One of the best ways to construct a plot is to use a very simple technique that almost makes the process seem effortless. All you have to do is ask yourself a series of “What-Ifs.”
What if a Neo-Nazi terrorist organization got hold of a nuclear bomb?
What if they planted that bomb in an American football stadium?
What if a fledgling CIA analyst uncovered the plan and couldn’t convince his superiors that he was right?
What if the bomb actually went off, destroying half an American city?
What if the terrorists planted evidence making it look like the Russians were at fault?
As you can see, this series of What Ifs practically lays out the structure of The Sum of All Fears. And as we plot out What-Ifs like these and turn them into scene and sequence, each and every one of them forms a question in the reader’s mind.
Let’s look at some of them again:
What if a Neo-Nazi terrorist organization got hold of a nuclear bomb? (Reader: What are they going to do with it?)
What if they planted the bomb in an American football stadium? (Reader: Will someone stop it before it explodes?)
What if a fledgling CIA analyst uncovered the plan and couldn’t convince his superiors that he was right? (Reader: How will he stop the terrorists?)
And so on. Each What-If you present, each question you put into the mind of your reader helps compel him forward through the story. He turns the page for one very simple reason: he wants to find out what will happen next.
The longer you take to reveal the answers to these questions, however, the stronger the hold you’ll have on your audience. It’s important not to gave away too much too soon, or your audience will have nothing to look forward to.
But you have to be very careful here. Remember the TV show Twin Peaks? The whole series was based on the premise, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” With each episode, more and more clues were provided — along with a lot of wacky characters and a lot more compelling questions — but after a dozen or so episodes, the Palmer premise began to wear thin.
Why? Because the writers kept the answer from us for so long that we began to lose interest.
Warning aside, you must always remember to take it slow. And as you answer each of these story points, make sure you replace them with questions that are even more compelling.
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Every story — no matter what genre — should be an unfolding mystery.