What’s more important, plot or character? I can easily jump into either side of this discussion, but the answer is often: both.
One author who does a stellar job of weaving together page-turning plots with strong characters is Robert Dugoni, the critically acclaimed bestselling suspense and literary fiction author. Robert joined our First Draft Friday chat to discuss his tips on page-turning plots and wow, this was one of our best shows yet!
Click above to watch the half-hour show, where Robert shares:
- what he starts with when thinking about a plot or story
- the biggest mistakes that authors make in their storytelling
- how and when information should be shared with readers
- what a story actually is and how to tell one
- books on craft and storytelling that he recommends
- giving your characters a motivation for their actions
- how to establish tone
- and so much more!
Start watching now, or continue on to the transcript, if you prefer to read.
Enjoy the show? Check out our upcoming and past First Draft Friday episodes.
Robert’s camp for authors: https://www.novelwritingintensive.com/
Robert’s books: https://bingebooks.com/author/robert-dugoni
Robert’s website: robertdugonibooks.com
And please try out Marlowe, our artificial intelligence editor for authors: authors.ai/marlowe
Alessandra: We are live. Welcome everyone to First Draft Friday. I am your host, Alessandra Torre, and I am so excited to be joined today by Robert Dugoni. And we are going to be talking all about page turning plots. I can see the rooms already filling up. And as you watch, please don’t be shy. Use the comments box, pop any questions that you have, but welcome. Do you want to introduce yourself to the audience a little bit?
Robert: Sure. No. You know, you said my name is Robert Dugoni. I’ve been an author for about 25 years or so, and I have about 25 novels published, I think to my name in a number of different genres. I’ve written legal thrillers. I’ve written police procedurals. I’ve written literary novels, I’ve written espionage. So you know, really what I love is I just love a good story, whatever that story is. And I’m sort of the same kind of a reader. I love to read any kind of book. I read all kinds. I read Chicklet, I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read everything. And I’m happy to be here. I do a lot of teaching. I teach a novel writing intensive with Steven James. If people are interested in it, you’ll find it online. It’s just called the novelwritingintensive.com. It’s a three and a half day, very intensive writing class. I love to do this and I really appreciate you having me on.
Alessandra: Is that class in person or is it online?
Robert: Well, traditionally, it’s been in person, but with all the stuff going on the last couple have been online. We have our fingers crossed that will be in person in Seattle this year. So we’re hoping, but you know, you never know. Steven has really done a nice job of devising it into a Zoom class. And it works. It works well. It’s nice to have that collegiality and be with people and there’s that energy, but the Zoom works well also.
Alessandra: This is one of the things I love about First Draft Friday, or any opportunity to chat with fellow authors. One, because it’s so much fun to talk shop, but also, we all approach the craft in so many different ways, so it’s great to hear. And this is a topic that is one of those things that when you talk about writing a book, it’s often hard for me to try to articulate how I come up with a plot or what makes a plot. Great. I am so excited about this topic, and I’m so excited to hear what you have to share. So, where do you normally start are when you’re looking or thinking about a plot and figuring out how to teach that to an author?
Robert: I always start very globally. And I think it’s really important for, especially new authors to understand what their purpose is. I mean, what is the purpose of a novel? What is the purpose of the author? And I’ll get a lot of different answers to that question, but the bottom line is, the purpose is to entertain, right? I mean, we are in the entertainment business and novels are different than movies. Movies come at you. They’re one way, you take them in. Novels are two ways. You want the reader to become part of your novel. You want them to feel like they are in the setting, that they are part of the characters that are there, so that they can absorb everything that is around them. So the first thing I always tell my students is, your job is to entertain. And if you always keep that in mind the big thing really is not what to do, but also what not to do.
And some of the biggest mistakes that I will find is I will find that authors will intrude into the story. And it becomes very apparent to the reader when an author intrudes into the story, because suddenly the characters are no longer entertaining us. The author is telling us something or the authors on a platform, and they’re called author intrusions. I used to see them all the time in the old editing days, I don’t see them so much anymore, but they’re really very obvious. And if you go back and you look at your manuscript, your draft, and I always tell students what I teach is not first draft. My belief is your first draft should be just let it flow. Let the creativity go and let it flow. Don’t self-edit yourself on that first draft, and then don’t let anybody read that first draft. That first draft is only for you.
So you don’t have to worry about what your mother-in-law’s going to say, or what your wife might say, or anything like that, your husband or anything, you know, it’s just you, so you can feel free to put everything you want in there. And then you go back and you start looking at the things I’m talking about, OK, am I entertaining here? Or am I intruding? How do I intrude? Opinions, you know, it’s very obvious when all of a sudden the author in the disguise of a character starts throwing out an opinion on some controversial subject, you know, like abortion or the death penalty, or whatever it is. If you want to write a book about the death penalty, write the Green Mile, that’s a fabulous book about the death penalty write, and Paul Edgecombe never tells us how he feels about it, but we’re part of it. We see it.
You want to write a book about abortion, write Cider House Rules and let us see it. OK, let’s experience it. Biographies, you know, you’ll be in the middle of a story and it’ll be flowing and suddenly the story will stop and we’ll get a biography of some character that’s coming on stage. And I always say to students, do you really need this right here? Do we need to know they graduated from Harvard University? Is that important at this moment in the story? Otherwise, just give us what we need to let the story keep going. And you have 400 pages to let us know who this character is and where they went to school and all those other things. But a lot of times what authors do is, they’ll write a biography and then they’ll just put it into the story. And what it does is, it stops the story. And that’s what you don’t want to do. Especially in that beginning, in that beginning, you want the reader to just keep turning the page.
Information dumps is another one. You’re writing a book about a Winchester rifle, and the guy takes out his Winchester rifle and he is about to shoot, and the story stops to tell us the history of the Winchester rifle. We don’t need it right now. And so how much do you need? You only need as much as the character needs for the character to continue into the story. So another one is, and everybody gets freaked out about this are flashbacks. And I have flashbacks in my stories all the time. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but what I’m saying is understand, especially in the beginning of that story, what a flashback is? A flashback is going back in time. And if we go back in time, we’re not going forward. So what you really want to be sure of is you want to be sure that that flashback is a scene. It’s not a memory. It’s not a recollection. It’s not somebody sitting and thinking, right, because there’s no action when somebody sits and thinks.
If you have some piece of information, that’s in somebody’s background, that’s really important; then it should be a scene in and of itself. And what do I mean by a scene; we should be able to see it, to hear it, to smell it, to taste it, all the things that go into a scene, all those visceral senses should be in that flashback so that it’s not just a memory, that’s stopping the story. You don’t ever want to stop the story, especially in the beginning. Let at the story roll, let it go, let it sing. You know, let all those things move forward.
The other thing that I tell my students all the time is I’ll ask them, I’ll say, what is a story? And you’d be really surprised how many people just sort of go blank. And they think, well, what is a story? Well, a story has a beginning to middle and an end. I say, well, that’s what’s in a story, but it’s not really what a is. And what I come back around to after we get through, you know, people ask me all these questions is, a story is really a journey. It can be a physical journey. It can be an emotional journey, a spiritual journey, whatever it is, but it is a journey of a character. And that character is doing something OK. If you ever see places in your story, especially in the beginning where your character isn’t doing anything, those are places you want to begin to evaluate, do you need them? And if you do need them, how can you make them more movement? And using the best way is dialogue, bring in dialogue, bring in movement, but your character should be doing something.
And what I really like is I like Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. And what I like about it is just that word journey, because that’s really what a story should be about. It should be a journey of some kind of the main character, and the reader is along for the ride of that journey. What is the character doing? And really all I’m talking about is I’m really just talking about the story’s plot? What is happening? In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the story is, will Frodo make it to Mordor and destroy the ring? In The Wizard of Oz, the story is, will Dorothy get to Oz and find her way home, right? That’s what the whole story is about. It’s about that journey. And in that case, those are two physical journeys.
In The Verdict with Paul Newman, it’s not really a physical journey, as much as it’s an emotional journey. Will he be able to try a case again and win this case? Or is he a drunk and he’s always going to be a drunk and he’s just going to take the money and run? There’s a physicalness to it. There’s a story plot. And then, the other thing that we writers all have to keep in mind is that second part of the plot, right? You have a physical plot and then you have whatever you want to call it, the emotional plot or the spiritual plot or the motivation. And that’s what I always say to my readers. I said, “Well, what is your character spiritual plot?” And what I’ll get is I’ll get a lot of very convoluted things. I’ll say, “Well, you know, when my character was 12 years old, she was raped and…” and they get really involved and really involved. And really, you need to be able to boil your story down to one or two words, because I think your spirit journey is the motivation for your character to do all the physical things you’re going to ask them to do.
When we write stories, we don’t write about ordinary people doing ordinary things. That’s what we do in our lives and they’re boring and they’re not stories. We write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, or we write about extraordinary people doing something extraordinary. So if your character is an 80 year old woman who knits during the day and you’re going to have her solve a mystery; that’s an extraordinary thing. So, I always ask my character, why is she doing it? Why doesn’t she just call the police? Why doesn’t she just, you know, call the FBI? Why doesn’t she just ask? And really, I’m asking you, what is the motivation? And I asked that because do I believe the motivation?
Alessandra: So wait, let me just drill it down on that for a minute. So if I, as an author, if you said to me, OK, why is the character doing that? And I, as the author go, “I don’t know, because I need her to do it so that this can happen and this can happen, and this can happen. So then, what is the solution to that? Should I, as the author reexamine whether that action even needs to be, or I need to go back further and I need to give that character a motivation?
Well, why do people normally do things, right? We do things at very basic human needs; love, greed, revenge, jealousy, justice, power, a sense of honor, a sense of duty, a sense of adventure, right? We usually do things out of very basic human emotions. Why does the man in Blood Diamond, the African man, why does he hide a pink diamond between his toes and smuggle it out of the mine and use it to cross Sierra Leone in the middle of a war? Because he loves his son and he’s trying to get his son back. He’s doing it because of love. Do you believe that? A hundred percent. Now, I might not be that brave, but I can certainly suspend my…
Alessandra: But you can still associate with it.
Robert: And see he’s doing it. And you know, people act — pick up the newspaper, and you say, why would somebody do that? They just caught the guy that was stealing writer’s manuscripts. I don’t know if you saw that.
Alessandra: No, I didn’t. I didn’t know about this.
Robert: He’s an Italian guy living in New York, working for a publisher. And he was sending these fake emails to writers and he was getting writers to send them their unpublished manuscripts. Now, they don’t know why he was doing it, but let’s say we’re writing a story and this is the plot. Why would he do it? Greed, money.
Alessandra: Jealousy. He wants a life that he can’t himself create.
Robert: Sociopathic, whatever it is. There’s there needs to be that basic human emotion. Now, you might have a sociopath and sociopaths act because they think everybody’s an idiot and they’re smarter than everybody. Psychopaths, they don’t have reasons for doing the things they do, they just do them, but only about 4% of the population are psychopath. So normally, your character needs to have … there needs to be something that, that we believe to get them to go across war torn, you know, the world to destroy the ring in the fires of Mordor or, you know, to be a little girl who is just trying to take care of her dog. And suddenly she’s leading a group of men to go to Oz, to try to get the wizard to help them. You know, we have to believe it.
And why do we believe Dorothy will do it? This is a great one. The screenwriters did a fabulous job with this. Why does Dorothy do this? Why is Dorothy so desperate to get home? She ran away. She ran away, so why does she want to go home? Because she thinks Aunt M is dying. Do you remember when she stops in the wagon with professor Marvel and he says, “I see a woman in a white polka dot dress and she’s clutching her heart and she’s falling on the bed.” Dorothy thinks she’s killing her Aunt M who she loves, so she is bound and determined to get home to save Aunt M. And that’s what I’m talking about is, you have to always be asking yourself, why is my character doing this? Because you’re not asking them to do an ordinary thing. They’re not go into the store to buy a carton a milk. They’re going to the store to confront somebody, and maybe they’re not that confronting kind. So, what is motivating them? What is getting them to do it?
You know, the other thing that I always tell writers, I was just talking about this the other day is, I said, what does it mean to write from the heart? And I think what it means to write from the heart is to allow your characters to be so vulnerable that readers can identify with them, but you can’t really get to that place unless you really understand story structure innately. And so, the first thing I always tell people is if you want to write, go read books on story structure, like Chris Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey. Until really understand plot, what is it about a plot, and then you can really let the character just live in the plot and be vulnerable and be open and have those things happen.
So, you know, I think it’s really important that you are able to identify why your character is doing all the things that you’re going to ask your character to do. The other thing about beginnings that you really want to keep in mind is what really makes a good beginning? Well, the first thing you need to do is establish the tone. What is your book? Are you writing a fantasy? Are you writing a thriller? Are you writing a suspense, a mystery? Whatever you’re writing, it should be very apparent right in the opening of the book, because readers are very intuitive and readers are very smart and readers go to bookstores, you know, on their way to the airport. And they they’re looking for something. I like to write mysteries; that’s what I want to buy. I like to read westerns. I want to read chicklet. I want to read, you know, whatever it is – women’s issues, and so that should be very apparent in the opening of the novel. The tone should be, this is a thriller, you know, it should open with something big, and you know, it’s out there and it’s like, oh my God. And a mystery is, somebody’s murdered. And the next scene is the detective. OK, this is what I love to read, you know. Don’t hide that from the reader. Put that right up front. This book is a legal thriller. It’s a mystery. It’s a fantasy, you know, proto back is the opening sentence, which I’ll talk about in a minute. It’s from the first sentence, you know, this is a fantasy. This is, you know, the thing, so you don’t want to hide that.
And the other thing you don’t want to hide is you don’t want to hide who’s the protagonist. Let us know who the protagonist is. Who are we going to go on this journey with? We’re going to commit, you know, 8, 9, 10 hours of our lives to read this 500, 400 page novel. Who are we going to be on this journey with? Who is the character that we’re going to have to identify with. And so, I always tell my students, I say, you should be able to answer these questions, right? Who is your protagonist? What is your protagonist? Where are they? What do they want and why can’t they have it?
Alessandra: So when you say who and what, define the difference when I’m asking, like who they are as a person, like their personality versus what they are an attorney working in…
Robert: Well, in the beginning of the novel, you might not know their full personality, but if I was going to do it, I, you know, something like, Shrek is a lovable ogre who lives in a swamp and just wants to be left alone. That’s all he wants. So what happens? The cruel ruler of the kingdom kicks out the fairytale creatures. They go to live in Shrek’s swamp. In order to get his swamp back, Shrek has to go save a princess from a fire breathing dragon. That’s the story, and you know it right up front, you know who he is, what he is, where he is, what he wants and why can’t he have what he wants. If you were doing the wizard of Oz, you’d say, you know, Dorothy is a 15 year old girl who’s looking for that place over the rainbow where dreams really do come true. But when a tornado hits, Dorothy ends in the Land of Oz In order to get back home to Kansas, Dorothy has to trek across the yellow brick road to meet with the wizard, to get the wizard, to send her home. However, the wizard won’t send her home unless she brings him the broomstick of the wicked witch of the west, who’s by the way, trying to kill her. That’s what the story’s about.
You know, I always say to writers, if you can do that, you just created your elevator pitch. If you get on the elevator with the agent or the editor of your dreams, and you say to them, hi, you know, I’m a writer, and they say, what’s your story about? You can do it in those five questions and it will tell them, oh, OK. Now, they’ll probably then say, tell me a little bit more, you know, who are the sub character and all those other things. But if you can do that yourself, you have a much better chance of writing a tightly and story, because you never lose sight of the fact of what it is the character wants. Because when you get to the middle of the book and you’re starting to put obstacles in the path of what the character wants, you have to really, really make it clear that that writer is willing to go through all those obstacles, because what they want is really important to them. Because a lot of people will say, oh, for the hell of it, why don’t they just quit? I have friends that climb mountain, you know, they climb Everest and they go, and I think to myself, why? I get halfway up and the minute I start feeling sick and have the diarrhea, and I’d be like, oh, to hell with this, I’m going back down, but that; I’m not them. And this is what they wanted, it drives them. So what is driving your character to put him or herself through all these machinations to get what he or she really wants? I think that’s just really important. And so the… go ahead.
Alessandra: We have two great questions. So the first one, I don’t entirely understand this, but maybe you will. So Mike from Facebook said, what if your protagonist is a concept or event rather than a person? So, I’m trying to think of a…
Robert: Here’s the difficulty with that. I don’t really know what you mean by your protagonist as a concept, but here’s the difficulty of that. I think what you have to ask yourself, the better question is, can your readers identify with the concept? Stories are not about concepts. If you want to write a book, say about the great depression, that’s a concept; write Kristin Hannah’s book, The Four Wins, which is about a family going through the great depression. If you want to write a historical about the movement from the East Coast to the West Coast, you know, back in the 1800, if you want to write a history book, that’s different than a novel. A novel is about the journey of some people, some group of people. There’s a movie series out now called Yellowstone and 1883 is the precursor.
Alessandra: I just, last night we were watching 1883.
Robert: And 1883, it’s about this German group that wants to settle in the West. But it’s not about the concept; it’s about the people on this journey to get there. So you want to write something, your protagonist should be something that people can identify with and feel like they are a part of, OK. I might never have traveled across the country on horse or in a buggy, but I have traveled across the country in a car. And I understand the difficulties that you go through and all those different things, so I can identify with the people that are doing it. So, I would say, be very careful about that.
Alessandra: Yeah, I understand. And I think that’s a fantastic way of saying it. Also, it’s why Diary of Anne Frank, even though it’s, you know, based in, because it put a face and you really experience that, it brought it to life. Someone else says from YouTube, David says, sounds like the Wizard of Oz has many plots. How many are too much?
Robert: It’s going to depend on your story. I would say the plots and the subplots should really all go hand in hand. And if you have a subplot that’s really not driving the plot forward, then it’s probably too much. There’s another television series. I use television series because people tend to be more familiar.
Alessandra: A lot of people have watched it.
Robert: Yeah. You know, there’s a television series on Apple called Ted Lasso, and it’s really well known, really famous. And anyway, it’s about an American football coach who gets sent to England to coach a soccer team because the woman who owns the team wants him to fail. And he gets over there and he’s just eternally optimistic, but he’s got an assistant coach. And then, during one episode, the story is all about who the assistant coach is. And then there’s another one, there’s a young guy there named Nate, and he’s the towel guy. And Ted Lasso elevates him to be an assistant coach. And at the end of the second season, suddenly Nate is going to be a coach of a rival team. And so, you begin to see the development of these characters.
So, subplots are really about the development of secondary characters that are in important to the main plot. And the main plot in that one is will Ted Lasso be able to succeed as a soccer coach when he is never been a soccer coach? Well, now Nate, right, the guy that was his assistant coach, he now becomes an obstacle. Doesn’t he? Because he’s going to be coaching a team, that’s going to try to prevent Ted lasso from being successful. So they’re tied together. So what I would say is, if your subplots are tied to the main plot, Dorothy’s trying to get home, OK, that’s what Dorothy’s trying to do, now you have a subplot in there maybe about the scarecrow. But the scarecrows whole goal is to get Dorothy to Oz because it benefits him if he does so. So, that’s what I would say is, I would say if you have a plot that is not helping the main plot be driven forward, it might not be need in your book at that time.
Alessandra: Yeah. That, that makes perfect sense. And someone asked, Phil says if they haven’t read anything you’ve written. What book should I start with? And is there a book that would address what we’re talking about with, you know, do most of your books have multiple subplots or a single subplot?
Robert: It really depends because a lot of times I like to challenge myself. And so like the last Tracy book I wrote, which was book number nine, I wanted Tracy to be in every single scene, almost like I was writing it in first person, even though it wasn’t in first person, it’s in third person, but I wanted her to be in every single scene, and so I did it. And so, sometimes I’ll have just one main thing going forward and sometimes I’ll have a protagonist and an antagonist. So in answer to the gentleman’s question, my answer would be, what do you like to read? If you like to read legal thrillers, then I would read my David Sloan books. And you can go to my website, which is authorrobertdugonibooks.com. And if you like to read police procedural mysteries, I’d say, start with my Tracy Crosswhite books, start with the book, My Sister’s Grave. If you like literary novels, read The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, which has done extremely well. And if you like espionage, then read my Charles Jenkins series. And the first one in that one is called The Eighth Sister. Whatever it is you like to read, I think you can just kind of explore on my website or on amazonbooks.com/robertdugoni. They’ll have all my books up there in a description of each of the books.
Alessandra: I’ll get back because there might be a couple final things you want to be sure to mention Shannon Cox from Facebook said, do you have any tips for magic realism storylines?
Robert: I’ve never written magic realism, but what I would say to you is, regardless of what you’re writing, stories have been told the same way every single time. I mean, I read Ender’s Game, I read… what’s that one called? It’s escaping me, I won’t dwell on. But I’ve read a lot of science fiction, I’ve read a lot of fantasy, but if you pick up say Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, you will see that stories have been told the same way, regardless of genre. What’s different in magical realism are the characters and what the characters use in their story, but the stories are the same. You have somebody living in an ordinary world, there’s some call to adventure that gets them out of their ordinary world. They go on some journey, whether it’s a physical journey, an emotional, whatever it is, there’s obstacles in the path of what their goal is, and there’s a climax and you run through to the final. So, I really don’t think it matters what your genre is. What matters is that you understand story structure.
Alessandra: I love that. We only have two and a half minutes left, any last things you want to share or things that they should avoid when they’re thinking about plots.
Robert: You know, one of the things I would say is hook the reader right away. Hook them with the opening sentence. Spend time on that opening sentence. How do you hook a reader? Readers are curious, so you hook the reader with a question. And I’m not talking about, it doesn’t have to say have the question mark, but Lord of the Rings again, when Mr. Bilbo Baggins of the Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk in Hobbiton. Now, does that raise a lot of questions? Yes. First it sets the tone. It’s a fantasy. Second, it gives us a character right away, Bilbo Baggins. Third, we’re intrigued, 111 years old. I mean, how does somebody get to be 111 years old? What’s this party about? Hobbiton, where is this going? So we’re immediately drawn in from that first sentence and we want to get the answer to it. What is going on here? And I think that’s the most important thing. The second most important sentence in a chapter or in a scene is the last sentence. You don’t want to have a sentence that sums everything up. You want to have a sentence that leaves something hanging so that the reader has to turn the page. You want to get the reader, reading a sentence that goes, oh, and they keep reading, and you want to get to the end, and they go, oh, and they got to keep reading. That’s how you get page turners, right? Is you keep the questions going throughout the story.
Alessandra: And that’s for me, the hardest, my editors are always like wanting a better transit to the next chapter. And gosh, sometimes it’s hard, you know, a lot of times it’s hard to.
Robert: It’s difficult. If writing books was easy, everyone would be doing it. And it’s not. Writing books is difficult. Not only just understanding the plot, but then creating characters that people care about. And how do you do that? Make your character empathetic. And there’s a lot of different ways to make your character empathetic. We don’t have enough time, but there are a lot of ways to make them empathetic. They can be funny. They can be powerful. They can be, you know, have things going on in their life that we feel for them. But when a character’s empathetic, what that means is the reader puts themselves in the shoes of the character and they become the character in the story. And that’s why people will write me when they read Sam Hell or they read The World Played Chess, my recent novel, and they say, “I was in tears, I was crying, reading your book,” because they’re identifying with the character. If you can get the reader to identify with your characters, you got them. I mean, you got them.
Alessandra: I love that. And we’re having some really nice comments coming through the chat, so terrific session. Mike said loud applause, and Tony said, “Thank you. Great thoughts.” And this really was a packed session, so I really appreciate everything, everything that you shared. And for anyone watching, you can find out more about Robert’s books at robertdugonibooks.com. Was that correct?
Robert: Yes, and at amazonbooks/robertdugoni. And people are interested more in the teaching, go to the novelwritingintensive.com and you’ll see… Steven James is a fabulous teacher as well. He’s got books out on the craft and we have a lot of fun, but thank you all very much. Thank you for having me Alessandra, I really appreciate it.
Alessandra: Absolutely. And for anyone watching, please check out our other First Draft Friday videos. And if you’re interested in meeting Marlowe who’s our artificial intelligence that can give you feedback on your novel in just a few minutes, check out Marlowe at authors.ai. You can try her out for free. Thanks guys. We’ll see you in two weeks at another First Draft Friday.