The Value of a Plot Consultant

Guest Blogger: Candie Moonshower

Candie Moonshower is the author of The Legend of Zoey (Delacorte Press), which won the SCBWI Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. In 2008, her biography of young adult author Vivian Vande Velde will be published by Enslow Press. When not rushing to meet deadlines as a regional business writer, Moonshower is busy plotting—novels, that is!

She slices, she dices, she makes julienne fries (whatever they are!) and she plots, too . . .

Candie MoonshowerMy aunt, Susan, is a good cook. She’s a wonderful gardener. She’s sharp at business, a snappy dresser, funny, and honest enough to tell me when something I’m wearing makes my butt look too big. She’s a good friend—and we’ve been friends since we were born within a couple of months of each other way way back in the day.

In recent years, Susan has taken on another role in my life—that of plot consultant. No, she’s not a published novelist, nor is she a member of any of my critique groups. But what she does for me is just as important and, sometimes—especially in the initial stages of a project—far more important.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m a big fan of critique groups—I’m active in three: an online critique group composed of folks writing for children, a face-to-face group of writers also pursuing publication in children’s literature, and an online/face-to-face group of writers writing whatever and meeting once monthly for margaritas!

The feedback I receive from my critique groups is invaluable. And I believe that I learn just as much by providing honest, thoughtful feedback to my fellow writers, too.

There are times in the writing process, however, when I don’t need someone to tell me where my commas are out of place, where my pacing is off, or why my character is unsympathetic. Sometimes I need a plot consultant. I need someone to tell me why my plot is not working, or I need someone to sit down with me and help me brainstorm a new plot. When I need that kind of help, I call Susan.

Susan can write, yes, but she is not pursuing a writing career. The thing Susan brings to the table is that she is an avid reader. Her house, like mine, overflows with books. Her library card, like mine, is tattered and dirty. Her eyes, like mine, are bleary and tired.

Over the years, Susan and I have read many of the same books: Beverly Cleary and Eleanor Estes books, Little Women, Heidi, The Trixie Belden mysteries, the Marcy and Tobey romances by Rosamond du Jardin, Gone with the Wind, all of the gothic romances we could get our hands on, bestsellers, Newbery winners, obscure treasures, trashy romances and suspenseful dramas—you name it, we’ve read it. And she’s read books I haven’t, just as I’ve read books she never will. These days, our reading tastes aren’t as similar as they were when we were kids, but that’s no problem. A good reader recognizes good story.

Susan is a reader with a reader’s eye and ear for good story. So, when I have a glimmer of an idea—say, a corporate mogul with a mysterious past wants to buy up property owned by a rich woman with a mysterious present—I call up Susan. I take her out for wine or coffee and we talk. We play the “So what?” and “What if?” games. We come up with possible scenarios for Mogul and Rich Gal. In short, we plot.

“To plot” is a verb. The plot of a book is what happens—and why. Susan and I take a few of the significant events I may have thought up—such as Mogul discovers that Rich Gal is divorcing her husband and selling off her property—and we ask “So what?” We ask “So what?” because if something isn’t important to the plot, out it goes.

Remember, the plot is the map of where you’re going with the story and how to go from beginning to middle to end. A plot is a sequence of events connected by cause and effect—this happens because that happens.

So, if Mogul knows that factoid about Rich Gal, is that knowledge important to the plot? Let’s say that it is important because it gives him an opportunity to purchase a city block he’s had his eye on for years. Then we ask “What if?” What if, because he knows what he knows about the imminent and nasty divorce, Mogul decides to low-ball Rich Gal on his offer? And what if, because Rich Gal didn’t become Rich Gal by inheriting her money, but by earning it the old-fashioned way, she realizes she’s being low-balled and goes to another potential buyer, angering Mogul? And what if angry Mogul, because he hates to lose, decides to seduce Rich Gal and convince her to sell her property to him?

See what we’re doing here? The important word is “because” in our plotting game. Without the word “because,” we only have: This happens, then that happens, and then that happens. “Because” is our characters’ raison d’être—it is because of this or that happening that they act. One thing happens because another thing happens, and a main character is faced with a challenge or problem—and there is tension because of a threatened change to something familiar.

Sounds easy, right? Why do you need a plot consultant? Can’t you just play the “So what?” and “What if?” games by yourself?

You could, yes, but when working by yourself, it can be hard to come up with a sequence of events connected by cause and effect. Your mind flounders around, or you can’t see the logic (or lack of it) in your ideas. Having a plot consultant helps. And it can be a lot of fun, too!

Susan doesn’t try to write my books. I don’t need her to tell me how to do the writing. Susan’s job as plot consultant is to help me see what works and doesn’t work in my plots. And when Susan and I are consulting about a plot, we throw out every idea we can, no matter how ludicrous, and things often get hilarious. But from that brainstorming, the plot points that add the spice of conflict to my initial idea are developed and refined.

Susan helps me “up the ante” for my characters—characters that I may be so attached to that I don’t want to make things too difficult for them! With Susan, I can throw caution to the winds—and throw my Mogul down a mine shaft, or into bed with Rich Gal (where he learns a thing or three about who is seducing whom), or I can throw Mogul head over heels with Rich Gal and have him lose his instinct for business along with his heart, resulting in bankruptcy and ignominy—or happily ever after.

I’m fortunate because Susan is not only a friend, she’s a relative. I can call on her for help cooking the family Thanksgiving dinner, for a loan, or for a shoulder to cry on. But because of our shared passion for good storytelling, in recent years I’ve come to rely more and more on her as a sounding board for my work.

Not everyone is as privileged as I am to have a “Susan” in their lives! But if you can find someone willing to meet with you regularly and hash out your plots—an avid reader with an excellent eye and ear for story—bribe that person with vino or java and the promise of an acknowledgment in your published novel and go for it!

Visit Candie Moonshower’s official website.

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  1. Good article and such a good idea!!

    Thanks to the both of you, Candie & Moe.

    Must definitely find myself a Plot Consultant!

  2. Thanks for identifying something all of us can use, Candi! And since you can’t clone Susan for the rest of us, thanks for at least mapping out a job description for the person we should look for!


  3. That is a great idea Candie. I’ve done this on a much smaller scale with my friends, but only after the book was finished. There’s no reason why I can’t brainstorm with them during the writing process!

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