The Key to it All in One Question
By Karen McCullough
As an author, plotting has always been my biggest problem. I’m a pantser who tends to start a project with some idea who the characters are, a pretty clear picture of how the story gets underway, and some vague notion of how it should all come out. That’s about it. Beyond that I tend to wing it.
And inevitably at some point I get bogged down and have to take a break to figure out what to do next. And that’s where things start getting hairy. I make lists, consider options, and try to figure out what my hero and/or heroine would do in the situations they’re on.
Obviously they’ve got problems. It wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t. And just as obviously, they have to try to figure out how to handle the issues they’re facing. Usually I’ve got several options and I’m trying to puzzle out which of those would be the best way to go with my story.
Then someone told me the secret. She gave one great piece of advice that has helped me make sense of plotting and character development issues.
She said to figure out the one thing your character would never do and then create a situation where they’re forced to do just that. You build your plot backwards from that one piece of information. Somewhere early in the story you have to let the readers know what that one thing is. Every decision you, the author, make along the path of the book leads to that moment when the character has to decide to do the thing they least want to do.
It forces you to build in both serious conflict and significant character development, because obviously it’s going to take something serious and desperate to make your heroine do something she’s always said (to herself at least) she would never do.
Good examples from movies include Indiana Jones and the snakes, Luke Skywalker turning off his lightsaber during the climactic battle with Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, Dorothy confronting the witch in The Wizard of Oz, etc. I’m sure you can think of many more examples if you try since it’s such a fundamental piece of storytelling.
Remember how near the beginning of Casablanca, Ricks says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”? And then of course, in the end, he does just that, giving up everything, including the woman he loves dearly, for a higher cause, by allowing her to escape with her husband.
The higher the stakes, the greater the potential loss, the more difficult the decision is for the character, the more powerful and gut-wrenching the story becomes.
I tried to do this in my mystery novel with romantic elements, A Gift for Murder. The heroine, Heather, has a job she loves as assistant to the director of the market center. Her main role is being the troubleshooter during shows and exhibits, and she’s good at it. But when a murder occurs and Heather begins to sniff out the motives for it, she’s forced to risk more and more to get to the bottom of it and see justice done. Initially it’s just the irritation of the people she works with, including her boss, threatening her, but as the show moves on and time gets short, she’s warned that she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t stop asking probing questions. She’s forced to ask herself if finding the answer is worth losing her job and the decision isn’t an easy one. And in the end she has to risk even more…
A Gift for Murder
For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington DC Market Show Center. But the Gift and Home trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare. This year’s version is worse than usual. Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work. Finding the body of a murdered executive dumped in a trash bin during the show isn’t. The discovery tips Heather’s life into havoc.
The police have reason to suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gotten glimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive, but questioning exhibitors about the crime doesn’t make her popular with them or with her employers. Still, other lives might be at risk, and if she doesn’t identify the murderer before the show ends, the culprit could well remain free to kill again.
Her only help comes from a company executive with ulterior motives and the Market Center’s attractive new security officer, Scott Brandon. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose the killer before the show ends. To solve the mystery she will have to risk what’s most important to her and be prepared to fight for answers, her job, and possibly her life.
- Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGKYNT6
- Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gift-for-murder-karen-mccullough/1100204419?ean=2940016665269&isbn=2940016665269
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Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.