Friday, January 17, 2020

House of Plots

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

by Paul D. Marks

Pease, porridge, plot. Pease, porridge, theme. Pease and porridge in the plot, nine days old. Some like it plot, Some like it theme. Some like it character right on the beam. Okay, I’m a little off the beam here…. But down to business:

Putting the cart before the horse, the bottom line is that everything needs to work together symbiotically, plot, theme, dialogue, pace, character and all the other things that I’m forgetting to mention here. It’s like a house, you can have a foundation without the structure on top, but it wouldn’t be much fun living there. And you can have the structure, minus the foundation. But you might wake up one day with everything having fallen all around you. You need it all. And one doesn’t work without the other. But back to writing, and since we’re writing mysteries/thrillers here, there’s two main elements, character and plot.

You need to have an exciting plot that moves forward, has some twists, turns and surprises. But you also need good and interesting characters or no one will care what happens to them. Theme tends to spring from these things as you write, at least it does for me. I don’t generally set out to write some theme, but because I’m me I have certain things that resonate with me and they tend to come out in my characters and writing. These include outcasts, people who are damaged, often dealing with or “recovering” from some physical or psychic wound. Others are dinosaurs (people who time has passed by one way or another), fish out of water, etc.

Things like dialogue, description, the business characters do while they’re talking, etc., are like the accoutrements in your house: wooden floors, paintings on the wall, sculptures and landscaping. They’re nice, but they’re on the surface. And, while they’re important, they won’t really matter if you don’t have a good foundation of character.

I once had a producer talk to me about the story vs. the plot. We were talking about a script and she kept saying “that’s the plot, but what’s the story?” I didn’t quite get what she was talking about. Aren’t plot and story the same thing? But then I finally got it: Plot is the chronological events that form the screenplay. Story is the underlying meaning, the human element—maybe what we’d call the B Story. In essence, story is what happens, to paraphrase John Lennon, while you're busy making other plans.

To use an example we all know, Casablanca: The plot of Casablanca is—Rick helps his ex-girlfriend and her husband get away from the Nazis. The Story is—a man struggles with his own selfish desires over the greater good of mankind; he ultimately becomes a better human being.  And this can be applied to prose stories as well.

Sometimes I get an idea for a character and have to come up with a story to build around that character. Other times I have an idea for a plot or situation or just a snapshot of a scene that intrigues me and things build out from there.

But the thing I like best are the characters, who they are and how they interact with each other. Their struggles with others and with themselves. What their motivations are. What they want and what they’ll do to get it. Of course, you don’t want to hit the nail too on the head with any of this, but it does come out in the wash, so to speak.

I also like flawed characters, like Duke Rogers, the P.I. in White Heat. Or his partner Jack, who is very unPC. He’s a tough character. But I like to say that Jack might say the wrong things but he pretty much does the right thing. And people of all political persuasions seem to like him. And Duke is battered from growing up with an abusive father and that affects the actions he takes.

Ray Hood in Dead Man’s Curve (Last Exit to Murder anthology) is a man who’s lost his focus, his dreams and his purpose, and is desperately trying to get them back. The question is, how far will he go to get all of that back? When I submitted that story to the anthology editors I was worried they might cut out certain things that were more character-related than plot or moving the plot forward bits. They didn’t. Which made me very happy but also I think adds to the texture of the story and is really the most interesting part for me.

Winger, the Weegee-like photog in Poison Heart (from the Deadly Ink anthology), is so desperate for recognition that he finds pleasure in doing photo recreations of grisly murder scenes...until it all gets out of hand and becomes too real.

Darrell Wood in Howling at the Moon (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Nov. 2014,) is jaded by war and life in general. He’s lost touch with his roots, causing him to question his priorities. He also shares a collective memory with his native American ancestors and that shapes his actions in the story.

In Windward (Best American Mysteries of 2018 anthology and winner of the Macavity Award for Best Short Story), P.I. Jack Lassen has retreated from the world to some extent and into in his bunker. He does come out to do his job, but he’s given up doing some of the things he loved, like surfing. And, though he takes pride in doing his job and doing it well and by the rules, maybe breaking some of those rules can get back some of his mojo back.

In my novella Vortex, Zach Tanner is physically wounded by war and mentally changed by it. This sends him on a collision course with the past and decisions he made that he deeply regrets now. That affects how he moves forward.

In my upcoming mystery-thriller The Blues Don’t Care (Down & Out, June 2020), Bobby Saxon has a lot to overcome. Not only is he the only white musician in an all-black swing band during World War II, he also has to deal with a society that’s not ready to accept him…in more ways than one. More to come on this.

All of these characters have to overcome their issues to survive and come out on the other side...if they can.

Another is the theme I’m drawn to of memory and the past and how those things affect the characters in the present.

Howard Hamm in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series that’s been appearing Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (the latest of which is Fade-Out on Bunker Hill, from the March/April, 2019 EQMM) is a very modern man, but his best friend, Kevin, who’s murdered in the first story, is immersed in the past and lived in one of the old Victorian mansions that had been moved from the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles to another neighborhood when Bunker Hill was being redeveloped. After Kevin’s murder, Howard begins to see the past and Kevin’s obsession with old-timey things in a different light. And many of the mysteries revolve around conflicts that start in the past and find a way into the present.

Bringing it back ‘round to the beginning, all of the elements really need to work together. I might have a preference for playing up character over plot or theme/action/description/dialogue, but you still need all the elements for a story to stand up on its own. And if you overlook any one element the story will not have the connection you want it to have with your readers.


And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release. (See book cover above.)


On a different level, I hope you’ll check out my recent post at SleuthSayers: More Stars Than There Are In Heaven: My interview with Steven Bingen, one of the authors of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. Today at SleuthSayers.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


Jacqueline Seewald said...


Congrats on your new book! This is an excellent blog. Some readers think that mystery and crime fiction is all about the story, the twists and turns. But without well-drawn characters we can care about, the events of the story matter less. There's a lot of action in my suspense thriller Death Promise but the main focus is still on the characters.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

You're right, Paul. You need all the elements working together.

Dj Adamson said...

I always enjoy your blogs, Paul.
I use selected themes, major, to create both my story and plot. The core need of each of the characters is derived from those themes, thus creating the minor themes. Isn’t it interesting how we all approach storytelling in different ways? 😯
Congrats on the new book. I look forward to reading it.


GBPool said...

I took a class on Aristotle in college. In his book, The Poetics, he said there were five basic elements in writing: plot, character, dialogue, setting, and the meaning of the piece. He thought plot was the most important because without a plot you have no foundation, just like you have said in your post. But all the elements had to work together. My book, The Anatomy of a Short Story, uses that premise to teach just those points. And as you point out, your stories have followed that plan marvelously. It's simple... But still takes skill and planning to make all those pieces fit so the story doesn't collapse. Thanks for your post.

Mark W. Danielson said...

By the time I sit down to write, I have spent countless hours thinking about the story while conducting research. From there it's a matter of letting my subconscious write the story, and I don't stop until it's finished. The editing is where I seek discrepancies by taking notes and reading everything aloud. To put things in perspective, I can write a novel in two months, but it takes another six to ten months to produce a finished product. This process doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me.

Susan C Shea said...

That photo of the cockeyed house says it all. Good post.

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Another terrific topic Paul!
Plot seems like you can draw it, from A to Z, on a whiteboard. The outline, if you will, of the story itself.
Story on the other hand, seems more like an intangible. Something you can feel, smell and almost taste, but not draw in sequence. The "iceberg" submerged underneath the dialogue...(like Hemingway told us.)

Thanks much for this thoughtful column!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. As you say about Death Promise, lots of action, but the main focus is on the characters. I think sometimes people lose sight of that.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dietrich.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Diann. And it really is interesting how everyone approaches their work in their own way. I always enjoy hearing how others go about it. And I think your way of using themes and having things grow from there is a really interesting way to do it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. Yes, Aristotle said it pretty well a long time ago. Wish I had thought of using that. But the kay is really having all the elements work together symbotically.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Mark. I agree. The early drafts are fairly easy cause they just flow. The real key comes in the editing and that can take forever. And because I’m a pantster I go through a lot of drafts. But everyone has to find what works for them.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. Yeah, the cockeyed house is the symbol of both a house or a story without a good foundation :-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Lisa. I think you’re right, “story” is more intangible than plot. And Hemingway’s theory is a good way to look at it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Excellent distinction between plot and story, Paul. I'll have to remember that one—and keep 'em straight. ;) I agree about needing all the elements. I like to think of a three-legged stool that the story (ie short story or novel) rests on: plot, character, and writing (or language). I'm a sucker for character. For me, the most clever puzzle in the world is deadly dull if I don't care about the characters. But I don't think of each of my characters primarily as "someone who..." though I could probably describe them that way. And I've always been puzzled by the concept of "building a character" that they seem to teach in writing workshops. What does it say about me if I admit that my characters burst full-blown from my head like Athena from Zeus's forehead? Hmm...

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Liz. I think the three-legged stool analogy is a good one. And the three elements you name, plot, character and writing are good legs of the stool. Also, a puzzle is great but, as you say, without a character you’re interested in or care about, what’s the point really? As for characters bursing full-blown from your head, more power to you. I think sometimes things can get way to pedantic in writing classes/workshops.