Tag Archives: Dean Koontz

Setting & Atmosphere

For this post, we’ll take a page–pun intended–from Edgar Allen Poe, who demonstrated the effectiveness of imagery, atmosphere, and even the weather on a story’s impact.

When creating mood, you should be sure it fits the tropes of your genre. In other words, if you’re writing a romance, you want a setting that contributes to a romantic tone. This means your characters will be falling in love in the Colorado mountains, or a coastal cottage near the surf, or in a steamy jungle, or among the glittering throngs in Monte Carlo’s casino, or in a meadow–not, generally, in a mechanic’s shop, oil tanker factory, rural pig pen, or fast food joint. (Yes, yes, I know that love can strike anyone anywhere, but idealized, romantic settings sell solidly.)

Let’s consider the classic John Ford film, THE QUIET MAN. The movie is styled to present a very idealized view of early twentieth-century Ireland. Protagonist Sean is inclined to romanticize the country where he was born and left as a young boy. He has returned to buy the old family cottage and seek refuge in it from all that’s gone wrong in his life. When he sees Mary Kate for the very first time, she’s leading a flock of sheep across the pasture with the sun shining on her red hair. He is instantly attracted to her beauty and wants to get acquainted.

The movie is based on a short story, and if I recall the prose version correctly, the author depicts Sean in church, sitting behind Mary Kate and being struck by how the hair on the back of her neck swirls in delicate tendrils.

Each version of this first meeting between the couple works well for its particular medium. The film, shot in glorious technicolor which was made for the vivid coloring of actress Maureen O’Hara who plays the character of Mary Kate, needs her introduction to be stronger and more active so she’s out tending sheep with her glorious hair on her shoulders. The short story can present her more quietly, with minute detail of the back of her neck as seen through Sean’s point of view. Both versions convey the same plot event. Both utilize setting–a meadow or inside a chapel–to enhance the romantic aspect of this man’s first notice of the woman he’ll eventually woo and marry.

At the other end of the spectrum, if your story is dramatic and serious, you don’t want a frivolous setting. If you’re writing comedy, you don’t want the gloomy dungeon’s torture pit beneath a rotting castle unless you’re going to exaggerate the gloom, cobwebs, and ghastly screams for humorous or satirical effect. Suspense needs a somber tone. Westerns need to present the glory of a wide, untamed world. Fantasy needs to evoke a sense of enchanted wonder. Science fiction often seeks to portray a technologically advanced world that’s cold and sterile, or a dystopian nightmare of crumbling infrastructure.

Consider the stylists, prop masters, and set dressers in motion pictures. Study your favorite films–ones you’ve seen often enough that you can remain detached from the story action–and observe how imagery and mood are conveyed through the lighting, props, furnishings, and colors of the sets. Are they interior or exterior? If an intense, conflict-heavy scene is set inside a room lined with bookshelves filled with expensive leather-bound tomes and there’s a thick Oriental carpet on the floor beneath a heavy mahogany desk, ask yourself how different the same character confrontation and same dialogue would be if the scene took place outdoors.

When good filmmakers use a setting that superficially seems incongruous with the genre or plot situation, it’s for deliberate effect. In the Alfred Hitchcock classic, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the climactic confrontation between the protagonist and villain happens on a merry-go-round at an amusement park. The innocent children on the ride help to raise the stakes when the operator is accidentally shot and the carousel spins out of control. The wooden horses–normally perceived as happy, frolicking steeds painted in bright, happy colors–become grotesque and grim monsters thanks to Hitchcock’s framing, Dutch angles, and use of black and white film. He turns one of the most beloved of all amusement-park rides into a nightmare, but he does so in a careful, consistent manner that manipulates audience perception. He doesn’t just let his two principal characters struggle on a cheerful, brightly colored ride–thereby muddling the imagery. He shapes mood like the master he is.

You can also use the weather as part of your setting to brighten or darken a story’s tone. Thriller novelist Dean Koontz has done this for years, and it’s quite effective. He draws on thunderstorms and torrential downpours to close in around his beleaguered characters, to create additional adversity for them, and to make the situation tougher as his story people struggle for survival against predators and psychos.

Diction is another tool at our disposal when we’re creating atmosphere. That’s a fancy term for word choice, but again, the details you choose when describing your settings will either enhance your story or undermine it. Utilize adjectives, verbs, and nouns to support the mood you’re trying to convey.

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Plot It Simple

From the time that I was a grasshopper sitting at the feet of my writing master, trying to learn the craft, I was given the same advice over and over:  Keep it simple.

But being someone with a Byzantine mind, an overactive imagination, and enough stubbornness to hold up a stone wall–I blew past such sage wisdom for a very long time.

Some things take me forever to learn. But here’s what I now know:

Make your characters complex.

Keep your plot simple.

Let’s consider these one at a time.


Complexity doesn’t stem from a vast heaping of detail. You can bury your protagonist in a variety of hobbies and interests, load her up with sixteen siblings and two step-moms, make her an ex-Marine CPA that plays a mean jazz saxophone, and let her be a rescuer of stray cats. None of that will make her compelling or complex.

A complex character is someone that appears to be one thing or behaves in a certain way, yet in reality is far different from what she seems on the surface.

Complexity comes from the clash of what seems to be and what actually is.

Therefore, let’s consider an elderly woman who lives with two cats, has crocheted doilies protecting her furniture, and embroiders homilies such as “A penny saved is a penny earned” that she then hangs on her walls. But in her youth, she ran one of the most successful brothels in the city and in her heart she remains a tough-as-nails madam and business owner.

Dean Koontz presented such a character in his novel Whispers.

Complexity comes from a person who is torn inside between conflicting responsibilities, or someone whose conscience is at war with his duty.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest is not complex.

A character who seems to be stalwart, brave, loyal, and honest, yet–when the story circumstances grow rough–turns out to be a cowardly, cheap, lying phony is complex.


A simple plot is clear, direct, and easy to follow. In Holly Black’s children’s book, Doll Bones, a group of children decide that their antique bone china doll is haunted by the spirit of a dead child and they set out to take the doll back to where it was made and bury it in a cemetery.

This premise is certainly creepy, but it is easy to understand. It’s not convoluted, over-wrought, or burdened by an excessive load of subplots.

This isn’t to say that you must avoid complicated plots, but in the hands of an inexperienced writer, a plot woven with numerous plots, a huge cast of characters, multiple settings, and action, action, action may well be an indication of an uncertain writer unable as yet to adequately handle her material.

In fact, the simpler the plot the deeper a writer can delve into the characters.

Let’s take the example of the classic 1948 film, Key Largo, staring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore.

If you’ve seen this movie, good for you! If you haven’t, then spoiler alert! Go see it and then read the rest of this post.

The plot is very simple and straightforward. The characters are complex. The chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is steamy. As writers, we can’t create the latter magic, but we can certainly reach for the rest.

In the story, a WWII veteran travels to Florida to visit the father and widow of a GI that served in his company. The dead soldier had talked often about his home in the Florida keys, his father, and his wife. As a courtesy, and from a wish to connect with these good people briefly, the protagonist Frank drops in to meet the family and talk to them about how their soldier died and where he’s buried in Italy.

The old man and his daughter-in-law Nora run a small hotel that’s closed for the season. But they’ve taken in a group of guests who offered more money than they can refuse. These guests include Rocco, a gangster so bad the U.S. deported him before the war, his alcoholic mistress, and his hoodlums. Rocco has sneaked back into the U.S. just long enough to make a deal for counterfeit money which he intends to launder in Cuba.

A hurricane blows in, trapping these people together in the hotel. Frank and Nora fall in love. Once the storm calms down, Rocco forces Frank to pilot the boat to Cuba, but Frank prevails and defeats the gangsters.

Because the plot is so clear and direct, the writer had ample room to develop this cast of characters. They are what powers this story.

Let’s consider them and what makes them complex:

Frank the hero seems to be a calm, competent, kind man who just wants to give comfort to an old man who’s lost his son. He’s courteous and mild-mannered. But Frank is also unable to settle back into civilian life. He’s rootless and restless. He has no family to return to after the war, and he’s held several jobs already, moving from city to city. He remembers the soldier in his company who was always talking about the keys and his family. Frank, needing somewhere to belong, finally turns up and becomes embroiled in the family’s problems. On the surface, Frank doesn’t seem to be a very successful civilian, but in a crisis he is the hero to have on your side. Perhaps the best display of his true nature is when he defies Rocco to give Gaye the drink she so desperately needs.

Rocco the villain seems to be a cut above his thugs at first. On the surface, he acts confident, successful, and in control. But soon we learn that he’s a washed up has-been trying to make a comeback. He’s reunited a few of his gang and sought out his former mistress. He talks big, but in reality he’s a frightened, petty, cruel little man that’s afraid of storms.

Rocco’s mistress Gaye–brilliantly portrayed by Claire Trevor–seems at first to be simply empty-headed eye-candy with a bit too much to drink. Since Rocco’s deportation, she’s been unable to regain her singing career. She makes a half-hearted pretense at first to maintain appearances. But Rocco’s disgust with her, and his cruelty, gives her the strength to betray him. She may be an alcoholic on the skids, but she is no fool. Her conscience and inner decency as a person finally shine through despite the slurred voice and craving for a drink.

Even the minor characters–however stereotypical they may appear to modern audiences–exhibit some complexity in their genial talk and jokes that are masks for the violence they’re capable of.

Often, discussion of this film becomes limited to the romance and that famous Bogart and Bacall chemistry, but I suggest that you study the characters to see how the story’s plot is designed to make them shine–just as jewels are displayed on black velvet cloth.

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Atmospheric Pressure

In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.

But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.

The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.

In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.

Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.

When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;

2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);

3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.

Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.

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A Touch of Humor

While there was a time when I believed that a story should be totally and deeply serious or else slapstick silly, I’ve come to understand that stories don’t have to be at one extreme or the other. Often, the most effective–or touching–tales evoke a combination of emotions.

While I love drama, if there’s too much grief, gloom, and bleakness unrelieved by any lighter emotion, I can find myself weighed down, depressed, and ready to toss such an unrelenting plot aside.

I enjoy comedy in many forms–usually situational, physical, or farce. In recent years, other types of comedy have become more fashionable, but satire, sardonic wit, and scatological jokes seldom appeal to my personal taste.

Good farce is delightful, but if it’s poorly done it can come across as nothing more than characters behaving stupidly. While there are gems among the American television sitcoms, too many of them rely on punch-line humor–often the hardest to put across–and a canned laugh track. Is there anything worse than so-called humor that isn’t funny? I am so not amused.

The Brits are masters of situational comedy. Such plots build slowly, taking their time in setting up the scenario, but then–like falling dominoes–the laughs come faster and faster to the end.

Physical comedy has been around for centuries, providing people with simple emotional relief. In the twentieth century, it hit its stride in the silent film era–due largely to the genius of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd–and then continued through the Great Depression with Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and The Three Stooges.

Cartoons are another source of humor. Among the best would be the Looney Tunes from Warner Bros. Starting in 1930, when the Great Depression was probably at its worst, these cartoons served up zany slapstick combined with farce, situational humor, and punch-line jokes. As old as they are, they can still make me smile at the difficulties of a cat being trapped in a roll of sticky flypaper. I love the machinations of Tom and Jerry–provided the cartoons haven’t been sanitized for cultural sensitivity. And most of us can probably quote lines such as Bugs Bunny’s “What’s up, doc?” or Elmer Fudd’s grumbling about that “wascally wabbit.”

Still, with a few exceptions among the Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton movies, I think the most effective comedy is short. String it out too long, without mixing it with drama or romance, as Buster Keaton was wise enough to do, and it could become mindlessly silly like the antics of the Keystone Kops.

Which brings me back to the point of the post … the advantage of mixing emotions in fiction.

Writers sometimes refer to this blending or combining as “the roller coaster technique.”

The delightful farce, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, combines horror, suspense, romance, and touching little moments of relationships along with the crazy comedy. Without those other emotions, the comedy alone would be impossible to sustain.

Or, give your readers sadness, but then switch up things with a touch of humor.

An example would be in the funeral scene of the film STEEL MAGNOLIAS. Sally Fields has lost her young daughter. The funeral is over, and her friends have gathered around her in sympathy. Sally starts chewing the scenery, with her usually controlled character finally letting go. She’s ranting and weeping, venting all the pent-up emotions that she’s been suppressing through her daughter’s illness, coma, and death. And then, just when this outpouring of grief has us reaching for our hankies, just when if the director had stretched it any further we’d have detached from it, Sally cries out, “I want to hit something! I want to hit it hard.”

And Olympia Dukakis shoves Shirley Maclaine forward and says, “Here! Hit this!”

There’s a moment of shock, then everyone but Shirley Maclaine starts to laugh. Even Sally Fields’s character can’t stop her spurt of laughter. Olympia shrugs as she explains, “I thought we needed to lighten up.”

So true.

The tragedy, when contrasted with an appropriate amount of humor, will seem that much more moving.

One of the important themes of Preston Sturges’s film classic, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, is that we need humor in order to keep our balance and our hope, no matter how strong our problems.

The film is set during the worst of America’s Great Depression. Sullivan is a rich, successful filmmaker who mistakenly believes that the poor and downtrodden need movies of heavy drama. He thinks bleakness is all that poor, out-of-work people can identify with.

He’s totally wrong, of course. As he sets out on his journey among the homeless, he gets himself into genuine and deep trouble, so deep that he lands in an Alabama prison, the worst of all places to be. After chain gang work and much torment, he’s taken with the other prisoners to a small country church to see a film. Zany cartoons are shown, and Sullivan is at first offended as the convicts around him laugh. But then he’s caught up by the silliness, and soon he’s laughing with them. He learns that in times of trouble, we need anything but stories of grief and tragedy. We need to laugh.

This principle works for characterization as well. In the SF television series BABYLON FIVE, Security Chief Garibaldi is portrayed as a gruff, pragmatic little bulldog who’s very good at a very difficult and dangerous job. He’s also a recovered alcoholic who’s not so terrific at relationships. One of the lighter quirks assigned to his character, however, is that he loves Warner’s Looney Tunes cartoons. It humanizes him and shows us that there’s more to this man than a semi-paranoid, distrustful, wary grouch.

In the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, there are two creatures that are products of a secret lab conducting genetic experiments. Both creatures escape. One is a beautiful and highly intelligent Golden Retriever that everyone loves. The other is a hideous, deformed, violent monster that everyone fears. At a certain point in the book, government agents find the monster’s lair and search it for clues as to where the beast might be hiding. Koontz describes the agents picking up magazines where every photograph has been torn to remove the models’ eyes. When the monster kills, it always tears out the eyes of its victims. It’s so ugly that it doesn’t want anyone to see it and cringe in revulsion. But amidst the few possessions, there’s a battered, rusty statuette of Mickey Mouse.

It seems that in the lab, both creatures were shown Mickey Mouse cartoons as they were maturing. And now that they’re out in the world, the beautiful dog still shows delight whenever he encounters a Mickey symbol or cartoon. And in the monster’s den, Mickey represents possibly the only scrap of decency or vulnerability in an otherwise brutal beast.

In this example, Mickey doesn’t provide humor. Instead, he provides a poignant insight into a character that’s more dimensional than we first suppose.

Make ’em laugh. It might be the best way to also make ’em cry.


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Sparkle: Characters to Cheer For

Do you think it’s just chance if readers like your characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is more compelling if you write bleak, depressed, passive, unhappy, apathetic characters?

Not at all!

Do you think your material is cheesy and unsophisticated if you create active, upbeat, heroic characters?

It probably is!

Is that a problem?

Only if you’re opposed to creating saleable fiction.

Let’s keep this piece of advice simple:

Readers want a protagonist they can identify with, sympathize with, like a lot, and cheer for.

That protagonist may be as snarky in attitude as Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s bestselling series about a wizard PI in Chicago. But underneath his jaded exterior, Dresden really cares about people and he really wants to be helpful as he fights Evil.

Robert Crais’s popular tough guy, Joe Pike, is stoic, taciturn, and hard to know. He’s also brave, loyal, extremely competent, cool in a crisis, and a person that’s going to save your backside if bad guys come after you.

The late Betty Neels wrote Harlequin romance novels in a career that reached from the late 1960s into the 21st century. Her heroes are arrogant, rich, autocratic, and less than likely to give a plain, perhaps plump, heroine a second glance. yet the Neels hero is a supremely competent surgeon/doctor, generous, intensely protective of those he loves, willing to rescue and adopt the most pathetic mixed-breed stray dog or cat on the planet, and someone rich, handsome, and successful who will give the plain nobody of a heroine both the moon and the stars.

Ms. Neels remains in print constantly, unlike the majority of her colleagues.

One of the most popular novels in thriller author Dean Koontz’s impressive oeuvre is a book called WATCHERS. The human characters Travis and Nora are likeable, but it’s the dog Einstein who steals the show. Einstein is a genetically modified, highly intelligent golden retriever who loves Mickey Mouse cartoons, is able to read, and communicates with humans by spelling sentences with Scrabble tiles. If you can’t adore this character by the time you finish reading his story, then I worry about you.

What is that special quality that makes a star?

Different people have differing definitions of it. Figure out how you identify it and give it to your protagonist.

Don’t be afraid of sophisticated literati out there jeering at your hero/heroine. (They only read each other’s stream-of-consciousness passages anyway.)

Don’t be afraid of exposing your heart a little to readers. (It’s the only way to truly touch their hearts.)

Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist care about others. (The empathy within your character creates sympathy within readers.)

So go ahead and let your good guys take a stance, stand up for the little guy, defy the odds, dare to try, speak up when others won’t, express their values, shoulder responsiblities, and help little old ladies cross the road.

In Tom Clancy’s novel, PATRIOT GAMES, ex-Marine Jack Ryan is just a tourist in London’s Hyde Park when Irish terrorists attack members of the royal family. It’s a moment to duck and take cover, keeping your head low until the shooting’s over.

Instead, Ryan makes sure his wife and child are safe before he sprints across the park and single-handedly fights off the terrorists, killing one, assisting in the capture of another, and being seriously wounded himself. All to help people he doesn’t know.

Later, a friend asks Ryan why he took such a wild risk. Ryan shrugs and then opens up: “I saw what was happening. It made me mad.”


John Wayne was a savvy actor who played heroic roles. He didn’t try to be sophisticated and nuanced. His characters stood for what was right, regardless of what the law or authority might say. John Wayne delivered poetic justice in film after film.

Result? Other than Marilyn Monroe, are there many other actors besides Wayne with their pictures hanging in American living rooms?

People of the 21st century may wear ennui like a jacket, but if they were suddenly standing on the TITANIC they would want 1) access to a lifeboat; and 2) a leader who could help them get it.

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Oysters to Pearls

I came across a writing quote today that appealed to me. Perhaps you’re already familiar with it, but I hadn’t encountered it before:

Every piece of writing … starts from what I call a grit … a sight or sound, a sentence or a happening that does not pass away … but quite inexplicably lodges in the mind.

Rumer Godden

I’ve been posting about ideas lately because that’s what I’m working on at the moment–an idea that’s workable, original, commercial, and exciting.

I’m a fast writer, but a slow developer. For one thing, I have to detach myself from the previous novel and its story world. Given that I immerse myself fully in setting and characters, I’m loathe to leave what’s become familiar to me.

Once the detachment is achieved–not always easy, especially if the series is ongoing–then I start sifting my mind for ideas, nuggets of ideas, snips of dialogue, an image of a character or two, whatever might grab my interest.

In effect, I’m seeking the “grit” that Rumer Godden is referring to. If it’s good grit and if it lodges then, pearl-like, it will start to grow.

Perhaps I should have been sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, pounding out ideas and pummeling them on the conveyer belt of tests and more tests. Instead, I was out in the 105-degree heat, driving home from the nearby metro. I was tired, hot, and not much in the mood to deal with rush-hour traffic.

And a piece of grit lodged in my imagination. I liked it, and for the next 45 minutes of my drive, I played the mental “What if?” game with my imagination.

What if I combine this science fiction idea with an older plot that never quite gelled for me? Could the two be glued together? Or will the old idea bog the whole project down?

What if I leave the old idea in its trunk and just pick up the flavor of the setting, the gritty, noir, near-future aspect of, say, Blade Runner? That, I can keep. I might even utilize a couple of characters from my old story.

The rest–nope. It’s got to stay new.

I’m thinking about backstory. I’m thinking about the drastic change in circumstances that would kick off the whole novel. I’m thinking about what’s at stake. I’m holding out my hand in friendship to the protagonist–a shadowy form as yet unwilling to step into the light of scrutiny. The villain will be nasty and melodramatic–or should I go for more subtlety this time?

Nah. I’m anything but subtle.

These are the early questions, the friendly ones.  The harder ones will come if this piece of grit stays lodged and wants to grow.

A sampling:

What does my protagonist want, right now, right here?


How will it affect the protagonist’s life if that objective is NOT achieved?

Who’s the antagonist?

Why does this character want to see the protagonist fail? Or die? Or fail while dying?

Why? Why? Why?

It always comes down to that simple, one-word question.

I can’t count how many students I’ve coached who can’t answer why. The problem stems, of course, from not thinking an idea through or asking the questions such as I’ve just listed.

Why appears to be simple. It’s anything but. That’s why the inexperienced writer will dodge it. Yet the answers to Why are pivotal to the plot and characters.

Avoid the Why and you’ll have puppet-like, one-dimensional characters and a plot full of holes and deadends.

Initially, for rough draft purposes, the antagonist’s motivation needn’t be psychologically complex. I hate the protagonist’s guts because she’s prettier and nicer, and I want to smash her pretty face  in the mud.

That’s not deep or complicated. It will need improvement as a draft progresses, but it’s enough to get started with. It’s clear and understandable.

However, if you don’t know how to explain your villain’s motivations, then you don’t know your bad guy. If you don’t know your bad guy, then you can’t understand the rationale behind his or her actions. That’s when the actions or behavior stop making sense, and you start pushing a puppet around the page instead of bringing a character to life.

When you know what your two primary characters want, you can plot forward.

Roger wants a dog.

His girlfriend Melanie doesn’t want him to have a dog.

Their wants (their goals) are in opposition. Opposition creates conflictful encounters, and the plot advances.

Another development question to ask of your premise is What’s at stake?

Wanting a dog or not wanting the mess and bother of housebreaking a puppy seems pretty low in the stakes department. I don’t care a bean about Roger or Melanie. I don’t know them or like them. Can I raise the stakes for this mundane example?

What would make the desire for a dog interesting? What would make it original or unusual?

Consider the Dean Koontz thriller, WATCHERS, where in the first chapter the protagonist Travis stumbles across a golden retriever and takes it home. There’s a scary encounter with something in the woods, enough to distract readers from the ho-hum event of a man collecting a pretty stray. Quickly, Koontz demonstrates the dog doing some peculiar things, and Travis realizes this isn’t an ordinary Golden Retriever, but instead a dog with extraordinary, unnatural intelligence.

The stakes just went up. Should Travis give the dog back to its owners? If the dog came from a laboratory, what will happen to it if it’s returned?

Raise the stakes higher by creating an antagonist for the dog that’s a foil: another laboratory creation that’s highly intelligent, incredibly ugly and hideous, and a violent, vicious, killing machine. And it wants to kill the dog.

Why? Because the dog is as beautiful and loved by everyone as the monster is hideous and hated. A maelstrom of envy, jealousy, hurt feelings, and anger churns within the monster. We can understand its motivations. We can pity it even as we cringe each time it commits violence.

With such a set up of characters, conflict, and clashing motivations, a plot can’t help but unfold. The grit is there, working hard on the writer’s behalf.


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