far as storyline goes, I usually know the beginning and how I want the story to end, but the rest is a surprise to me, which I make sense of when I'm almost through.

    Yes, I'm disorganized, but it all comes together somehow and I do try to make sense.

    Morgan Mandel

  13. Start with the forest, then work on the trees. Got it!

  14. And if you don't like outlines, use a mindmap like I do! It helps keep the red herrings in view even as you plot away.

  15. Wonderful column, Susan! As a writer of thrillers with a literary bent, I am keenly aware of the balancing act involved in color and context versus pacing and plot. My first drafts sometimes run recklessly ahead without setting the stage enough for the reader to know where they are and why. The second read-through/write-through can get me closer to the mark.

    Besides pace, another vital ingredient is rhythm. On the micro level, it's a matter of word choice and sentence structure; on higher levels it's about the alternation of narrative and dialogue and about chapter length. Readers are seldom conscious of the rhythm of writing, but it contributes a lot to their pleasure--and willingness to keep reading and buy the next book.

    --Larry Constantine
    Lior Samson, author of Bashert, The Dome, and Web Games

  16. Excellent post, Susan! You make so many great points that aspiring authors need to internalize when planning and writing fiction. I'll be sending several of my writer clients to this post.

    And Larry, you're so right about rhythm, and very well said! Micro-rhythm at the word choice level (and which ones to leave out) up to macro-rhythm at the level of the page, scene, chapter,and even the whole book.

    I'm constantly helping my clients take out extra words that are cluttering up the sentences (or extra, repetitive sentences that are cluttering up the paragraph or page), to increase the natural flow of ideas and improve the overall rhythm of the narrative. Thanks for this reminder.

  17. This is a great post. It's easy to get overwhelmed trying to make the story perfect the first time out, and I am notorious for repeating myself. One of the biggest things I've discovered while editing my novel is that I can make it much stronger by taking out the repetitive stuff - sure, it shortens the chapters a bit, but they're much better for it.


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