I’m not one of those writers who can sit at the keyboard and let his characters take over completely–not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many people enjoy a fast, light-weight story, but I prefer to read more intricate plots, so that’s what I write.
The premise for my first novel, The Jinx, had been brewing in my mind for years: could a conspiracy theory explain the “20-year jinx“–the phenomenon that saw U.S. presidents elected every 20 years from 1840 to 1980 either die in office or survive an assassination attempt? From that spark, I began brainstorming how such a plan could be perpetuated across generations, how it could avoid detection. What could have motivated such a passionate hatred?
At the same time I was hatching this nutty scheme, I searched for a protagonist who could unearth it in a natural manner, without relying on coincidence, yet still a rare enough occurrence to explain why nobody else had ever stumbled upon it. I came up with a raw Trust & Estates lawyer, Benjamin Franklin Kravner, who discovers a clue among a dead client’s sealed papers when he makes a rookie mistake.
This brought me to a critical decision, one that could end in a disastrous false start if I failed to think through the key twists before writing. Would the clue Ben found turn out to be merely a mad conspiracy theorist’s ramblings or a road map for a real assassination attempt? I won’t tell you the route I chose, but The Jinx would have been a vastly different novel had I gone the other way.
Once my path was set, I began to outline the main plot, focusing on critical twists and then imagining the scenes that connected them. For each scene, my outline listed the setting, players, character developments, plot advancements, and a placeholder for later thoughts on incorporating themes. The outline took the form of a calendar–anchoring the story against a timeline helped me create the urgency that propels a thriller forward.
While still outlining, I figured Ben needed a high-placed source to help him confound the real or imagined conspiracy, so I created another character who also gives the reader an inside look at the presidential campaign. Her subplot introduces high-powered suspects whose political wrangling may or may not be indicative of a conspiracy that would place the life of her candidate, the sitting Vice President, in danger.
When I began to weave the subplots together, layering in connective details and themes, my ruminations about the passionate hatred necessary to motivate the conspiracy bore fruit. I saw a parallel between the way racism is passed down from generation to generation, one father to each son, and the way the conspiracy could have been perpetuated. The goal of the plot became grander–a second civil war–and a third point-of-view character, a pugnacious female reporter, was born to carry a subplot about growing hostilities between the white supremacy movement and a nascent black resistance.
So what started out as a somewhat whimsical tale about a bumbling lawyer chasing a conspiracy theory emerged as three intricately-crafted subplots woven together by a serious theme. While The Jinx still requires some suspension of disbelief, careful research, the credibility of the characters and their motivations, and the forethought that went into linking the plot lines earned the book excellent reviews and endorsements from civil rights leaders.
I developed the plot for King of Paine in a similar fashion. My brainstorming once again started with the underlying crime and the perpetrator’s motivation. The story follows two seemingly unrelated investigations, FBI agent Frank Paine’s pursuit of a stalker committing a series of kinky Internet crimes and a reporter, Roger Martin, tracking the disappearance of wealthy senior citizens across the nation. But as the perp’s unseen narrative is exposed, the two stories connect, with both men driven toward the same mysterious place. A series of twists leads up to a finale in which the main characters’ lives hang on resolution of a seemingly irresolvable dilemma.
It would have been impossible to craft this story without an outline because much of the mystery is created by the complex relationships among the characters and the precise timing with which pivotal facts are revealed. The two stories needed to unfold together at exactly the right pace over a two-week period, which I tracked using a timeline displaying daily advancements in character, plot, and themes.
But crafting an intricate plot is more than simply animating a detailed outline. As the characters and story come to life on the pages, opportunities are revealed for layering in subplots (the erotic cat-and-mouse game between Frank Paine and an old flame), themes (personal accountability of the terminally ill), and the little puzzles that sustain suspense even during lulls in the action.
I’ll close with an example of how a subtle thread woven into King of Paine‘s fabric helps hold it together. In chapter one, a victim utters an odd phrase as a cry of distress. Over the course of the story it’s revealed that the phrase is a line of poetry that has entered common usage, a main character authored the poem, and another significant character took life-changing actions because of its influence–actions that go to the heart of the story’s mystery. That simple, five-word phrase adds another layer of complexity that helps give the novel a polished, integrated feel.