Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?


Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.

Openings, Closings, Cliff Hangers, Hooks, and Dribbles

In early drafts, I fall into a habit of beginning and ending chapters in similar ways. Because of this, one of the stages I’ve added to my revision routine is the focused examination of chapter-opening and chapter-closing paragraphs to make sure they are not only effective but varied.


A chapter has to start with a sense of purpose and direction, or a reader will be confused or lose interest, and it’s not just the writer’s goal for the scene that matters—it’s the character’s. Furthermore, it has to be a goal the reader will care about, a goal that arouses empathy, curiosity, suspense, or dread. Although some chapters can begin effectively with an overt statement of a character’s goal, it would be tedious if they all did. How many other ways can I indicate that goal?

  • It can be forced on the protagonist by another’s character’s goal, either in conflict or through teamwork. (But not too often, or the lead character can seem passive and reactive.)
  • Some goals are made so obvious by the action that opens the chapter that they need not be stated directly.
  • Occasionally, a chapter can open with a sequel or reaction scene relating to the previous chapter, a paragraph or two of the character’s inner work which leads to a decision that becomes the goal.
  • Minor goals can set a character in motion only to be swept aside by a more urgent goal.
  • There’s immediate energy in a goal stated in conversation or implied by the subtext of the dialogue.

Though I won’t keep listing them, I’m sure you can think of other variations on this essential feature of the chapter (and scene) openings.


If a chapter ends with a nice, tight feeling of closure, the reader can easily put down the book. I doubt any of us has ever read a chapter ending like that in a mystery. At least, I hope not. The last lines have to keep the momentum going. I’m not a fan of the “if only she had known what was coming next” sort of hook. It’s possible to use to it sparingly in the first person, or in a truly omniscient point of view where there is a narrator’s voice, but not in close third person, which is the only point of view I use. Sometimes I want to create that portentous feeling, though.

To do so, I can end with a character having a sense of something bad about to happen, and if I do it once or twice in the book—probably once—that’s enough. Another way to get the hint of forthcoming doom or disaster is a chapter with a happy ending to that’s too good to last, or a character turning down a task that he’ll eventually have to face. There’s also the classic cliff-hanger that leaves a character on the precipice of a life-changing decision or a dangerous confrontation, but it can’t be overused without losing its power. Sometimes the hook can be as simple as going through a door, if the reader wants to know what will happen on the other side.

I took a class in which we were cautioned not to let our scenes dribble—not to keep going after they have ended—and it’s good advice, but once in a while I’ve seen some excellent writers do this at the end of a chapter. There is a page-turning plot event at the end, but it’s followed by a few humorous lines of dialogue that add depth to the characters and their relationships without smothering the impact of the “real” ending. It’s a dribble, but it’s a skilled dribble, used judiciously like a dribble of hot sauce that’s only good in small quantities.

For this post, I studied how one of my favorite writers, Tony Hillerman, began and ended chapters, examining his Sacred Clowns. The chapter openings vary from setting a scene and introducing characters along with their goals to dialogue lines that jump into the next stage of the plot, and from inner reflections to moments that progress the romantic subplots. The goals are clear but sometimes implied, not always stated in narration or dialogue. His endings range from surprises to warnings to humorous dialogue following up a more serious event (the well-crafted dribble). One chapter ends with a character’s recognition of an important pattern in the mystery plot, another with an informant’s hint that he can help, and another with a comic setback in a romantic subplot. There are endings where the characters are stumped or struggling, but he never uses an outright cliffhanger in this book. Once in a while, he even ends with character getting what he wants—for the moment.

There’s some wonderful symmetry in Hillerman’s chapter structures. One begins with Joe Leaphorn dealing with paperwork and ends with Jim Chee dealing with paperwork, paperwork to be exchanged with each other. It’s humorous and insightful, tells much about their working relationship, and it moves the plot. Another chapter ends with someone warning Jim Chee that a certain investigation is none of his business, while the following one begins with a different character giving Chee the same caution. The book is a page-turner, without the author doing anything clichéd to make the reader turn the page.

One of my go-to writing books is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, and I expect many of my fellow writers are familiar with it. Bickham’s basic scene structure advice is: goal, conflict, disaster. He gives creative ways to work with that structure, including starting in the middle of the conflict and then revealing the goal later, ending short of a full disaster, and more.

Can you share any other “tricks of the trade” for keeping readers up at night?