People often ask me how do you think up the complex plots in your novels? They ask this question assuming I’ve planned it all out from the beginning. That in addition to the main plot I’ve figured out all the side stories and how they’ll interact with the main objective of my protagonist, Hunter McCoy. Surely, they figure, I know ahead of time all the obstacles he’ll have to overcome, how the story will unfold and how the mystery is finally resolved. After all, how can I write it if I haven’t figured out these things ahead of time?
Every writer does this a little differently. This is how it works for me. I take what I like to call the layered approach to assembling a story. I start with a setting or circumstance as the first layer and build outward from there, adding layers of complexity. To be clear, these layers aren’t necessarily consecutive events, they’re simply levels of complexity that are added as I write the story. I think of them as onionskins, multiple layers that make up the whole onion.
The first layer for me is the initial setting or circumstance of the story and it’s always pretty simple. My protagonist is faced with a problem and sets out on a path to solve it. In my new novel, Final Care, a Florida couple was vacationing in Italy when the man suffered a stroke and eventually died while undergoing rehabilitation at a neurological institute. After hiring an international funeral company called Final Care, to process and transport the body back to Venice, Florida, the widow was shocked to discover that the body in the coffin at his funeral wasn’t his. She hires my protagonist, Hunter McCoy, to find the missing body and he sets out to do it.
So during this first layer of the story I write the early scenes and chapters describing how and where the widow’s husband died, the funeral, and the shock of the family upon discovering that their loved one’s body is missing. I wrote the scenes and chapters showing how McCoy becomes involved and how he plans to find the missing body.
At this point you’ll notice that I’ve not identified any bad guys and there are no known obstacles preventing McCoy from achieving his goal. Layer one is pretty simple—A body is missing and McCoy plans to start looking for it. Of course if there were no obstacles for McCoy to overcome in trying to achieve his goal, the story would be pretty boring and lack any shred of interest. You generate interest by having your protagonist encounter obstacles during his quest.
As I write the chapters associated with the first layer, I usually start getting ideas for the next layer, a layer that should start adding complexity, deepen the mystery, and begin to create obstacles. In this case, McCoy discovers that the body is being mysteriously held at Final Care’s facility in Miami. McCoy goes there to get to the bottom of things and is suspicious when he encounters a neurosurgeon from the neurological institute examining the body. McCoy eventually gets Charlie’s body returned for proper burial but he’s left with several disturbing unanswered questions and a feeling that there’s a potential nefarious link between Final Care and the neurological institute. So again, I write several chapters associated with this layer and as before, it’s during the writing of these chapters, that ideas for the next layer begin to occur to me.
After thinking them through, I decide that the next layer will have McCoy and a local funeral director discover a suspicious pattern of embalming involving not only Charlie Lahti’s missing body but many others as well. During McCoy’s investigation, the local funeral director is murdered and McCoy receives a note telling him to leave it alone. All available evidence points to the involvement of one of Final Care’s embalmers in Brussels, a man named Johannes Donckers. After I’m satisfied that this is an appropriate next layer, I sit done and write all the chapters associated with it.
Now it’s important to note that when I started writing this novel I’d only worked out the first layer. The other two layers I’ve described so far only occurred to me after I’d written the chapters associated with the previous layer. That’s the way it works for me, and not incidentally, that’s what makes it fun. I don’t know where I’m going until I get there. For those of you who know about such things, this makes me more of a “pantser” than an “organizer.” Pantsers —who write by the seat of their pants—start with a simple concept and start writing and see where it takes them. Organizers outline the entire story ahead of time and then begin writing. In reality, I believe that, like most writers, my process is a blend of the two styles.
As I write the chapters associated with the first several layers, new things occur to me that have potential for adding to the developing mystery. After evaluating them and determining that they’re appropriate to the unfolding storyline, I begin to insert them as new layers. Sometimes this means going back and rewriting some of the earlier material so it’s consistent, but that’s just part of the normal rewriting process that all writers go through. As each layer occurs to me, and I determine it works with the emerging storyline, I write the chapters it calls for.
So to summarize, I decide on the content of a layer and then write the chapters associated with it. I start writing with the realization that it’s not necessary to know how the entire story ultimately ends in order to begin. In fact, not knowing makes it more interesting for me to write. As I’m writing the chapters for any given layer I have time to think of what might come next. What’s come before often suggests several new layers that might work. My job is to find the right one at each step of the journey. Usually, about two thirds of the way through the story, the ending begins to emerge in my mind and the final series of layers to get me there start to develop. It’s a journey of discovery and lots of fun.