Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eliminating Unnecessary Plot Complications

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Hickory Smoked Homicide 2Penguin has asked me to write a fourth Memphis Barbeque book. It was great to hear that I’d have a reason to spend more time with the characters in that series.

I also had an idea for something I wanted to do with the plot—I wanted to feature the huge Memphis in May festival that’s such a big event there every year.

My protagonist and sleuth for the series is Lulu Taylor, who owns a barbeque restaurant. I decided to make Lulu a judge for the event. There are many different foods to judge at the festival—everything from slaw to sauce to the barbeque itself.

I got deeper into the research on being a food judge. I realized there were different rules these judges have to follow to keep the competition fair. I saw that there was a good deal of training that went into being one. I felt, also, that this would be something I’d need to make sure I represented well in the book, since there are people in Memphis who read this series…and I wanted my information to be correct and not something that I changed for my own purposes.

I could also tell that Lulu would be kept very busy as a judge.

As I got farther into the book (this is one that I’m working on now), I realized I was making this mystery unnecessarily complex. And confusing. And, really, having Lulu be a judge was going to tie up a lot of her time and make her less available to investigate a murder.

This wasn’t a book about judging barbeque competitions. This was a mystery. And my sleuth needed to solve the mystery, not pick the top baked bean winner.

These were some of the questions I asked myself before I decided to demote Lulu from judgeship:

Does this forward the plot? Is it necessary?

Am I including research simply to show off how well I’ve researched?

Will this complication confuse readers?

Are there other, simpler ways to accomplish the same effect?

What’s the basic reason I’m including this complication in the book?

For me, I decided the whole point I’d made Lulu a judge was to put her on the scene at Memphis in May. But wouldn’t she already be there? Her best friends have a booth at the festival. It’s the biggest Memphis event of the year. And Lulu has two grandchildren begging for her to take them there.

Why wouldn't she be there? The whole complication of Lulu being a judge just wasn’t needed. It only made the plot more convoluted for readers and tougher for me to write. And required a great deal of research. Do you ever notice, like me, that you’re making things complicated for both yourself and your readers? How do you simplify unnecessarily convoluted plotlines?