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|
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?