“Plot is soylent green. It’s made up of people!”
Is Edgar award-winning thriller writer Meg Gardiner talking about cannibalism?
No, she did not advocate turning people into crackers in a malnourished dystopian future. She talked about plotting novels during her August 10 presentation at the Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter monthly meeting.
“Plot or characters are largely the same thing. The story is all about what the characters do. You should know what the ending is. The seeds of the ending must be sown at the beginning of the book.”
She used Jaws as an example. “The first chapter shows what needs to happen at the end of the story. There’s a set up there. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist.” You know from the beginning that somebody has to do something about that shark—pronto! That shark can’t be washed ashore six months later on a beach in South Carolina and die of indigestion. The protagonist and antagonist must engage in hand to hand combat, or hand to fin, as it were.
According to Gardiner, thrillers have a fairly linear, straightforward plot. There’s an “inciting incident” that throws life out of whack for the protagonist, which in turn causes complications. It sets off a chain of events. The essence of plotting is “thwarting desire.”
The protagonist desires something and the job of the antagonist is to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The antagonist is a critical character who keeps the protagonist from getting what she wants.
You need a strong, active protagonist. If everything happens easily for a protagonist, it’s not a story. She doesn’t need to be Sylvester Stallone, but she’s not going to fold when the going gets tough. The protagonist doesn’t go with the flow, she’s willing to put herself out there and take action.
Is the heroine an amateur sleuth? Why does she feel compelled to look for answers? Is the villain a murderer? The villain has strong motivations and feels he is the hero of his own story. They must have compelling characteristics. Gardiner likes Moriarty as a villain as he clashes with Sherlock Holmes. Both men are obviously the heroes of their own stories.
Even if you don’t know who the killer is until the end of the novel, you know there is someone out there doing bad things, perhaps a minion of the main villain. In Gardiner’s Dirty Secrets Club, someone is committing murder by forcing the victims to kill themselves. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, one of Gardiner’s serial heroines, has to track down the killer.
The story must build bigger and bigger with plot twists and escalating pressure. There is continual revelation and shock. The characters have to make decisions under pressure.
The key to the plot is action. Figure out what the chase is and cut to it. Start with action, not a lot of back story–no dream sequences. The plot has to be emotionally coherent or the reader will feel cheated and put the book down.
To prevent that “sag in middle,” keep the tension up, develop the story, and build in progressive complications with big scenes, time pressure, and a ticking clock of some kind.
The ending must be surprising, yet inevitable. You need some surprise, otherwise the result might be vaguely dissatisfying. Create a dilemma at the ending, forcing the protagonist to choose the lesser of two evils by making a difficult decision.
Always make sure the protagonist is the one who takes action to resolve the issues. The hero/heroine has to take active steps at the end of the novel. Don’t try to pull a deus ex machina out of the bag at the end.
What is a deus ex machina, you ask? In ancient Greek plays, an actor playing a god was literally cranked out from the wings onto the stage to resolve the ending of the story. He was sitting in a “god machine” made by ancient Greek stage hands, no doubt. This form of achieving a satisfying ending to the story is frowned upon in modern times. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist with her own smarts and heroism.
Meg Gardiner is an Edgar award-winning American crime writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her best-known books are the Evan Delaney novels. In June 2008, she published the first novel in a new series, featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. More recently she has published three stand-alone novels: Ransom River (June 2012), The Shadow Tracer (June 2013), and Phantom Instinct (June 2014).