I wrote this piece almost twenty years ago for the first Dixonverse web site:
Plotting is what separates the men from the boys (or women from the girls, to be very PC about it).
There are those who will tell you that there are only two basic plots. These people are idiots.
Shakespeare came up with at least seven enduring plots. Dashiell Hammett with two. Poe with one. Melville with two. Twain, Hugo, Dumas, all contributed mightily. Jane Austen was no slouch. The ancient Greeks and Chinese. And the Bible is loaded with them.
Avoid blanket statements from folks who tell you otherwise. Hipsters and coffee shop posers. Just because the story is personal doesn’t make it original. We could all write the story about the first time our heart was broken or the loss of a loved one and they would essentially be the same story. They could be touching, honest and revealing but by no means new.
Now personal EXPERIENCE is another matter. Hammett lived the stories he wrote; filled with gangsters, murders, shoot-outs and drunken depravity. He was a Pinkerton detective and didn’t know that the plotlines to Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest were fresh. He only knew what he’d learned as a private dick. Raymond Chandler, on the other hand, was a successful lawyer who’d never been on a stake-out or been beaten senseless in a brawl. Hence, his plotlines are a mess and he is only remembered for his deft use of language and compelling characters (no slouch in either department). He had no experiences to draw from.
So, you want to write about something but haven’t been in command of pirate ship or led a charge against an enemy machine gun nest. By some how-to cowboy’s lights you’d have to give up right there. So you do as Nietzsche advised and borrow from others intellects.
I used to write a character called Skywolf. A grizzled WWII vet still raising hell in the skies over Texas and Mexico in the 1980s. I made him my dad. I used my dad’s voice as I heard it my head and a lot of his tropes and mannerisms. Plotlines for Skywolf grew out of that.
Now, were any of these original plotlines? Totally original? Of course not. I was being paid $35 a page and had a bi-weekly deadline. I didn’t steal plots. Never sink that low. But I did rely on formula as well as the expectations of the reader. You take the standard formula of any genre then stand it on its head as best you can. The hero dies. The girl goes off with another girl. The murderer gets away with it only to be murdered himself. The magician’s magic turns out to be a hallucination in the end. Whatever. Give the reader what they expect but not in the way they expected it.
Example. In a western, ALL conflicts must be resolved in the end with violence. If you don’t do that you didn’t write a western you wrote a period piece with a lame ass ending. The ONLY exception is an excellent 50s western called Warlock in which the issues of the movie are solved without a shootout at the end. The movie ends with a confrontation resolved through emotional violence and thus satisfies the viewer.
So, come up with a sturdy plotline and twist and bend it. Throw in reversals that leave the reader uncertain of how you’ll proceed. Janet Leigh was the star of Psycho but is dead within the first twenty minutes. Imagine how THAT threw the audience off!
Presentation is the key. Think of Star Wars and the Vietnam movie Platoon. They both have exactly the same basic plotline. Think about it. Really think about it. The character relationships of the principles are identical to Star Wars. There’s even a wookie.
So pacing, characterization and dialogue all become layers under which you “hide” your plotline. Is your plotline strong enough to entertain a six year old as a bedtime story? Probably not. Gussy it up with repartee, reversals and strong character relationships, brisk action, a few off-the-wall surprises and you can keep jaded adults enthralled. Don’t be discouraged, Tarantino can’t tell bedtime stories either. His movies are ALL presentation.