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June 13, 2008

I Am Not A Plotter

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I had a cold the first part of the week and, of necessity, resorted to light reading to pass some of the time.

On the Internet or someplace else (I already have forgotten where), the name Mycroft Holmes came up. Mycroft was Sherlock's older, heavier, less-energetic, but smarter brother. Of course I knew of Mycroft, but realized that I had never read any of the stories where he was involved. So I checked out the Wikipedia entry in the above link, noted the names of the appropriate stories, grabbed my "complete works" Holmes book off the shelf and dug in.

Having dispatched a couple of Mycroft entries, I continued with some other short stories, concluding (as of last night) with "Silver Blaze" -- the one containing the famous passage where Holmes and Inspector Gregory have the following exchange, Gregory speaking first:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

In case you haven't read that story I won't toss in any "spoiler" material. I will say that the yarn was entertaining in its way, as are most Sherlock Holmes stories, though the greatest draw for the reader is the personality of Holmes himself. It is for me, anyway. I should add that when I do read mystery stories (and I seldom read fiction of any kind, I'm semi-sorry to admit), I seldom cross wits with the writer, trying to guess who the guilty party is. I simply go with the narrative flow, especially if I have a cold and don't feel much like thinking about anything.

Mysteries are a specialized kind of story-telling where grand plot themes such as "dealing with evil or misfortune" or "the transition to true adulthood," or whatever they actually are, seldom or never come into play. Characterization tends to be minimal as well -- especially in the space-limited short story form. There, the people the protagonist deals with are usually little more than one-dimensional "types" whose personalities can be selected by the writer to help distract the reader from other clues dropped along the narrative way.

Even so, mysteries definitely do have plots. That means I can never be a mystery writer. Or a science-fiction writer or a Western writer. Or, for that matter, a writer of any kind of fiction. The reason is simple: I am all but incapable of concocting plots of any kind. Don't know why: I just can't.

This isn't simple ignorance, mind you. I've even read a book about plotting, not that it changed anything one bit. I just [Sniff] don't have that gene.

Still, I can almost imagine how Doyle worked out "Silver Blaze" before he set to writing it. He probably first thought of the conclusion and the guilty party. Then he must have worked up key clues along with distractions. After that, he wrote. Sherlock Holmes stories generally consist of a long scene-setting, usually a narrative by a troubled character to Holmes and Dr. Watson. Then Holmes flits here and there looking for more clues. Finally, often after a bit of action, the case is solved and Holmes explains how he did it. Even though this is largely formula-driven, I'm pretty sure that I would have a lot of trouble concocting even a crummy mystery story even if I could come up with a conclusion to set the ball rolling.

I'm tempted to ask you to tell me how one creates a plot, but realize that that might be akin to asking Brett Favre how to pass a football. Some folks are "naturals" and some of us ain't.



posted by Donald at June 13, 2008


One of the standard moves when writing a mystery is to write the solution first and plot backwards from there.

Posted by: vanderleun on June 13, 2008 3:51 PM

You do realize that there's a novel called "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nite-time", right?

Regarding plot, have you tried Aristotle's Poetics for help? Not that I'm any good with plot either.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on June 13, 2008 5:42 PM

There's lots of writers who don't do plots. They just borrow an old plot and change the names and faces and places. If you feel more comfortable with narrative and character development, I don't see why you can't feel free to steal any plot. It worked for Shakespeare.

Posted by: steve on June 13, 2008 5:55 PM

How one creates a plot, by N. Gaiman.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 13, 2008 6:51 PM

Plots and plotting can be fun if you've got a bit of a knack for it. But if you don't, why suffer? You can always write modernist fiction and skip the plotting stage entirely. Being a mere -- sniff -- storyteller gets you looked down on these days anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 14, 2008 12:23 AM

I plotted out a three-volume saga about a German family settling on the 19th century Texas frontier by reading a very tall stack of non-fiction books and period memoirs. There were just certain incidents and events that I kept coming back to - and eventually I had a whole list of them, and a list of fictional and real characters that I wanted to see participate in those events. The massacre at Goliad, the kidnapping of children by raiding Indians, how the cattle industry took off in Texas after the Civil War. And then I worked out who the characters were, who would be there to participate in all of that - the events drove some of the characters... and some of the characters just popped into being and seemed to have ideas of their own for what they would do and where they would go.
I set up a very complicated excel spread sheet to map it all out by month and year... and after that point, it all kind of fell into place. Maybe it is one of those things that some people have a 'natural' talent for. For me, it just sort of 'happened'.

Posted by: Sgt. Mom on June 14, 2008 1:55 PM


A few entries ago, you posted "We Got Suckered" after finding out about Robert Cassidy's commentary from my blog. Today I got a piece published about it in American Thinker. It's called, "Straight talk from Clinton's trade negotiator." Here's the link:

By the way, if you (Friedrich) want a free review copy of our book "Trading Away Our Future" just e-mail me at

Howard Richman

Posted by: Howard Richman on June 14, 2008 10:36 PM

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