Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Starting with Plot

by Paula Gail Benson

I write short stories. Even if I’m writing for a themed anthology, I start with character. I need to know the people whose story I’m telling.

Last year, during the short story panel for Mystery in the Midlands, John M. Floyd said he always began with plot. His words made me think about my method.

John M. Floyd
For those of you not familiar with John's work, he has been described by Douglas Preston as the “master of the art of the short story.” He is the author of more than 300 short stories, with his work regularly appearing in The Strand, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Womans World. He’s a regular blogger on Sleuthsayers, and has won four Derringer awards and been nominated for an Edgar and the Pushcart Prize. Not only is he prolific, but also he’s generous in encouraging writers in their work.

This year, I’ve been trying to increase my writing output. I decided to try John’s recommendation and begin with plot rather than character.

I have to admit, my experience became a combination of both. I started out hearing the voice of a child pleading with his mother not to return to a place they had lived. Why? I decided his father had been convicted of a crime there.

After hearing the child’s plea, I heard the mother’s reply. There was no other choice, no other place to go. Why? The mother had been offered work in the town and needed it to support them.

Okay, so what goes wrong? After returning to the town, the mother is jailed for killing the person who gave her the job. The child, with the help of a caretaker, must find the real murderer.

I reached this point without knowing the names of the characters (except the child). I had determined the time period, the location, and the mother’s job. How to proceed?

Where did the crime take place? In the house where the victim lived. How was the crime committed? I wanted something unique. The victim’s head was crushed by a heavy sculpture in the victim’s study.

Why would the mother be suspected? She was found with the body and had a motive. The victim was the judge who sentenced her husband to prison.

Okay, why didn’t the mother do it? She truly was grateful for the opportunity to provide for herself and her son.

So, who did it and why was the mother set up? Here, I began to develop the cast of characters involved in the story. I realized the child would be playing a Watson role in describing his caretaker’s sleuthing efforts. But, even before I reached that point, I had to create the crime, to know who was in the house when the murder occurred and to figure out step-by-step how it happened.

I felt empowered. I knew the villain and had some ideas about how that identity would be revealed.

Then, I had to start the story in earnest from the sleuth’s viewpoint. How did she discover each aspect of the crime being committed and who had a reason to want the victim dead?

I mapped these things out on two pages of my journal. At the bottom of the second page, I listed the characters in the story, by description—only the child had a name.

During a Zoom meeting, I saw a participant’s interesting surname and gave it to my sleuth. After that, the names of the other characters came together easily.

I’ve now finished a first draft. I’ve been amazed at the backstory that has come out as my sleuth and her Watson progressed through their investigation. Focusing on plot caused my story to begin with a bang and meant that the characters’ backgrounds were revealed more naturally and less in info dumps. Working from plot, I felt more assured in the story’s pace. Also, I became aware of the need to have a slow scene followed by a rapidly moving one.

Thank you, John Floyd. I’m not sure my method matches yours, but I truly appreciate your suggestion to try it. By using it, I’ve learned more about writing.

How do you start, with characters or plot? Does your method change for short stories versus novels? 


  1. Interesting! You have me thinking as I prepare to start a new project.

  2. Food for thought! I always start with a visual, but hit many dead ends until I settle on the plot.

  3. I’ve printed this for reference! There was a time that I successfully wrote shorts, but that was a while ago. I’ve been trying to get my mojo back. This is very helpful. John Floyd is an amazing crafter of short stories. I’ve long followed him on Woman’s World and in other publications.

    I’ve been concentrating on novels for the past few years. Mine tend to begin with three items that arrive simultaneously. The inciting incident, the blow up ending and the victim. After that the story comes scene by scene.

  4. I start with either the crime or the inciting incident – after that, my characters take over – although I wish I had the kind of mind that could plot without having to write to generate the ideas!

  5. I'm still trying to figure out what my process is! Sometimes I start with a snippet of dialogue or a title phrase or a situation, especially with a short story, and then I go from there, generally to figuring out who would say or do those things. But with novels, I start with a "what if" which I think is more plot. You've given me a lot to think about. Thanks, Paula - and John!

  6. Annette, best wishes. Let us know how it goes.

    Margaret, starting with plot has made my process easier.

    Kait, isn't John terrific? He is a true inspiration.

    Jim, I'm going to work that into my process. Crime or inciting incident. I like it.

  7. Most interesting. LIke you, i tend to be character or dialogue driven. With John's approach, I might avoid some of the pitfalls that I constantly need to revise. Thanks for this piece.

  8. I usually start with plot and work with the characters once I have an understanding of where I’m going with the plot.

  9. John Floyd is an amazing writer. Thanks for sharing his approach and letting us know that it's making a difference in your work. Two generous writers in one post - wonderful!

  10. Usually a character comes into my mind and insists on telling his/her story.

    I will have to give the "start with the plot" idea some thought.

  11. Paula, how kind of you! Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your column today.

    And I'm glad to hear experimenting with the ways to start a story has been helpful to you. I've heard folks say they start with characters, setting, theme, all kinds of things--and I don't think any of those approaches are either wrong or right. It all depends of the writer. I think the reason I start with the plot is to give me confidence, to give the story a structure that I can use as sort of a safety net while I write the rest of it.

    Thanks again!

  12. John, thank you! You've stated so perfectly how I felt by starting with plot--confidence and a safety net. Thank you for your wonderful inspiration.

    Shari and Debra, I'm like you. Usually, I have a sense of the character or hear a bit of dialogue that intrigues me. Theme stumps me sometimes, particularly if I'm trying to be original and distinctive.

    Susan, I had not realized how following a plan could provide the opportunity for character development. That has really amazed me. I've learned more about these characters than I might have if I just concentrated on their background before beginning the story.

    Molly and Kathleen, thank you so much!

  13. Paula, this is so interesting! First of all, one can never go wrong following the writing advice of John Floyd :) I often do it somewhat as you described -- I'll start with a plot, or at least a situation, and then try to figure out what characters would be useful in that scenario. Then as they start bumping up against the plot, I start to fill in the details of who they are. But lots of ways to get a good outcome in short story writing, of course!

  14. Neat post, Paula! I usually start with character, but I've found myself focusing on plot more as I come up with new short story ideas.

  15. Adam, you are absolutely correct. I like your process, too. Thanks for the great suggestions!

    Jennifer, I am definitely going to start with plot more often!

  16. I haven't looked at my process before this. Sometimes it's plot, sometimes character, sometimes just a bit of wordplay to start it off.

    I wondered why "dragon" flies couldn't spit fire, so that turned into a three-pager.

    Another was about a five-year-old girl building a sandcastle at a beach, and then I asked, "How can I make this weird?" So I made it haunted, then had to figure out what/who was haunting it, THEN the plot. I think that wound up at about five pages.

    So I guess my only process is sorting out a way to make my stories weird.

  17. Paula, your description of developing your story by focusing on plot is a lesson in how to write. I was fascinated by how the story and all its parts unfolded as you moved along. I usually begin with a character in a situation, but now I'm going to try your plot process.

  18. I'm all over the map. Some stories start with plot, some with character. I've had stories develop from a title before plot or character were on the scene. Regardless of what sparks the first blush of a story, plot and character begin to emerge together and intertwine, each feeding the other.