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The best writing advice I ever received was to plot from the point of view of the antagonist and write from the perspective of the protagonist. Simple, right? But it was an a-ha moment for me.
A bit of background. Like most writers, I have a couple of practice manuscripts currently occupying space in the bottom of a drawer. They both garnered decent feedback from agents, but the novels were episodic—most of the second act chapters could have been rearranged without affecting the story. I wasn’t building on prior events. Why? Because I didn’t know what my antagonist was doing behind the scenes.
I think most writers put a great deal of thought into the character development of their heroes, but they tend to give their antagonist short shrift. But think about it—the antagonist is the character that drives the story. It is his or her actions that the protagonist must address.
For most of my adult life, I was a police officer. Part of the job description involved investigating crimes. Most incidents began when someone called 9-1- 1. Upon arrival, I’d try to piece together what happened by observing the scene, obtaining witness statements, and collecting physical evidence. Armed with this information, I’d search databases, develop additional contacts, run down new leads.
I was a first responder—just like my protagonist.
Imagine how easy police work would be if an officer knew before being dispatched to the scene exactly how the criminal had planned the crime, what motivated the person to do such a nefarious deed, and what steps he’d taken to avoid detection.
As a writer, you can do that!
To combat my story-structure issues, I enrolled in a plotting course for mystery and thriller writers. During the course, the instructor assigned two exercises that I’ve since incorporated into the planning stage of every story I write.
The first exercise explains the antagonist’s motivation for doing what he did. I write it in first person and it essentially creates the backstory of the character. The first line of this exercise for Adrift, my debut novel reads:
Ishmael Styx is a man who knows what he wants, and he wants to be dead. All he has to do is figure out how to make it temporary.
I then wrote 1200 words explaining what had happened in his life to bring him to this
The second exercise explains how the antagonist pulled off his crime. Adrift had a complicated crime (more than one, actually, but that developed later in the story).
Drawing on my background, I hatched the plan. Knowing how the crime occurred gave me the insight I needed to identify the clues my protagonist had to notice, what other things could be misinterpreted, and how to follow the breadcrumb trail left by the antagonist. The exercise revealed some surprising options that prompted me to go deeper into my storytelling.
The structure of a mystery novel is such that the antagonist runs the show in the first act. His crime is the inciting incident that ensures the protagonist’s involvement. Roughly the first half of the story involves the hero reacting to the actions of the protagonist. After the midpoint, their roles change. Now your protagonist is hot on the trail, developing those leads, realizing her mistakes. Sure, she’ll have setbacks, but as she gets closer to solving the crime, the two characters are also nearing their final confrontation. Both exercises will help you determine how your cornered antagonist will lash out, try to escape, or outwit your sleuth.
Mapping out the crime allowed me to structure my storyline so that it built on the information learned in previous chapters. Actions had consequences. My writing was no longer episodic.
The first time I’d put this writing advice into action was during the writing of Adrift. The novel won both the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for mystery. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I knew how to foil the crime because I had plotted it first.
An FBI National Academy graduate, Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades, retiring as a division commander. Now a full time writer, she won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for her debut mystery, ADRIFT.
Micki also writes short stories and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks. She resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research”
Author: Jennifer Kincheloe
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Length: 10 hours 50 minutes
Publisher: Jennifer Kincheloe⎮20
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Series: Anna Blanc Mysteries, Book 2
Release date: Nov. 14, 2017
Synopsis: Los Angeles, 1908. In Chinatown, the most dangerous beat in Los Angeles, police matron Anna Blanc and her former sweetheart, Detective Joe Singer, discover the body of a white missionary woman, stuffed in a trunk in the apartment of her Chinese lover. Her lover has fled. If news gets out that a white woman was murdered in Chinatown, there will be a violent backlash against the Chinese. Joe and Anna plan to solve the crime quietly and keep the death a secret. So does good-looking Mr. Jones, a prominent Chinese leader who has mixed feelings about helping the LAPD and about Anna.
Meanwhile, the Hop Sing tong has kidnapped two slave girls from the Bing Kong tong, fuelling existing tensions. They are poised on the verge of a bloody tong war that would put all Chinatown residents in danger.
Joe orders Anna out of Chinatown to keep her safe, but to atone for her own family’s sins, Anna must stay to solve the crime before news of the murder is leaked and Chinatown explodes.
This book was quality historical fiction in my opinion. I found it extremely entertaining on many levels! Anna Blanc is a very delightful, fiercely independent character. The Narrator was the perfect medium for this book. She fully brought the characters to life! Jennifer has created one of the most memorable characters that I can remember. Anna Blanc reminds me of the talented young sleuth, Flavia de Luce.
Loved all the interpersonal conflict, tension among the characters. Very well written. Jennifer Kincheloe is a good writer.
In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of writing a stand-alone novel vs. writing a series?
I liken it to a movie vs. a TV series. You simply have more time to develop the characters. You know them so well.You also have the challenge of making them grow or change in every book. Sustaining the romance is a trick, but I love how Elizabeth Peters did it in the Amelia Peabody series. It never got old. The audiobooks of that series are seriously the best I’ve ever heard (after Moira). They relate the adventures of a woman Egyptologist in the late 19th and early 20th century. Start with CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK. You’ll thank me.
What bits of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Write for yourself. Not for money, critics, or glory. Only write for yourself.
What’s next for you?
I have a contract for book three in the Anna Blanc mystery series, which I’ve tentatively titled GRIFFITH PARK. It’s hard to describe the plot because there’s a twist in the beginning and I’m not sure how much to reveal, but it’s more Anna and Joe, more adventures, more LA history straight from the papers.
Jennifer has been a block layer, a nurse’s aid, a fragrance model, and on the research faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting studies to inform health policy. A native of Southern California, she now lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two teenagers. She’s currently writing book three in the Anna Blanc Mystery series. Book two, THE WOMAN IN THE CAMPHOR TRUNK, is coming out in Fall of 2017 from Seventh Street Books.
Moira grew up in teeny-tiny Rutland, England’s smallest county, which is fitting as she never managed to make it past five feet herself. Moira’s work spans the pantheon of the voiceover world: plays for BBC radio, plays for NPR, video games, commercials, television promos, podcasts, cartoons, movies and award winning audiobooks. She’s won Multiple Audie Awards, Earphone Awards, as well as Audible’s prestigious Book-of-the-Year Award. She has lately set foot in front of the camera again, appearing in “Pretty: the Series” and the Emmy-winning “Dirty Work.”
make it a good story
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