40 Days of Worksheets – Day 22

ramonagravitarWorksheet #22 – Plotting Worksheet

Does your manuscript include these plot elements? Answer with a brief description.


Normal world:

Inciting Incident:


Emotional journey:









Please note: All worksheets posted are my original work and intellectual property. I ask that you share the links on social media, and you are welcome to share the worksheets with your critique groups and writing friends with credit given. That being said, these worksheets—despite being posted on the Internet—may not be copied, distributed, or published as anyone’s work but mine. In short: sharing is good, plagiarism is bad.

Disclaimer #2: You may post your completed worksheet if you’d like, but please remember that, by doing so, you are sharing your ideas with all of the Internet. You’ve been warned.

Are you a Texas Sharpshooter writer?

RamonaGravitarOnce upon a time, a cowboy from Texas took a bunch of  pot shots at the broad side of a barn. When his gun was emptied, the cowboy moseyed to the barn and found the spot where the most bullets had hit. He took a can of black paint, marked a bullseye around the cluster of bullet holes, and announced, “Hey, look! I’m a great shot!”

True story? Tall tale? You decide.

The Texas Sharpshooter bit is a joke, but it also illustrates a fallacy. A fallacy is an argument based on unsound reasoning. A fallacy can be intentional and employed as trickery, or a fallacy can be unintentional and based on a mistake.

The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy has been used by epidemiologists—medical professionals who study disease clusters—to show the danger of reaching a conclusion based on chance instead of cause. In lay terms, that means a disease may cluster in an area because of a cause: a local industrial plant is spewing toxins that seep into well water and make townspeople ill.

Or, a cluster results by chance: a person carrying a contagious disease eats at the local diner and shakes hands with a few people. Clusters are studied to determine if they reveal a genuine pattern or if they are random.

The Texas Sharpshooter joke is amusing because we all know cowboys are right honest fellas who never lie about their marksmanship. And what kind of psycho shoots up a perfectly good barn?

The real question of this post is, what does this have to do with plotting a mystery novel?

If you are writing a murder mystery, you need a murderer. Some writers know the identity of the Bad Guy from the start. If your candidate for murderer is Brad, you’ll create a plot that surrounds Brad with figurative bullet holes labeled  motive-means-opportunity. When Brad is revealed as the Bad Guy, it is based on cause—concrete evidence—and you hit the target because you aimed at Brad all along.

 If you write this way, consider yourself a Marksman. Your target was chosen. Every scene was a shot aimed toward the bullseye that is your murderer.

But what if you are one of the many authors who don’t know whodunit from the start? Is it possible to plot a murder mystery if you—the author—don’t know the identity of the murderer?

If you’re writing backwards, as it were, does that mean your reveal is a fallacy? If you don’t decide on the Bad Guy until you yourself reach the climax, does that mean you’re a Texas Sharpshooter writer? And if you are a Texas Sharpshooter kind of writer, is that a bad thing?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Texas Sharpshooting is based on randomness. If you have no clue about the murderer, but as you write you find most of the bullets start to land around Brad–bingo! You can still write a reveal based on cause. Done correctly, the plot will give Brad the required motive-means-opportunity to prove him guilty. Maybe your subconscious knew Brad was the Bad Guy and it guided you as you wrote. Good job, subconscious!

But what if you have no particular Bad Guy in mind, and when the time comes to reveal one, you don’t have enough bullet holes around any particular suspect? Does this mean your Bad Guy is relegated to  plot convenience, coincidence, or the dreaded deus ex machina? Will your solution to the mystery be a fallacy?

If you close your eyes and choose a Bad Guy because someone must have done it and you have a deadline pending, your choice is random. You are plotting using unsound reasoning–creating the bullseye after shooting the gun.

But don’t burn down the barn just yet.

Can the Texas Sharpshooter method of plotting work? Of course it can–if you go a few steps back and plant the bullets in the right spots.

To remove fallacies in your plotting, go back into the manuscript and revise or double check the logical case against your Bad Guy. Does your plot reveal motive-means-opportunity? Is that shown in the action of the story? If not, make that happen, and your pot shots hit the correct target after all. The unsound reasoning in your plot disappears, and you have cause to call out the Bad Guy.  If you don’t go back into the manuscript to correct your aim, you may have an ending that feels random–because it was.

Have you ever read a murder mystery where, when you reach the reveal, you think, “Really? This guy? Who knew!”  Maybe the author didn’t know, either. Maybe he or she is a Texas Sharpshooter.

 What kind of plotter are you?

Do you take the Marksman approach, knowing from the start who had the means-motive-opportunity, and you write to prove that out?  Or are you more of a Texas Sharpshooter? Do you write until all the evidence is revealed and then you have to back up, reload, and revise to show the murderer must be, and can only be, this one Bad Guy?

In mystery writing, there’s no one way to plot. After all, when the reader gets the finished product, she has no idea if you painted the bullseye on the barn before or after you began firing. As long as the target is hit, only you know if you’re a Marksman or a Texas Sharpshooter.

But feel free to ‘fess up here about your particular brand of plotting!


For more info on writing mysteries, check out these posts:

Why Your Mystery is like a Lost Puppy

17 Ways to Mess Up Your Murder Mystery

Fudging Facts in Fiction



Why Your Mystery is Like a Lost Puppy

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgSome time ago at a conference, I sat with a friend and bemoaned the state of one of my stories. “It’s lost,” I said. “It’s like a lost puppy.” She laughed, which I took as encouragement to pursue this analogy. Below is the result, which I shared with my scene-writing class for mystery writers:

A lost puppy is wandering around the neighborhood of your story. Because your Main Character is a decent human being, she scoops it up in her arms. The puppy is wearing a collar but there are no tags that would provide an easy solution. Continue reading “Why Your Mystery is Like a Lost Puppy”

How To Write a Story Question

What is a Story Question?

The Story Question—sometimes called the Story Problem—is the core question to be answered in the story.

Answering the Story Question is the goal of the primary plot line. It’s what drives the characters to act as they do. It’s the story’s catalyst–essentially, why the story exists.

The Story Question itself may never appear in the story as an actual question, so why is it important to identify it? Because it provides a goal, and a goal offers the characters a path for action. Without a goal, characters will wander willy-nilly. No one wants to read willy-nilly.

Once the Story Question lays out the path ahead, the writing should follow it. Use the Story Question as an aid to stay on track. If any portion of your work in progress is not directly or indirectly tied to the Story Question–through the plot,  a character’s background, or a situation in the setting–it probably does not belong in the story.

Writing out your Story Question, and maybe putting it a prominent place as a reminder, can keep you from meandering.

Here’s a sampling of Story Questions, by genre:

For a mystery, a Story Question might be: “Who killed JR?”

For a thriller, a Story Question might be: “Who is trying to kill JR?” or “Why is Whoever trying to kill JR?”

For a romance, a Story Question might be: “Can JR overcome his emotional baggage and find love?”

For a romantic suspense, a Story Question might be: “How will JR survive this conflict while falling/staying in love?”

For an quest, a Story Question might be: “Can JR locate the last two legendary googoomama birds and save the species from extinction?”

For an adventure story, a Story Question might be: “Will JR and his young son survive a plane crash in the Sierra Nevada Mountains?”

For a women’s fiction novel, a Story Question might be: “Can JR save her drug-addicted sister without ruining her own life?”

For a middle grade novel, a Story Question might be: “Can JR befriend the mean girls without becoming one?”

For a YA novel, a Story Question might be: “Can JR pursue his musical talents despite his family’s disapproval?”

For a young reader novel, a Story Question might be: “Can JR outsmart the bully on the bus?”

For a non-fiction, a Story Question might be: “How can JR’s personal journey in this subject help others?”

{JR is unisex, by the way.  Always up to something.}

By the end of the story, the Story Question should be answered fully, logically, and hopefully in a way that allowed the characters to grow and the reader to be entertained and emotionally satisfied.

Have you identified a Story Problem that lays out the path for your work in progress?


Tomorrow’s topic – How To Write a Thematic Statement

Get Out of the Kitchen!

It’s ironic to write this a week before Thanksgiving. It’s more ironic that I—who had my first cup of café au lait before the age of five—should create a post advising writers to grab their characters and drag them away from the coffee pot.

In real life, many things happen in the kitchen. It’s the hub of activity. It’s where our bodies go for sustenance and where families bond while breaking bread. How many days do you not enter your home kitchen?  Probably none.

Writers are advised to create stories that reflect and explore real life.  This is good advice–but it does not mean your characters need to hang around the kitchen, even though in real life, real people do.

Let me put this another way. I read a lot of published books. I also read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. Guess which ones have FEWER scenes in the kitchen.

When you’re planning a story, you select interesting places for the big scenes: the opening, the point of no return, the climactic battle. Those locations are certainly important, and they certainly need to be intriguing–but those scenes don’t fill the bulk of your manuscript. You’ll devote more pages to lesser dramatic scenes and lesser dramatic locations.

Where do you send your characters for these important, but not as drama-filled, scenes?

Please don’t say the kitchen.

The kitchen is the fallback location, the comfort zone for comfort writing. After a while, comfort food gets boring and makes us fat. The same thing applies to writing scene after scene in your character’s kitchen.  One of my favorite sayings about writing is that characters sleep and go to the bathroom, but I don’t want to have to read about it. I’d like to add this to that axiom: I love coffee, but I want to drink it, not read about it.

If you leave the kitchen, where do you go? No place exotic, necessarily. Think about the places we go in everyday life:

Home….Job….Restaurants….School….Gym….Parents’ home…Friends’ homes….Grocery story….Doctor’s office….The mall….Swimming pool…..Back yard….Neighborhood….City park….The beach….Bars….Cinema….Casino….Sporting events….Dance recitals….Police station…Hospital

Next, think about the particular setting of your story: Are you writing about a real town/area? Are there historical or significant sites there? Are you creating a fictional town for your story? If so, what’s it like? Where do inhabitants go?

If you are using a real setting, consider the available historical and significant locales. For instance, if your story is set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, how long can you go without mentioning the flood or the flood sites? Not long. They are in the residents’ faces every day, and you’d be cheating the reader by omitting them. It would be like writing a Pittsburgh story and never mentioning a bridge!

Second, think about your character’s life and world. Where, specifically, does your protagonist go every day, and why? Are those places dull? Are her days repetitive? What can you do to change them up? What can these places show about your character?

If your character likes to read, she goes to a library—or a bookstore—or a used bookstore—or a friend’s house to borrow a book—or a monthly book group. This may show her economic status and/or her social habits.

If a character has a back problem, he goes to a doctor—or a chiropractor—or an acupuncturist—or a faith healer—or a massage therapist—or ignore it until he has to go to the Emergency Room—or buy muscle relaxants from a high school kid on the street corner. These place choices can show if the character is a traditional thinker or a non-traditionalist.

Where you send your characters says something around them, so use those surroundings or locations to perform double—or triple—duty: Advance the action. Teach something new. Show something about the character.

Let’s try an exercise. Choose a generic setting location, like an apartment building. What spaces are available in this apartment building for a lesser dramatic scene?

Apartment: Hallway. Elevator. Foyer. Neighbor’s apartments. Manager’s office. Laundry room. Garden. Bench in front of apartment. Front door. Mailbox area. Roof. Balcony. Fire escape. Enclosed yard. Play area. Pool. Exercise room.

What about a farmhouse in the country?  House. Front porch. Back porch. Driveway. Barn. Garage. Garden. Fields. Swing area. Flower beds. Tool shed. Deck. Yard. On a ladder fixing the roof. On the lawnmower mowing the lawn.

See? No kitchen.

What about work? Let’s say your character is a drone who works in a cubicle making unwanted telemarketing calls to people all day. Dullest of the dull, right?  

Not if you get them out of the cubicle. Try it. Make a list of all the places your drone can go, just within the office building.

Then take your drone out for lunch, and think of all the places available for a meal. Then end the work day, and think of the various means of transportation to leave an office. Then think of all the places your drone can go to after work, rather than going directly home.

Then, when your drone is exhausted because she’s been to the board room at work, a cute little deli/bodega for lunch, a hop in a taxi, a Zumba class, a hitched ride with a friend because her car’s in the shop–let her arrive home. Where she’ll have to check her mail, cross the foyer, ride the elevator, walk down the hall, pass her neighbors’ apartments, and get to her door—all before she ever reaches the kitchen.

She’ll probably need a cup of coffee, in the kitchen, but she’s earned it. Look at everywhere she’s been today!

Is Your Story on Cruise Control?

On the day I packed my first car with stuff for my first apartment, my dad gave me some useful advice. “Don’t lock your keys in the car.”

Does anyone actually need to be told that?

Apparently I did, because after I put the keys in the ignition, I decided I should “freshen up” one last time. (A leftover from summer car vacations and Daddy’s pre-boarding announcement: “Do your business now because I’m not stopping until we hit Mobile!”) I got out, closed the door—which was locked. One set of keys back then, too, so we had to call the dealer to cut a new set.

After that day, every time I left home, Daddy’s parting words were, “Don’t lock your keys in the car.” This spring, I noted in “I’m A Big Girl Now” how I finally redeemed myself, but I never locked my keys up again. I learned my lesson.

I’m not a car person. Like a lot of writers, I do like long drives that allow me to think about a story problem, but vehicle prestige means nothing to me. I care about gas mileage and dependability.  My husband bought a new car a few weeks ago. I’ve never driven it. It’s blue. That’s all I know.

Oops, I lie. I also know there’s no cruise control, because he complains about it.  I never use cruise control. It makes me feel out of control. I may not care about a car’s make or model, but I do want to feel in control when I’m driving it.

In writing, control is important. Every story, every tale, is about control. Think about it. Control. Who has it, who wants it, who needs it, who steals it, who denies it. What is being controlled. Why is it being controlled. What happens if the wrong person gets control. What happens when the person or entity in control gets out of control. What happens to the person who loses control.

To continue the car theme, a writer is the driver of the story. It’s the writer’s job to set the pace, move it along, and navigate the trip. It’s a big challenge, and unlike real drivers, there are no set rules and laws about a writer’s journey.  No cruise control that allows the story to write itself.

Ergo, it’s easy to lose control. How? Here are a few ways:

DROWNING: What happens if your car won’t start and you give it more and more gas as you wait for that magical sound of the engine turning over? You drown the engine and make it worse.

In writing, drowning is overloading the reader with wave after wave of information that is not action. It can be the dreaded back story info dump. It can be a long, misplaced description. It can be the history of a place, or a person, or a relationship. Whatever it is in particular, if it stops the story so that the reader has to stop to digest it. It halts momentum and destroys suspense. It kills the engine. You can’t control a dead engine. You, as a writer, will have to work much harder to bring the story back to life—if the reader hasn’t walked away to find a more dependable vehicle.

MEANDERING: Who doesn’t like a Sunday afternoon drive through picturesque scenery? What writer hasn’t written a character who pops up and does something unexpected?  A “Where did that come from?” moment can be intriguing, and it might lead your story down an unexpected path—or it might derail the whole thing. When a plot starts to go off on tangents or spends too much time on a secondary storyline, or the author intrudes to babble about a political message, social commentary or pet peeve, the reader is taken out of the real story.

If a great new unplanned idea pours out through your fingers, take a moment to consider where this is going. How will going there affect the primary plot line? Joy rides may be fun, but they can also end in disaster.  Not everyone outlines or uses note cards when creating their stories. I’m not going to try to pen in a person’s creative process. But maps can be your friend and get you to the end of the story journey in the most sensible and economical way possible. It can be a written map or a mental one, as long as you know the final destination, and how to take a reader there without needless wanderings.

STALLING – Stalling is not the same as drowning. Stalling is what a writer does when a difficult scene is ahead, and the writer doesn’t want to write it. It may be an action scene, which many writers find hard to control because of numerous characters or complex staging. Characters must be unnaturally aggressive, or there may be violence or danger. It may be a highly emotional scene, with intense internal conflict that’s tough for the author to address.

How do writers stall? They give their characters mindless tasks to do before they head out to the climactic scene. They write long dialogue exchanges that reek of avoidance. They over describe every move the character makes, or over explain why the character makes every move he makes.

If a tough scene is ahead, and you find yourself writing and writing but never getting there, take a look at what you’re writing. Is it moving you closer to the conflict, or stalling you in one spot to dither? Don’t dither. Shift. Press the accelerator. Move forward.

SPEEDING – You’re almost at the end. It’s so close, it’s palpable. You feel that “almost there” rush.  And thank goodness, because you’ve been working on this for a year and it’s time to finish and be done! So you type like a fiend, and then voila! C’est tout! And so what if maybe you didn’t explain very thoroughly or show the character’s emotional responses or tie up every loose end. Readers like to reach the end without a lot of malarkey dropped around. They aren’t dumb. They don’t need every little thing explained to them, do they?

Readers don’t want to feel rushed, so an adrenaline kick for a writer may translate into a rush job for a reader. Readers aren’t dumb, and they don’t need to have story points rehashed after a climactic scene, but a denouement is important. You and the reader have been together for 300-400 pages. She’s grown fond of characters, or grew to hate them. Either way, an emotional tie has been made. Speeding through the payoff is going to frustrate a caring reader, and leave them unsatisfied. Slow down, speed demon, and enjoy the last leg of the journey. Leave your audience something to think about. Everybody likes a trip souvenir.

Do you have trouble maintaining control of your story? Some hints on how to keep pace? Tell me about it!