Creating Plots for Page Turners Talk by Robert Dugoni

Creating Plots for Page Turners
Robert Dugoni
New York Times Best-selling Author
Willamette Writers Conference, #WWCON11
  • “I am living proof that you can fail miserably and still make a living as a career.”
  • Writing is technical, and it can be learned.
  • Remove as many obstacles as possible... you want to get rejected on your writing, not on your query letter.
  • You can’t be taught how to write, but you can be taught to teach yourself.
  • You have to get the books, and you have to study them.
  • People will say “just write from your heart”. But that’s not true. It’s like the violin. You can’t hand a violin to someone that doesn’t play and say “play from your heart”.
  • Writers without skill are pouring words onto a page, but they are just words. Not a book.
  • All this applies to memoirs: a memoir has to be a good story. just because it is true isn’t enough. it works for horrors, mysteries, thrillers, non-fiction.
  • As novelists, our primary function is to entertain the reader.
  • The protagonist and the characters are the entertainers, not the writer. The writer should be invisible.
    • You have to let your characters perform. In any of the best authors, you don’t hear the author.
  • When our characters perform, we eliminate:
    • long narratives
    • opinions
      • if you want to write a book about abortion, you gotta let the characters take on the roles.
      • the readers will get offended if you as the author are throwing this stuff about them
    • point of view confusion
    • eliminate distance between the reader and character
    • telling
    • info dumps
      • research
      • technical stuff
      • backstory
      • flashbacks: if you have them, they have to be an actual scene. end the previous scene, start a new scene.
  • Anything that stops a story, especially in the first 50 pages, really needs to be eliminated.
  • Flashbacks:
    • do it the right way
    • don’t stop the story
    • put it in the right place
    • put it in as a scene
    • let the characters continue to entertain
  • What is a story?
    • a journey - a quest.
  • Who is on the journey?
    • the characters
  • The term the journey comes from Joseph Campbell.
  • A journey has movement
    • things happen
    • progress
    • secrets are revealed
    • meet people
  • when you put a character in action, they run into people, they react to circumstances.
  • anytime you have long narratives where a character is sitting and thinking, you have a problem. doesn’t matter what kind of book it is.
    • it’s just never as interesting as seeing the character in action.
    • “i’ll just stand up here and think.” -- not interesting.
  • characters don’t need to be traveling. but they do need to be moving.
  • two types of journeys
    • physical journey: your plot.
      • what quest you have asked your character to go on.
      • what steps they need to take to do that.
    • inner journey: journey of the heart.
      • character’s motivation
      • it’s why they are going to do the above.
      • most of the time we’re going to ask our characters to do heroic things. that requires strong motivations to extraordinary things.
  • The Lord of the Rings
    • Why does Frodo take on the quest? Any normal person will say no.
      • the ring can’t just be destroyed in the fire place, it has to go to the worst place possible.
    • He does it for love. The love of the shire, the love of his people, his world.
    • The plot for the Wizard of Oz is identical: dorothy must get something from the witch, the worst place possible.
  • Simplify the motivations.
    • love, fear, anger, ambition, hate, revenge, greed, loss, desire.
    • don’t make it a complex thing that happened somewhere in the past.
    • people will do crazy things for the most basic human motivations.
    • All movies or books about five things
      • to win
      • to stop something from happening 
      • to escape from a bad situation (misery)
      • to retrieve something (indiana jones)
      • to destroy something (lord of the rings)
    • don’t kill yourself trying to create some backstory. work with the basic human emotions.
  • [note to self: get Robert Dugoni books, including Bodily Harm]
  • High concept
    • it means raising the stakes for the individual
    • a policeman has to check out a murder. this is his job. no big deal. he gets there, and wait... it’s his niece.
      • we’ve raised the stakes.
      • if he doesn’t solve it, he may never forgive himself, his family may not forgive.
    • other ways...
      • maybe his wife was strangled 6 years earlier, it reminds him of her.
      • maybe it’s an important senators daughter.
      • a woman he had an affair with.
      • he made some kind of terrible error that led to her death.
      • first big chance, last big case.
    • you can raise the stakes without making it artificial.
  • we don’t need to flashback in the scene.
    • he goes to the crime. he sees the face. OMG. end scene. Next scene: “six years earlier...”
    • OR
    • he goes to the crime. his partner says “I don’t think you should take this. She looks like Mary.” “It’s been six years, I can handle it.” “I don’t know if you can.”
  • Good beginning: first 50-75 pages.
    • Establish the tone of your book
      • the reader should be able to pick it up.
    • Introduce your protagonist
      • You want the reader to become grounded in a person.
      • As he’s become a better writer, he has jumped around less
      • Be able to answer:
        • who is your p.
        • what is your p.
        • where is your p.
        • what does your p. want?
        • what stands in the way of them achieving it?
    • Introduce your setting
      • Ground the reader in where the story is taking place.
    • Creating Empathy
      • Make your character empathic, not pathetic.
      • undeserved misfortune...
        • someone took their son
        • someone has taken something from them
      • put your character in jeopardy
        • tom cruise in rain man: total jackass.
          • but in the beginning of the movie, he’s losing his business, he’s undergoing financial collapse
        • someone trying to kill them
        • emotional jeopardy: “i am divorcing you, and I am taking the kids”
      • make them a nice guy.
        • he saw the cat eating out of the dumpster, and put out a bowl of food. the cat came back the next day. soon it was his cat. what a nice guy.
      • make them funny. we like funny people. they say all the things we wish we could say but don’t.
      • make them powerful.
    • Hooking the reader
      • opening sentence should raise a question.
        • “the camel died at noon.”
          • it raises questions. what camel? why did it die?
        • “father so-and-so put down his hoe and looked at the naked man coming out of the forest.
      • give them a question and hook them, and then give them an interesting person.
      • someone interesting should appear right away.
    • The Middle of the Book
      • develop the implicit promise.
        • we expect something to be happening...
          • a murder investigation to investigate the murder
          • romance to fulfill longing, etc.
      • we should really know exactly who this is about and what their quest is.
    • There is a thru-line in every book
      • examples
        • thrillers: will the bad guys be brought to justice and how?
        • mystery: who did it?
        • winning: will sea biscuit race war admiral and win?
      • But if all we wanted to know is the answer, we would skip to the end.
      • We read for the obstacles in their path, all along the way.
    • Dorothy and Wizard of Oz:
      • obstacle: which way to go?
        • introduce the scarecrow. 
        • she’s compassionate to him
      • obstacle: she’s hungry
        • there’s an apple, but she can’t get it.
        • the scarecrow helps her.
    • The obstacles should build toward the climax, 2/3rds of the way through the book
      • the obstacles should reveal who the character is
      • harry potter:
        • he’s courageous, loyal, sympathetic, etc.
        • all the obstacles reveal this about harry.
        • it’s how he always wins
      • If all the obstacles are the same, it becomes monotonous.
      • the biggest obstacle is the climax.
  • The End
    • The murder should be solved.
    • The romance should have a happy ending.
    • Satisfy the reader.
      • If you cheat the reader, they feel unsatisfied. If you don’t bring the bad guys to justice.
    • But you can have some twists.
      • How many times did that boy say “i see dead people.”
      • Murder One has two big twists in it.
    • No sudden new character.
    • In the end, the actor has to be the protagonist.
      • It has to be Harry who kills Voldemort.
    • No new forces or skills.
      • You can’t just add something because you painted yourself into a corner.
  • Does your character achieve his or her goal?
  • What final obstacle returns to her path to return to the ordinary world?
  • How does it demonstrate how your character has changed?
  • epiloque
    • close up loose ends
    • don’t ever neglect an animal. you can kill thousands of people, but don’t ever neglect an animal. readers will call you and say “you left a cat and dog in a kennel.”
  • Books
    • Saltine’s “On Writing”
    • Writing Genre Fiction - Milhorn. very good.
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