D. B. Jackson: On Plotting — Keeping Things Fresh


D.B. JacksonPlunder Of Souls blog tour buttonLast week I began the discussion of keeping books and story lines fresh as we move through a series, by talking about character, and in particular shaking up familiar dynamics between (among) two (or more) characters.  I focused my post on the core relationship found in the Thieftaker books: the rivalry between my hero, thieftaker and conjurer Ethan Kaille, and his nemesis, the brilliant, deadly, and beautiful Sephira Pryce.  The basic dynamics of their relationship had long since been established in the first two books of the Thieftaker Chronicles, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry.  Now, in the third book of the series, A Plunder of Souls, which was released a week ago today, I fundamentally altered those dynamics by introducing a new adversary for Ethan, Captain Nate Ramsey, who antagonized Sephira and forced her into an unlikely alliance with Ethan.

But there are other ways to keep a storyline fresh, even in a series that has a long line of previously written stories or novels.  Let’s look at some of them.

1.  Shift character dynamics:  I’ve covered this one at some length.  Last week’s post can be found here.  I would add to this discussion that there are any number of ways to alter character relationships, some quite obvious, others far more subtle.  We can add new characters, as I did with Ramsey.  We can end or begin romances, or have a character lose his or her job.  Best friends might have a falling out, or former enemies might find unexpected common ground.  In A Plunder of Souls, Ethan’s political transformation from Tory (a supporter of the Crown) to Patriot accelerates and deepens.  This change is of secondary importance compared with some of the other things I’ve done in this book, but it is significant nevertheless, and it adds to his inner turmoil.  Sometimes a change as simple as this can have ramifications that spread throughout an entire novel, or even beyond.

2.  Kill off a character, or have a character become pregnant:  Talk about changing character dynamics.  These are more drastic than break-ups or lost jobs, of course.  But therein lies the power of such decisions.  I did both of these things in the middle of the Winds of Forelands series.  I had a very important character discover that she was pregnant.  Actually, she TOLD me she was pregnant; I had no idea until I typed the words onto the screen.  And I killed off a couple of characters along the way.  The disruptions caused by these events were seismic, and they lent new drama and tension to my plotting.  I should add here that these are not choices to be made lightly.  That pregnancy in particular proved to be a huge complication.  I had previous outlined the subsequent volumes and I was forced to go back and completely rethink the remainder of the series.  But it was the right thing to do, and the series was far, far better for the inconvenience I caused myself.

A Plunder of Souls, by D.B. Jackson3.  Introduce an external element:  The Thieftaker books are handy in this way, because with every new novel I have some new external factor with which to confound my characters.  It’s built into the historical structure of the series.  In book 1, it was the Stamp Act riots and the resulting disruption of normal life in 1760s Boston.  The second book coincided with the beginning of the occupation of Boston by British troops.  This was a turning point in the history of the city and the colonies in general, as it further radicalized the populace of the town that would become the epicenter of America’s political awakening.  Now obviously I can’t telegraph all of that.  In 1768, when the occupation began, no one knew exactly where it would lead.  But Boston’s citizenry did understand that the arrival of British regulars marked a significant and grim milestone in the city’s history.  A Plunder of Souls takes place in the summer of 1769, during an outbreak of smallpox.  As you can imagine, the news that this highly contagious, disfiguring, at times lethal disease has been found in the city is enough to throw many into panic.  That’ll freshen up a story for you.  And for those who are interested, Thieftaker 4, Dead Man’s Reach, takes place at the time of the Boston Massacre.  Stay tuned.  You don’t need to write historical fiction to do this, of course.  There are other ways to shake up the world a bit.  Give it a try.

4.  Bend (BUT DO NOT BREAK) a rule or two:  What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s consider magic systems.  I am a big believer in the idea that a magic system has to remain as consistent as the laws of nature.  If magic can only be done by gerbils, but not by hamsters, then that’s your rule and you have to live with it.  You can’t have a hamster who casts spells, because that would be a violation.  But what if in book three of your series, you introduce a half-breed: a Gerbster?! (A Hambil?)  Well, maybe she’ll have magic.  And maybe that magic will be incredibly potent.  You haven’t broken a rule.  You’ve bent it a bit; you’ve found a way to use your rules to your advantage, and there is nothing wrong with that.  In A Plunder of Souls, Nate Ramsey has found a way to bend the rules of conjuring just enough to make himself ever more potent and to make Ethan’s spell casting erratic and unreliable.  Hijinks ensue.  Naturally, the rules you bend don’t have to pertain to magic.  They can be religious or political, legal or physical.  The point is to change things up a bit.  Maybe you have a rule or two in your world that might be twisted to your narrative advantage.  Think about it.

5:  Make a new stylistic choice:  Okay, I suppose technically this isn’t a plotting choice, though I would argue that plotting is more closely linked to voice, point of view, and style than might be immediately apparent.  But maybe switching to a new point of view character might be just the sort of change you need to bring fresh blood to a storyline that’s growing a bit tired.  Maybe telling a story in first person rather than third will lend immediacy to your narrative.  Sometimes that shift in craft can be enough to make something old look like a new shiny.  And we writers ALWAYS love the new shiny.

So there are five ways to breath new life into your current project that come to mind for me.  I’m sure there are other ways, and I’d love to hear some of your ideas.

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.



13 comments to D. B. Jackson: On Plotting — Keeping Things Fresh

  • princejvstin

    In point to #5, point of view IS a plotting choice. You’re focusing on a different character, a different window on the events of the world. It makes for a different plot even if the events depicted are identical.

    Although I am reluctant to invoke him in this regard, the newer OSC novels where he looks at the events of Ender’s Game from a different point of view have a different plot, even as the overall arching events are the same.

  • Paul, thanks for the comment. I do tend to think of POV as a plotting choice, but others do not. You’re right, though: the Ender’s Shadow books are a great example.

  • You can also change the morals/personality of a character. Losing a loved one could make a character that’s already on the edge become dark, and then it becomes more of how that character’s going to pull back from the brink while dealing with the rest of the plot. I’m planning this for my noir urban fantasy. The MC is already dealing with a condition that makes him have to do nasty things to survive, but until he saves his old friends, he can’t stop. In the end, the things he has to do will push him over the edge and in the next book it’ll be up to his sidekick and his police sergeant friend to bring him back from that darkness.

  • […] Today on the Summer 2014 Plunder of Souls Blog Tour, I’m back at Magical Words — my “home” blog — with a post on plotting. Sometimes the hardest thing about writing in a series, particularly in one that consists of stand-alone novels, is keeping stories fresh as well as entertaining.  My post at Magical Words is about five things I do to keep my narratives new and interesting.  You can find the post here. […]

  • […] Today on the Summer 2014 Plunder of Souls Blog Tour, I’m back at Magical Words — my “home” blog — with a post on plotting. Sometimes the hardest thing about writing in a series, particularly in one that consists of stand-alone novels, is keeping stories fresh as well as entertaining.  My post at Magical Words is about five things I do to keep my narratives new and interesting.  You can find the post here. […]

  • That’s a great idea, Daniel, and so true. Tragedies do change us, as do great things after a lifetime of disappointments (I’m thinking of the Grinch . . .) 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  • Razziecat

    First of all, David, bravo on Plunder of Souls! 😀 Finished it a couple days ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You sure didn’t go easy on Ethan this time around. One image keeps coming back to my mind: The red quarantine flags rustling in the night wind. Very nice touch of what the grim reality must have been.

    As for changing dynamics in a story, I discovered this when I was first putting my space opera story arc together. I had two MC’s, one from each planet/culture, whose main goal was to kill each other, but I didn’t want to kill off either one. Impasse 😉 Then I thought of having one of them begin an affair with an up-to-that-point minor character from the opposing culture (and the inevitable question arose, what if they had a child?) That led to exploration of each culture, of the dynamics of all the character relationships, the aftermath of war, etc. It really brought new life into the story…and death as well, because it led me to do things I wouldn’t have considered, such as killing off an important character. Then that character’s killer demanded I tell his side of the story. You never know where a decision to do something different or unexpected will lead you 😀

  • inkfire

    Off topic, but I got Plunder of Souls yesterday at your signing and I’m loving it. I think it may be the best so far, but the others aren’t too far behind…..I wish I could have stayed longer yesterday, I wanted to ask a question or two of you and Faith Hunter, but I didn’t have the time, sadly. I’m excited to meet Ramsey, I read the short story you did on him and he’s defintely intriguing. One thing I wish you woud give us, though, is backstory on Tarijanna Windcatcher…I hate it every time Ethan leaves her tavern because, while he’s answers are usually sorta answered (or just confirmed some of the time), MINE aren’t. Which is very frustrating. And yet her mysteriousness and overall personality makes her another of my favorite characters

  • Razziecat

    I second Inkfire’s comment! 🙂 Would love to see some backstory for Janna.

  • Thanks very much, Razz. Very glad you enjoyed it. The image of the red flags came to me while reading descriptions of the quarantine procedures in the minutes of Boston Selectman’s meetings from 1769. I agree: it’s haunting. And I agree as well that those little plotting/character decisions we make sometimes ripple through a project far more powerfully than we might have thought possible. It sounds like you made a great decision with respect to your WIP. As to Janna, read on . . .

    Inkfire, thanks so much for coming to the signing, and for the kind words about the new book. I love Janna as a character and I can certainly see writing her backstory at some point. I did write one story that features her (and not Ethan). “The Tavern Fire” appeared in the TALES FROM THE UR-BAR anthology published by Daw a few years back. That story can now be found on the D.B. Jackson website as a freebie. http://www.dbjackson-author.com under “Free Samples”.

  • Thanks for these tips, David. I really like the “introduce a new element” idea. As I’ve said, I’m working on the second book of a trilogy, and the original version of the story was the entire trilogy’s worth in a single volume. So splitting it up meant having to make each section much longer, and add new characters. I’m really happy with the “new element” I’ve thrown into the works for the second book. Totally unexpected, it threw my characters off their projected path, but I like the way it works.

    Sort of along the lines of Daniel’s idea, you could also have a character’s automatic reactions and mannerisms change based on some new element in their life. One minor example: I had to be off gluten for a number of years. (Glad that’s over!) It changed my approach to food, how I read labels (or willingly chose to cheat). Something more severe could be a near-death experience or a death of a friend or family member making the character suddenly avoid certain situations. Whatever the new element is, if it changes a person’s typical behaviour, and what might make then anxious or annoyed, then it could also breathe new life into the story. Especially if they get over it in the end, still changed but no longer obsessing over whatever it was, or dragged down by it.

  • ajp88

    Thanks for the helpful article, David. Bravo on Plunder of Souls! (And again on Winds of the Forelands; my girlfriend is currently on book 2 and every time she asks me a question regarding twists or mysteries yet to be revealed, it happens a chapter or two later. She’s really enjoying it.)

  • Thanks for the comment, Laura. Yes, there are so many great ways to torture — er, alter . . . — our characters and any or all of them can have profound repercussions for that character and our plotting going forward. Best of luck with the WIP.

    AJP, many thanks for the kind words about A Plunder of Souls, and also for what you said about the Forelands books. So glad your girlfriend is enjoying the series.