Plagued by Plot? Look to Logic!

Barbara DaCosta‘s stories “Cabin 6” appeared in Minnesota Crime Wave’s Resort to Murder, and “For Want of Some Gloves” in Why Did Santa Leave a Body. She is at work on several children’s books and a mystery novel, Death by the Depot, featuring Thea Franco, freelance researcher and sleuth. Her website is http://www.barbaradacosta.com.

It’s no secret-writers sometimes get overwhelmed by their plots. Either there’s too little of it (“Jane looked at her watch and wondered what was going to happen tomorrow.”), or, too much of it (“Jane Grayerson knew that if her senator husband Grant Seibert’s ex-wife’s baseball-pitcher stepson Stefan Trivioli found out about the double-crossing Russian spy Nicholai Konstantinovich.”). And, in the not-too-rare case in which  a not-so-hot plot gets into print, the reader ends up not so happy. So, it’s in everybody’s best interest to have a wonderfully clear plot without major or minor hiccups.

How does a writer solve plot problems? What if a stuck writer strips the plot down to its bare essentials? Maybe Jane could only have one of two choices. The road taken, or the road not taken. Or maybe there are more variables, and a tree diagram or flow chart could be created to help the writer visualize and solve things.

Here’s a method for plot solutions that I stumbled upon recently. I was playing a game called “Set” in which you attempt to create sets of three from an array of special cards. In the midst of a round, it suddenly occurred to me that the logic of Set could be applied to plotting.

Here’s how Set works. There are 81 cards with all the possible combinations of three shapes, shades, numbers, and colors. You lay out a group of twelve or so, and see if you can create sets of three from these. (You can find online explanations of the game at http://www.setgame.com for details.)

And here’s how I apply this to plotting: for any two cards you pick up, there’s only one other card out of the 81 that will correctly complete the set.

Thus, what we want to do in constructing plots is to correctly fill in the blank to our “what if” questions. We can do this by not forcing our own logic on the plot, but by listening to what the existing plot needs.

“Jane nervously waited at the coffeeshop. It had only been one week since she’d left Akron and Lekktonen Corporation with her files smuggled underneath her coat. She glanced at her watch-a quarter to twelve. Miles was going to arrive any minute with the information she needed to complete her secret project. In fifteen minutes, the next chapter of her life would begin.” What are possible logical outcomes of this brief story?

The key to whatever solution that arises is that there needs to be some underlying logic to the plot. The reader needs to feel that the story is, on some level, plausible. Too many twists and turns can be dizzying. Too few can be boring.

Try playing Set. Try playing “what if” with your plot and see what happens!

What do you think happens next to Jane?

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