“I have an idea for a plot.” Dreaded words to an author.

About a month ago, I took a weekend trip with some friends. In our long ride in the car in which I had no responsibility for driving, we took some time to catch up on what was going on in each others lives, shared some insights into daily issues, and then the sentence came out which made me cringe.

“I have an idea for a plot. Here it is.” She launched into her idea, which came from a real incident in her life. 

I listened, not having any idea how I would turn this into a story. It was only the description of one meeting. At least it was a good one, where the hero and heroine would meet. My friend had one other requirement–that the characters have sex on the hood of a car. In my head I was thinking, “Um, I can’t do that.” 

Except, you can’t say that when you are sitting beside your very good friend. Great friend. Life long, always been there for you friend. Yes, we are honest enough with each other that I could have given her the “that’s nice” line, but for reasons I won’t discuss here, I was needy, wanting real in depth round and round go get ’em conversations. So, I said, “That’s a nice idea, but it takes more than that to write a story. We need to know who the characters are, and one of the ways to do that is by answering some questions about the characters.”

Here is where I pulled from one of the best online classes that I’ve ever taken. Quilting 101: Patchworking the Perfect Plot with Suzanne Johnson. It covered plot arcs, the threads of the story (the individual character arcs), and so much more. All the parts she showed us stuck with me, but I focused on the character dossier. 

Let me tell you a bit about Suzanne first. She’s the author of Royal Street, River Road, and Elysian Fields, a gritty, but delightful story set in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s great urban fantasy with some amazing characters that jump off the page. I was instantly in love with Jean Lafitte. She also writes as Susannah Sandlin. You can find all about her at Preternatura

Back to the main story. I pulled from Suzanne’s character dossier questions as we rode along the interstate. As i was going from memory, I didn’t cover all the questions, but I got the big ones. Honestly, a writer needs to know what a character’s childhood was like and who their best friend is. These things tell you a lot about a character.

My friend jumped right into the questions, taking my deeper questions and criticisms in stride. That skeleton of a heroine grew into a truly fleshed out person. I know who she is, and by the end of an hour, I had a pretty good sketch of the hero. I’ve got the big idea, or in Suzanne’s words, what the overall quilt will look like. The colors that I’ll be using aren’t very clear yet, but I’m not even halfway through the patchwork quilt process with this plot idea. (I am in the middle of what started out as a crackpot idea.)

Here is what I do know:

  • I can make my friend’s idea into a story I can sell. It may not be exactly what she envisioned, but it’s one more idea to make into a story.
  • I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the education I got via Suzanne. 
  • I may not ever cringe again when someone says, “I have an idea for a plot.”

Ok, that last one is probably a lie. I will still cringe. Most authors aren’t struggling for ideas. We struggle with the limitations of time and the speed of our fingers to get the ideas out fast enough. Here is the other beautiful part about Suzanne’s way of plotting; it is all there once you are done. You’ve got the accessory characters, the furniture (you’ll have to take one of her classes to understand), the interactions between all the characters, plot arcs, and a nearly full blown synopsis. Due to me taking care of my mother, it was necessary for me to take a pretty large break in writing. When I went back to the manuscript in my editor’s hands, I knew exactly where I was in the story and where I needed to go once I had time to devote to daily scribbling. I didn’t have my brain to thank for that. I had Suzanne’s plotting method.

I’m left with a scribbled plot idea and half synopsis in the back of my day planner and a serious appreciation for a great writer and an even better writing teacher. Check out Suzanne Johnson’s website and look into one of her workshops that she’ll be leading in the next year. You’ll be glad you did.

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