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Writing Fiction That Sells Part One – Developing a Compelling Plot

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They say everyone has a novel in them. Judging by the number of submissions that come across my desk at Intrigue Press, I’m beginning to believe it. Unfortunately, many of these aren’t necessarily publishable, nor do they show any potential for sales. As the writer or the publisher of a novel, you need to know: what makes a novel saleable? You know a good novel when you read one-you can’t put it down. How does a writer create that un-put-downable story?
Whether you categorize your novel as romance, mystery, science fiction, western, or something more general like a coming-of-age book, there are certain elements that must be there to keep the reader turning the pages. A writing teacher once broke it down into three basic elements: (1) Someone the reader likes (2) reaches an important goal (3) by overcoming obstacles. That’s all there is to it! Your job is to make the protagonist likable (or empathetic) enough, the goal important enough, and the hero’s obstacles challenging enough.

Working with Ideas

So where do the ideas come from? Look around you. Life truly is stranger than fiction, and ideas can come to you at any time from anywhere. In my third Charlie Parker mystery, Partnerships Can Kill, the entire plot idea blossomed from a ten-second item I caught on the local news. I have no idea how the real story turned out (we moved from that state several months later and I never heard any more about the story), but I had already made up a cast of characters, a background, and an ending.
Carry a small notebook with you at all times. Jot down any intriguing ideas that come your way. A couple of sentences or a short paragraph will usually suffice. Just get enough of it down that you can come back later and flesh it out. Review your notebook at a quiet time when you can reflect upon your notes. Give the idea time to grow and develop.

Testing Your Plot

Once you have a skeleton of a plot worked out, test it using these four points:

  1. Is it your story to tell? Can you put yourself sufficiently into the protagonist’s shoes to convey the emotion and drama of his/her position?
  2. Will other people care? Yes, there are many interesting scenarios out there, but will anyone really give a damn about yours?
  3. Does it move? Remember, PLOT is a verb! There’s nothing worse than a novel that wallows around for a hundred pages before anything really happens.
  4. What is at stake? It must be specific and vital. The bigger the better. Bob Gleason, editor at TOR Books, once told me he considers the plot of the ideal novel to put the fate of the world at risk.

Condense your plot into two sentences. According to Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, the two sentences must contain these five elements: Character, Situation, Objective, Opponent, and Disaster. (Notice how neatly these encompass our familiar “Someone the reader likes . . . .”) Sentence #1 is a statement. Sentence #2 is a question.
Here’s an example:
When Shiite terrorists plant an operative aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier (Situation), Tom Barnes (Character) is assigned to stop him. (Objective)Can Tom and his National Security Council team identify and capture the terrorists (Opponent) before they detonate a nuclear weapon? (Disaster)
This is the bare-bones plot of Dan Shelton’s Assault on the Venture, which we published last year. It has all the elements of suspense, action, empathy with the protagonists, and impending disaster. Condensed into two sentences like these, does your story meet all the criteria? Does it pique interest, or better yet, raise goose bumps? If so, you’re ready to begin the detail of plotting the entire book.


Find What Methods Work for You

Some writers create detailed plot outlines, while others let the story unfold as it will. Bottom line is to use whatever helps you determine whether you really do have a vital and interesting story and whether you will be able to keep your readers turning those pages. And, after all, if they won’t turn the pages on your first novel, it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll never even pick up the second one.Connie Shelton is the author and publisher of the critically acclaimed Charlie Parker mystery series, the third of which will be released this spring. Her company, Intrigue Press, publishes mystery, suspense, and adventure fiction. Shelton is also the author of Publish Your Own Novel, a Writer’s Digest Book Club selection which details the process of publishing and promoting fiction. Order by calling 1-800/996-9783.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor February, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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