07 August 2021

What the Characters Do


Some writers have told me they don't give much thought to the plot of a story. They say they just come up with great characters and then give them something to do. Well, here's the thing: What they do is the plot.

Building Blocks

Putting together a story always starts with an idea. As mentioned before at this blog, these ideas can come from anywhere and can be anything from a beacon that lights up the entire story in your head, all at once, to a tiny spark that you use as kindling to build on. And most writers say those ideas, big or small, begin with either a character, a plot, a setting, or a theme.

My writing process always starts with a plot. The first thing I picture is what's happening, and once I have that firmly in my head I start thinking about characters, locations, etc. I don't do it that way because it's the best way--it might not be the best way. I do it because that's the way my mind works. As I said in the first paragraph, a lot of writers seem to start with interesting characters and only then come up with what the characters do. I start with something that has to be done, and only then plug in the characters that I need to make it happen. That's probably the reason I write genre stories instead of literary stories. Stephen King once said that literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I relate better to ordinary people and I like imagining wild situations to put them in. 

Story vs. Plot

Years ago, I read a good discussion about the difference between story and plot--I think it was by Ronald Tobias, in his book 20 Master Plots. If I'm right about who said it, he said something to this effect: A story is a series of related events. His example: The king died and the queen died. (Not a great story, but it's still a story because it meets the requirements.) Then he said a plot is a sequence of related events that introduces an element of tension or anticipation or suspense. Example: The king died, and the queen died of grief. Or the king died and the queen spit on his grave. Or the king died and the queen rushed to Lancelot's quarters. (I'm not only paraphrasing, here, I'm inventing my own examples--but you get the drift.) 

Another example of a story: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, and drove home. A plot: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, drove home, and buried Jack's body in the back pasture. A plot needs to be something that grabs the reader's interest. 

And yes, I know: short stories don't have to have plots. A vignette, a slice-of-life, a character sketch--none of those have plots, but they still qualify as short stories. An often-used example of a plotless story is Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Beautiful description and interesting symbolism, but mostly it's an account of a sportsman going through the motions of camping, fishing, cooking what he's caught, etc., and nothing really happens. It's still a story, and a famous one at that, but I think the best stories do have strong plots. Even when I'm reading and not writing, I find myself focusing mainly on the plot. I understand that the characters have to be good and effective and interesting in order to have a quality story, yes, but what I often seem to remember most is the plot.

Closer to home . . .

What are these plots that pop into my own head? As examples, here are mini-synopses for some of my stories published so far this year. If you've read any of my recent creations, some of these might ring a bell. Or not.

A man fleeing from loan sharks gets help from a female alligator-hunter

Two friends attempt to steal from a small-town business that's secretly connected to the mob

A fortune-teller in a New Orleans voodoo shop discovers a customer planning a robbery

A woman's scheme to murder her husband takes a wrong (and explosive) turn

A pool hall in Alaska is the scene of a showdown between townspeople and a trio of killers

In a raging storm, an outlaw happens upon a family in the high plains of west Texas

A new employee at an accounting firm meets a mysterious stranger in the elevator

A farmer wakes up to dreams of terrifying creatures in his cornfield

A veteran con-man's efforts to trick a young lady have unexpected results

A Mississippi sheriff helps his ex-lawyer girlfriend reclaim a stolen inheritance

A legendary gunfighter sides with a prospector and his sister against evil claimjumpers

Two amateur thieves in southern Italy battle an unexpected enemy

The maid for a recently deceased elderly lady becomes the prime suspect in her murder

A hitman walks into a local honky-tonk and hits the wrong man

A small-town sheriff tries to find the prankster who poisoned the mayor's punch

An inmate being transported to a new prison escapes--and interrupts a robbery in progress

A man on the run from the mafia is trapped in the restroom of a neighborhood bar

Members of a movie club help catch a thief at a local soup kitchen

Mob bosses and hitmen show up in a small southern town

A visiting police chief assists D.C. cops in solving an art-theft case

the search for a killer leads a sheriff and his former schoolteacher to a roadside cafe

An anonymous riddler provides the only clue to the robbery of a local Homeowner's Association

A police chief and her sister track two scammers who've emptied a woman's bank accounts

A Bigfoot hoaxster winds up in the middle of a crooked and deadly real-estate scheme

A politician and a gambler in southern Texas find themselves in a desperate situation

A boy receives otherworldly messages in a suburban mailbox

Two strangers who met on a plane flight meet again under far different circumstances

The kidnapping of a prominent businesswoman goes wrong, in almost every way

A wealthy rancher and his mistress plan to bomb a train in the Arizona desert

A year after a nuclear attack, a peaceful settlement must fight an army of armed scavengers

A unknown assistant helps the law solve a case of boat theft

An Old West private eye faces his past when hired to find a cattleman's missing daughter

I'm not saying these are great or ideal plots, but they worked, in terms of getting sold--and if any of them happen to serve as a prompt or catalyst for your own plot ideas, so much the better. (What does their subject matter say about me and my mental health? Let's not go into that.)

Most of these plots are mysteries, and when I listed them in this post I was a little surprised by how many of the mystery/crime stories involve a theft, a kidnapping, etc., instead of a murder. Also, relatively few of the mysteries were whodunits--they were more howdunits or whydunits or howcatchems.


What's your storytelling process, with regard to first ideas? Do you usually start with a character? A plot? A scene or setting? A theme? Are your plots usually short? Long? Simple? Complex? Twisty? Lighthearted? Violent? What are some of your recent plots?

Whatever they are and however you create them, I think plots are all-important. To me, they're what makes stories fun to read . . . and fun to write.

Let me know what you think.


  1. John, your posts are a mini-masterclass! Thanks! In the very-very short story I just (I mean "just!") wrote for a contest I found out about two hours ago. I needed to include four words, one of which was "paint." So my story takes place from the point of view of a guy painting a wall. We learn a lot about his situation and why he's painting in the 400 and some words.

    1. Thanks, Jeff! And congrats on the newly-finished story.

      Sometimes those very-very short stories can be the most fun to write, and they ALWAYS teach the writer a lot about not "wasting words." Let me know when/where it's published!

  2. John, your graphic for plot structure is one of my favorites; I've used it often, and it seems to help students understand what they're trying to write. Your mini-synopses are great writing prompts. As always, a post full of lessons.

    1. Hi Susan--thank you! The only thing I'd add to that graphic is to (with short stories) keep the exposition short and the falling action/resolution short.

      As for lessons, most of what I wrote here I learned from that 20 Master Plots book. I think it's one of the really worthwhile books about writing, along with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, On Writing, and a few of Lawrence Block's how-to-write books.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. John, I usually get a scene in my head, a what if situation. For instance, what if the town tough guy slaps his pistol on the table to intimidate a table of men in a bar, but then finds that one of the men has his own pistol. Or, what if a budding young criminal gets roped into a scheme to steal a religious relic, but everything goes wrong with the robbery. The characters, setting and full plot then fill out from there. Sometimes a one sentence outline, sometimes a more detailed outline, either of which may change in the process of writing.

    1. R.T., that's exactly the way I do it. Occasionally I get the idea for a particular character I'd like to write about and start from there--but not often. And even then, I have to know right away what that character'll be doing, and decide if that's interesting enough to build a story around. And, like you, I also believe an outline (mental or written) can, and often will, change once the writing begins.

      Thanks as always for the thoughts!

  4. Interesting article, John. I'm not sure I agree with Stephen King. Sherlock Holmes is an extraordinary person who does extraordinary things.

    Anyway, like you, I usually start with a plot idea. During the making of the whole plot (I call it the engine - what moves the reader from one page to another), the character develops on its own by asking myself: which people does this plot need?

    1. Ha!--Anne, you're exactly right. So was Obi-Wan Kenobi, I guess. And James Bond. But when the Kingster comes out with a quote, I feel duty-bound to repeat it.

      To me, beginning with a plot just makes a lot of sense. I put so much value on STORY, I want to make sure there'll be a captivating plotline throughout whatever I try to write. If you're a good enough writer, you can then come up with interesting (extraordinary?) characters to make the story work.

      Thanks so much for chiming in! I hope all's well with you and yours.

  5. What a brilliant list! You are amazing.

    John, I'm in full agreement. I recall occasional novels where the author allowed protagonists wandering around, showing off their 'character' and precious little else. As you said in your first SleuthSayers article, Plots and Plans.

    1. Thank you, Leigh. I too have read a lot of those novels, and shorts also. I'll add something else, too: the very best of the best are those stories/novels that have great characters AND a great plot--The Silence of the Lambs, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mystic River, Lonesome Dove, too many others to name. But what I remember most is still the plot.

      You be safe, down there--Florida's a scary place at the moment . . .

  6. Great post, and that list of publications is impressive...your ideas are endless.

    1. Thank you, Judy, and thanks for stopping by, today. Ideas are everywhere, and like all writers, I have them pop into my head all the time. My problem is figuring out which of them will work for a story and which are dead-ends. All of you know what I mean.

      Take care, and please stay in touch!


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