Tag Archives: Plot Tip

How to Be a Pantster – Ask Alice Saturday

Flying Woman imageQuestion: Are you a Planner or a Pantster?

 Answer: Back when I was first a book editor then a literary agent and still a publishing author I was a Planner big time. I even wrote an article called “The Painless Synopsis” for Writers Digest Magazine. I was devoted to planning my stories in detail up-front. I had to do that because my writing life was regularly interrupted by my day job.

My workday mind had to be deep into agent tasks. I needed a synopsis to keep track of my story as I dragged my head back and forth between my agent brain and my writer brain. My guess is that most people juggling a full-time job with a writing regimen need to do the same.

Now that I’m a full-time writer I can indulge myself with the joy of making it up as I go along. Because I write Romantic Suspense I start out with three characters – a murder victim, a heroine and a hero. I also know the conflict that motivated the killing and at least a little about how the heroine and hero fall onto opposite sides of that conflict.

I also try to have an idea how the story ends – who committed the murder. But I’ve written two books this way so far and by the end of both of them the identity of the killer had changed and the stories were better for it. I now understand that I shouldn’t cast the ending in stone up-front. It’s better to leave room for my imagination to find its way.

Kurt Vonnegut compares this approach to driving at night. You can see as far as the headlight beams allow you to see. A former client of mine Jo Beverley calls it “Flying into the Mist.” I call it fun.

I’m playing with my story and my story is playing with me. I can afford the luxury of this playfulness because my head is pretty much always in the story. I no longer have to interrupt the flow to bury my gray cells in my day job.

In my case at least the choice between Planner and Pantster couldn’t always be about preference. It had to be about my circumstances. Like so many of us – I did what I had to do. I feel blessed that what I have to do now is have a storytelling good time.


My current novel is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #1 – available at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. A YEAR OF SUMMER SHADOWS – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #2 – launches with summer on June 22nd. These are my 12th and 13th novels and both were Pantster born and brought to life. Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com.


How I Escaped Chapter 29 – Ask Alice Saturday

Question: What can I do when my story gets stuck?

Alice & Jonathan Wedding Day Answer: I’ll tell you what I did. It happened in Chapter 29 of A Wrong Way Home. I was in trouble. This was the first book in a series and if I couldn’t make this story work I couldn’t make the story work. Still I was worse than stuck. I didn’t want anything more to do with Chapter 29.

The demon in my head even suggested I didn’t want anything more to do with the whole damned thing. The book – the series – all of it. I’d come all this way. I’d written 28 chapters but it was simply getting too hard. That was the theme of my whining anyway. So I tripped into something I do too easily – the avoidance dance.

I decided our bedroom must be rearranged. Heavy furniture needed moving so I recruited my husband. He had no idea I was really avoiding Chapter 29. An important step in the dance is not to tell anyone you’re doing it. After 42 years together my husband knows it’s sometimes better just to go along with things so he hefted the heavy stuff.

[That’s us on our hippie wedding day all those years ago. We weren’t moving furniture or avoiding because we were too busy dancing.]

Back to my story. The bedroom did look better and I gave hubby a hug and loads of gratitude. But Chapter 29 still loomed large on my laptop. I needed another detour. As I gazed around our newly imagined bedroom it occurred to me that we needed to be better entertained there too. Behave. I hear your sniggers. For once I’m not talking about sex.

I decided we couldn’t survive without Amazon Prime on the bedroom TV. Again I enlisted my husband as unwitting accomplice. He was more enthusiastic about this project than he’d been about moving furniture. The prospect of binge watching Ray Donovan all weekend lured him in. He took over the lengthy signup process I dread then binged away.

Unfortunately Monday arrived and Chapter 29 still lurked. I did my best to avoid my laptop. But I was beginning to feel some shame. I needed a truly justifiable diversion this time so I decided to pay the bills. There’s usually nothing I hate as much as the tedium of bill paying. Apparently I hated Chapter 29 more.

Monday turned to Tuesday but not before I developed a convenient cough in between. I told myself I had a summer cold coming on. It was August at the time. My grandmother used to say “There’s nothing worse than a summer cold” and Grandma never lied. So I downed a couple of pills that put my brain in a fog and that took care of Tuesday.

The next morning inevitably dawned and it was just as inevitably Wednesday. Hump Day. The day I had to get over the hump of Chapter 29 or give up altogether. Would the previous 28 chapters ever forgive me if I gave up? Would I forgive myself? Then I remembered that the most important writing exercise is to put your butt in the chair. So I did that.

I opened Chapter 29 and there he was – Matt Kalli – the hero even I’m in love with in A Wrong Way Home. Matt knew I’d been gone but he was only partly happy to see me back. “You have to make something happen here,” he said. “Something that kicks up more trouble between me and Kara.” She’s the heroine I also love in this story.

Suddenly the solution popped into my head. Secrets and Lies. My two favorite plot thickeners are also wonderful story movers. Have somebody keep a secret or tell a lie and the story suddenly gathers new momentum. I needed to plant a lie and a secret here. I went back to the end of Chapter 28 and started planting.

Kara finds out that Matt hasn’t told her something crucial – a lie of omission. But she’s not going to tell him she’s found out – a secret. Matt is worried about where she is at the beginning of Chapter 29. When she shows up she’s boiling angry and won’t tell him why. Kara knows why she’s red-hot mad. We readers know why. Matt has no clue.

This creates tension and drama and a “What will happen next?” feeling. That question and the suspense that come with it carry us all out of Chapter 29 at last. I’m so relieved I can’t help but have a mischievous thought. I even say it out loud. “What if all this red-hot anger in Chapter 29 turns into red-hot lovemaking in Chapter 30?”

Voila! The story is unstuck. And so am I.


 I’m Alice Orr – author of 12 novels, 2 novellas, a memoir and No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells – soon to be updated and on sale online. I’m also a former book editor and literary agent. Now I live my dream of writing full-time. Plus I present workshops on writing for publication and/or pleasure. I have 2 grown children and 2 perfect grandchildren and live with my husband Jonathan in New York City. Occasionally we partner each other in the avoidance dance. This is us on our wedding day over 42 years ago – just dancing.

Find my books at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. Email me at aliceorrbooks@gmail.com. Visit my website www.aliceorrbooks.com. Regular mail me at P.O. Box 6224 – Long Island City NY 11106. I’d love to hear from you.


All’s Well that Ends Well – Ask Alice Saturday

Question: How do I make my story ending sell my book?

Casablance ending Answer: The ending of your story doesn’t sell this story as much as it sells your next story. Have you ever finished a book and wanted to throw it across the room? Or maybe actually did throw it across the room? Very often the book’s ending made you do that. And also made certain you wouldn’t buy that author’s next book. Avoid being thrown across the room. Avoid losing a reader for your next book and the ones after it. Create a story ending that doesn’t frustrate. Create an ending that satisfies.

The end game of your story is a danger zone. Partly because you’re most likely tired of these people and their situation by now. In fact your head and heart are already deep in your next story. So you must be careful not to write the end in this rhythm. Gallop – Gallop – Gallop – The End. That ending does not satisfy. That ending lacks the essential Big Bang.

I’ve used the film classic Casablanca in earlier posts to illustrate the Dramatic Opening and the Middle That Moves. Casablanca is also a great example of the Ending That Satisfies. The story has two threads – an action suspense thread and an emotional suspense thread. Both are tied up with a bang at the ending.

The action climax is an actually audible bang when arch villain German Major Strasser is shot dead. The emotional climax is more drawn out and that slightly slowed down pace is part of what gives it impact. Rick – played by Humphrey Bogart – tells Ilsa – played by Ingrid Bergman – why she must take the plane to Lisbon and safety not with him but with her husband Nazi hunter Victor Laszlo.

The plane engine rumbles to life in the background. A single tear trembles on Ilsa’s perfect cheek. And Bogie says some of the most memorable lines of his career. Later on he’ll walk off with Vichy Captain Louis Renault who has suddenly discovered his inner good guy. But the Big Bang really happens when brooding cynic Rick finds his own true heroic nature and sacrifices his heart for the good of the world and his soul.

We could hardly be more satisfied and it all looks smooth and easy but don’t be fooled. To carry off an ending that works like this well there has to be a plan. To create a Big Bang ending for your story you must plan the climactic scene in detail. Don’t write a word till that plan is perfect. Plan mostly action and dialogue and keep all of this action on stage in the immediate present. There are more steps as well.

How to Plan Your Big Bang Ending

  •  Plan mostly action and dialogue, very little narrative.Plan to keep all of this action on stage, in the immediate present.
  • Plan dialogue that is spare, to the point and memorable.
  • Plan on intensifying the pace, faster than what has gone before.
  • Plan lots of physical movement in the scene.
  • Plan lots of intense sensations – sight, sound, smell, texture and more.
  • Plan to plunge your protagonist into peril.
  • Plan one more obstacle to arise for your protagonist.  Make it formidable.
  • Plan a confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist.
  • Plan on milking that confrontation, while keeping up the intense pace.
  • Plan for your protagonist to cause action, not merely be overtaken by it.
  • Plan to communicate your protagonist’s feelings, with impact, to the reader.
  • Plan on incorporating fear, even terror, among those emotions.
  • Plan the presence of real danger to your protagonist in this scene.
  • Plan an outcome in the balance.
  • Plan that outcome as crucial to your protagonist.
  • Plan for your protagonist to be nearly vanquished in this scene.
  • Plan for your protagonist to be racing against time.
  • Plan for your protagonist to triumph in the last possible moment.
  • Plan for your protagonist to triumph by the narrowest of margins.
  • Plan for this triumph to be uplifting and inspiring.

The purpose of a Big Bang ending is to reverberate after the last page is turned. To lodge in the psyche of the reader and be remembered. All the way to the bookstore or the Buy Now button and the purchase of your next title.

You must stage your final scene the way a choreographer stages a dance. The result will be a powerful Dramatic Ending at full circle from what will have to have been your Dramatic Opening. And equally or even more thrilling. Find out how to write that Dramatic Opening in my previous post “Well Begun is Well Done”.

Now you must recognize that your story is over. You and your protagonist have exploded out of the explosive situation you exploded into on page one. You must resist the temptation to hang around a while longer. You’ve taken your reader on an unforgettable ride. Leave before she has a chance to catch her breath. Leave before he’s had enough. Leave them wanting more.  No Epilogues Please.

When you’ve accomplished all of that – Here’s looking at you kid.


 My latest story is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series Book #1 – Matt & Kara’s Story. Available at amazon.com/author/aliceorr. This is my 12th novel and it does have a dramatic ending.

Alice Orr – www.aliceorrbooks.com