Tuesday, January 31, 2017

For thrilling stories, add the ‘5 C's’ to your plot

How hard can it be to lay out the structure of a novel? I mean, you start at the beginning, go to the end, then stop. Except, as any writer – or storyteller knows – the question becomes, what is the beginning? What is the end? And what the what do you do in between the two?

And with at least two of my critique partners in the throes of plotting book-length stories, I was thrilled to hear thriller writer C.L. Stegall’s take on plotting at this month’s meeting of the Writers Guild of Texas.

CL Stegall: file photo
Did I hear you say, but I don’t write thrillers? Never fear, Stegall told the crowd that filled the basement meeting room of the Richardson Library to hear him. “In all honesty, every good fiction should have some elements of a thriller,” which in his words, is simply a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, using his “Five C’s” of storytelling: complex characters, confrontation, careening, coronary, and communication.

Right, we’ve all heard that characters should be complex and well-rounded, but how can we achieve that? How can a character who lives on a two-dimensional page be complex? By giving them convoluted backstories. It helps if they have bad habits – “characters you love to hate or hate to love,”, a strong belief system that gives them a direction for travel, (“our protagonists should always be moving forward – until they get knocked back”), and complex relationships to match.
That “Confrontation” (with a big C) is simply another name for the conflict that drives all stories. “The most interesting conflict emanates from the character who, in his mind, is justified in the course he or she pursues,” a course which will clash with the beliefs of the story’s other characters with their own justifiable pursuits.

“Use these complex perspectives to build conflict, action, and characters’ motives,” Stegall urged the audience.

How about the Careening aspect? “Knock your protagonist and reader off the track. Twists are pure gold. Lull the audience into repose, then catch them off guard! Do this several times to build a roller coaster of a read. Infuse every scene with conflict. Give your character enough rope to hang himself and then tighten it.”

image: wikimedia commons
And that Coronary in the Big C’s? That, Stegall said, is simply a reminder that any good story “is all about the heart. Keep the heart of your tale always in mind. Get readers to experience the emotions of the scene. If you are writing a scene where a young character is lost, we’ve all experienced the confusion and fear of being lost. Place yourself in the character’s place,” with empathy that the reader will experience and remember long after closing the book.

And that final Big C – Communication?

“What is the story really about, the very essence of it? What do you want the reader to think about hours and days after finishing your story?” Stegall said. “Make every effort to portray that idea. If I don’t see the point of a story, I get bored.”

All that said, there are probably as many ways to plot a story as there are stories. “If anyone tells you there’s a formula for writing a book, you can tell them they’re a liar,” Stegall said the first time I heard him speak at a panel on genre fiction a few years ago.

He actually lists eight in his “In The Trenches” reference material at his blog, with still more from other writers in the appendix. Pick a method that suits your style, or try more than one. And remember to stir in plenty of the “5 C’s”.


I’ve written several times about the programs offered by the Writers Guild of Texas. This year’s lineup includes programs on writing romance (appropriately, held in February), character-driven fiction, writing series novels, editing novels, blogging, marketing, and screenwriting. Check the site for dates and details.

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