"Growing Strong Plots" with Teri Martini

Thursday, May 3, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 books and over 150 articles and short stories.

Teri is Teri Martini, author of 31 books for children and adults, as well as articles and short stories. Several of her adult novels like To Love and Beyond and Dreams to Give have been translated into foreign languages such as German and Italian and sold around the world. As a writing instructor, she enjoys discovering new and talented writers.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Interviews begin on Thursday evenings at 9 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain and 5 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! I'm Kristi Holl, the Moderator for tonight's interview. We're here tonight with Teri Martini to talk about "Growing Strong Plots." Teri has published in several genres, under her own name and several pen names. She knows how to plot stories and books for children, teens, and adults, and she's here tonight to share her expertise with us! Welcome, Teri!

Teri: Hello, everyone. Glad to be here.

Moderator: Teri, you've published 31 books at this point. Can you give us an idea of what a typical writing day is like for you?

Teri: Well, to those of us who now are working with computers this might sound strange, but I like to get up very early and with my yellow pad and pencil begin writing around seven AM. I work for three or four hours, then stop for some exercise. I like to walk. After lunch I take out my handwritten manuscript and read it over. Sometimes I throw everything away, but most of the time I use what I have and type it up. I always do more than one draft of a novel and this is my first draft.

Moderator: Teri, can you give us your definition of PLOT for tonight's purposes?

Teri: Sure. A plot is a plan which the writer develops like a road map to achieve a purpose, one that is usually much desired by the complex characters involved in the story.

Moderator: What are the basic parts of a plot? How long is each section?

Teri: Any plot is made up of the opening, the middle, the climax and the ending. Some writers take the trouble to set the scene carefully and then introduce the characters. I like to begin with the main character involved in some kind of action that suggests the conflict and then work on the background and setting as I go along. That's one way to "hook" the reader. But I also love rich descriptive writing and you will find that some writers begin that way. The middle of your plot is the longest section and involves all the personal conflicts and struggles that build to the climax based on what the characters need and want, especially the viewpoint character.

Moderator: Are plot and conflict synonymous terms? Why or why not?

Teri: I would not say they were synonymous terms. A conflict can be as simple as facing the fact that the heroine has to confess to her fiancé that she can't marry him. Or a conflict might be how to find your way out of the deep woods during a storm. A plot entails many conflicts, a series of conflicts that help the viewpoint character reach a particular goal. Take Harry Potter. He has to deal with the conflict of the "muggles" with whom he lives when he is not at school. Harry needs to keep up with his studies at Hogwarts and try to determine which of the many adults would like to see him dead like his parents. To build the plot you have to go back to the basic questions: What does the viewpoint character need and want? Why can't he have it and how can he solve his basic problems? This is the way to think of your plot.

Moderator: In adult books and many juvenile novels as well, you need at least one subplot. Can you define a subplot, then give us an example?

Teri: A subplot is one of several conflicts facing the viewpoint character outside the major conflict. In my book Tune in for Murder the heroine is faced with the sudden death of her husband and also trying to deal with this loss and move on with her life, though she suffers from the guilt of knowing that their relationship had gone sour. One of the subplots has to do with a mysterious call Lisa has received on her radio show, one that is threatening. There is also unrest among the other employees because of the new officious manager who has taken over. But the main plot has to do with Lisa's finding true love and giving up her feelings of guilt about her husband's death.

Moderator: Do all adult stories require a subplot?

Teri: Oh, I think all books, adult and juvenile, have subplots because the characters should be complex, faced with many different problems. Just think about the conflicts that you face every day and make a list. Definitely you need subplots for your books. These plots bring out the complex characteristics of each of your characters.

JaciRae: In the plot, should your conflict be as close to "life or death" as possible?

Teri: Not necessarily. Again, you need to think about realistic conflicts you face every day. These are not life and death situations. They grow out of the kind of person you are. Are you patient with your children? Do you find you need to do something in your life that will define you as a person outside your family? These are the kinds of subplots you need to consider as well as difficult choices.

Moderator: You mentioned that you plotted your first adult novel, a gothic mystery, after a mysterious event occurred near New York City. Can you tell us about that event?

Teri: I had gone to The Cloisters outside New York. This was an ancient home for a Catholic religious order that had been preserved by the Museum of Art. We passed through a room, my friends and I, where I thought I saw a shadow or figure against a wall that seemed to be beckoning. Well, I got out of there in a hurry. But after confessing what I thought I saw to a friend, he took me back in. There was a shadow caused by the setting sun. But it wasn't moving. On the way home I thought, "But what if it was moving?" And the next morning I wrote the first chapter of The Dreamer Lost in Terror. I changed the setting to England because at that time Gothic mysteries were in vogue, and I made my heroine a young woman seeking not only love, but the truth of her heritage.

Moderator: How did you use the event you just described as a springboard for a novel? How did you grow a novel from an event?

Teri: Well, I had to think first of my character. What was Moira really like? What kind of person was she? And as always, what did she need and want more than anything else? After that I had to study my setting, about which I knew almost nothing. I did research on an area in England where there was a religious home and used that and the beckoning figure as part of the climax of the book. But most important of all, I had to show that Moira, my heroine, was growing and changing as a person.

james55clinton: What do you mean by 'Gothic'?

Teri: Ah, the Gothic novel takes place in ancient times in England when knights and their ladies were in vogue. These novels were mysteries usually and took place in castles. However, I combined the modern woman who reached back to the past in an effort to find her heritage. The beckoning figure was a ghostly messenger of her heritage.

bkwrter: Are Gothic novels still in vogue or has it changed?

Teri: I believe this has definitely changed. You don't see many of these kinds of mysteries today. We have the lawyers and the women lawyers especially in women's novels today.

Moderator: Writers often like to use real events for novels and stories, as you did. Are there any basic "rules" for fictionalizing a true incident?

Teri: Definitely. All writers have to be careful of having people sue them. So the basic rules for fictionalizing a true incident are: Never use real names of real people. And never use the names of real places. Now, it is true that writers can use real incidents. The identity of these people involved is transparent to the reader such as books by Dominck Dunne who wrote about the OJ Simpson Trial and the Skakel family, related to Ethel Kennedy. But these look too real to me. I don't want the legal trouble and I'm not sure if Dunne has had to face such trouble.

Moderator: How can you tell if the true incident you want to fictionalize is really worthy of a story--and not just something your personal family would find interesting?

Teri: Probably this goes back to character again. Almost any incident can spark a good story if it interests you as the writer. But the characters are the key. If they are interesting the story will be interesting to others too.

Moderator: What do you think of this quote from a writing craft book? "A good writer will let his characters tell him where they will go, how they will behave and what they will do to accomplish their aims and goals." Is that true?

Teri: Absolutely true. I find that my characters lead the way. I make it a point to develop strong characters first with charts about their positive and negative traits; from their motives the plot develops.

Moderator: Suppose you have or create a fascinating character. How in the world do you plot a story or a book from a character?

Teri: You go back to the basics of plotting and the important questions that my mentor Lee Wyndham taught me when I was at NYU. What does this character need and want? Why can't he or she have it? Who or what interferes with the protagonist's goals? What personal flaw keeps the protagonist from finding the solution to his or her problem? How must the protagonist grow and change before achieving the desired goal? Keep these questions ever in mind and you can develop a successful plot.

Moderator: As you just mentioned, characters must have a purpose or a goal to achieve to drive the plot. What are some examples of a purpose or a goal that might suggest a plot?

Teri: Seeking true love is always an important goal. Often the need for love is complicated by the protagonist's personal character flaws that don't permit love. Seeking success is another important goal. When I first started to write romance novels, the idea was for the woman to find success in business or in other areas.

Moderator: How might those general goals suggest specific plots then?

Teri: When you plot from a specific goal, you must keep in mind what it is that keeps the characters from reaching that goal. Often there are flaws within the character that keep the protagonist from gaining success. So you have to examine the characters to see what could be holding him or her back. A young woman or man looking for love might be too shy to reach out to others and take a chance, for instance. A man or woman set on success in business might have a setback because of a physical ailment. To save a marriage a woman might find that she needs to be ready to forgive. In my book Dreams to Give Lucy, the heroine, could not forgive her husband's infidelity.

janp: What are the major differences between plotting a short story and a novel?

Teri: There aren't too many major differences except that the book is much longer than the short story and has many more subplots to consider and many more characters that affect the protagonist. The same basic rules for plotting apply that I mentioned before.

Moderator: What if you just have a theme? Can you grow a plot from a theme? Any examples?

Teri: Absolutely. Once I was asked by an editor at Christmas time to come up with three stories for early readers, middle readers and teen. All had the same theme: It's better to give than to receive. Being young at the time and terribly sure of myself, I accepted the assignment. It wasn't as easy as it seemed until I told myself that I had to let an interesting character lead the way. One was a little boy, part of a family of migrant workers in California. One was another boy in Philadelphia who had befriended a younger crippled child and one was a teenager, a member of a gang. Each of them had his own personal problems that ended with the insight of that theme. The characters lead the way.

Moderator: How do you keep the tension high in your plots so that readers want to keep turning pages?

Teri: This is not easy. But I did have the good fortune to have some advice from a very skillful writer, Phyllis Whitney. "Never," she said, "never solve a conflict before you introduce another conflict." You move forward with one particular conflict and "almost" solve the problem, when you start working on the next conflict. In The Dreamer Lost in Terror Moira is falling in love with the man of her dreams and he is returning her feelings when she comes upon a clue to her past that frightens her and makes her feel inadequate and undeserving of that love. Trust me. This works.

JaciRae: Do you mean that subplots don't last throughout the whole book? They get solved along the way while you introduce new ones?

Teri: Exactly. This is what keeps the reader interested. One problem leads to another.

Moderator: What is commonly meant by "the ticking clock"?

Teri: Now, there are several ways of looking at this question. When I have a contract and a deadline, I have a ticking clock. However the "ticking clock" is also defined as a race against time in the novel. It's the pressure you suggest that the protagonist is under the gun to succeed. He or she cannot take forever to resolve conflicts. There has to be a limit to how long the character can take to resolve problems. In Tune in for Murder my Lisa is fighting to save her job, her new relationship to the new station manager and eventually her life. Plots are based on the idea that lost opportunities are the tragedies of life. Keep that in mind and you will keep up the suspense.

Moderator: Can you ease into your plot problems, or must the story or book's plot give the conflict immediately in some kind of opening "hook"?

Teri: There is no one method that is best when it comes to developing the plot. Some stories begin near the end of the drama and the writer reverses the action, showing what led to that moment. Many writers simply reveal character through conflict and emotion, gradually leading up to the real problem. Good writing and characterization are what count. You can take any course that feels right to you, as long as you "hook" the reader.

Moderator: How do you "connect" your scenes so they flow together instead of reading like disjointed chunks?

Teri: We call these transitions and they are important. There are some writers who like to leave white spaces between paragraphs and jump to a new time and place. Not a good idea most of the time. It's really best to work in some moments of introspection for the protagonist who can be reviewing what has gone before and maybe looking ahead with trepidation to the next step. Certainly you don't want abrupt transitions like: "Three years later he returned to Rome and looked for Lisa in the places they once haunted." Lead up to the moment by letting the viewpoint character "think" about past and present for a smoother transition. "Think scenes" do work for you if you don't overdo them.

Tweaker: What present-day novels are the most excellently plotted? What author do you consider an excellent "plottist"?

Teri: I love John Grisham's work and I love Anne Tyler's books. The characters are very real to me. Stephen King is also awfully skillful. But there are so many writers I admire. John Irving comes to mind as well as Maeve Binchey.

Moderator: Can you talk a bit about motivation? Too often we see stories and books where characters do implausible things for the sake of the plot. How can you fix that?

Teri: Three little words come to mind at once: KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS. Nothing should happen in the book that has not been motivated by your characters and their flaws, as well as their positive traits. Make a chart of your characters with lists of flaws and positive traits to keep you on track. I know that Kristi does this and so do I. Nothing should happen that is not motivated by these traits.

Moderator: How do you keep the middle of your plots from sagging? Beginnings can be dramatic, and endings can finish with a surprise or bang, but the middle often drags. What are some solutions for this problem?

Teri: The story middle has to fulfill the promise of the beginning. This is not always as easy to do as it is to say. Again, that advice from Phyllis Whitney about never solving a problem until you introduce another problem should keep action moving. You can make a list of problems confronting the protagonist. These hindrances should become more and more difficult as the story progresses. This way the story does not slow down but moves forward quickly.

Moderator: What makes a satisfying ending or solution? What elements must be present for the reader to feel satisfied?

Teri: Since the climax of the story is the highest point, never hold back on emotion. Emotional outbursts involve the reader. Make the most of them--fury, passion, joy--anything that will involve the reader will be rewarding to that reader. At last the protagonist comes into his or her own. You need that sense of completeness. Show how the characters have grown and changed since the beginning of the novel, especially the protagonist. Show it through emotion and action. The shy wallflower suddenly lets herself go, takes the chance of rejection and throws herself into the arms of the man she loves. It's the moment of change and satisfaction.

Moderator: Do you outline your books, Teri?

Teri: I don't outline as much as a lot of other writers I know. I'd rather work from character, create the characters and watch them grow and change. But, yes, you have to have a general idea of where you want the story to go. I rough outline, which means I have an idea of how the plot will develop, but I do not outline in detail. I let the characters lead me. Mainly you need to know the beginning and ending. You need to know how the protagonist will change. This does not work for everyone. But I find if I let my characters come alive each day as I sit down to write they will give me direction and even surprise me.

Moderator: What are some pros and cons of outlining?

Teri: Well, sometimes an outline can make a novel too stilted. I just read a mystery novel that I could swear was carefully outlined, too carefully. I could tell because I didn't believe the characters and hardly believed the ending. Sometimes you can kill the story by "knowing" too much. On the other hand when I wrote my first romance novel and even had a contract for it, my agent read my finished manuscript and said, "Start over. And this time we'll start with a plan." Together we went over the outline and really expanded on it. I've tried to follow through on this kind of planning ever since. I thought she was wrong at first, but when I read the manuscript through again I saw that the ending didn't fit. Agents are often right in there with good advice.

JaciRae: How did you know that the unbelievable characters and plot were a result of too much outlining?

Teri: Well, I think because the characters were stilted. By that I mean they talked and behaved like automatons. Do you know what I mean? I couldn't believe in them. On the other hand the plot of the mystery was solid.

Moderator: Does outlining help manage the length of stories and books? If so, how?

Teri: Absolutely. When you have a careful plan, you know how many characters you can use and how they will interact with one another. For the shorter story you need to limit the cast and the action. The outline helps and is really essential when it comes to length.

Moderator: If you really hate outlines, how much of the story should you have figured out before you begin writing? Just the beginning? And the ending? More than that?

Teri: You need the character sketches first. By that I mean you develop scenes involving specific characters. This is what I do. Then I can see for myself what the viewpoint character is like, what his or her needs are and where he is going. I have to have some idea of his or her goals that will give me a picture of the end of the story. But the stops along the way come to me as I write.

Moderator: Do you have any favorite how-to books on plotting--or know any titles--our viewers could study?

Teri: Yes, I recently came across these books: BUILDING BETTER PLOTS by Robert Kermen; CONFLICT, ACTION AND SUSPENSE by William Noble; NOVELIST'S ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CREATING PLOT by J. Madison Davis; BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES AND ENDS by Nancy Kress. All are published by Writer's Digest Books.

Verna: How do you keep a plot going in a biography? I keep getting bogged down trying to get in the details of the person's life. I'm using dialogue to move it forward.

Teri: Hi, Verna! One of the things editors today frown upon is inventing dialogue for biographies. This is something I used to do, but today editors prefer you to focus on the historic moments and use as little dialogue as possible. So when I wrote a biography about Columbus a few years ago for Middle Grade Readers, I tried to avoid dialogue unless I read quotations somewhere that showed from diaries or letters something that my hero had said. Instead, I outlined my book by focusing on historic events for each chapter and what led to the moment. For instance, when I wrote about Patrick Henry, I spent a chapter showing events that led to his becoming a lawyer instead of running a store or being a farmer. There was a moment when he and Thomas Jefferson, who was just a student at the time, were both playing their violins at a dance, as was the custom in those days, and happened to meet. When Jefferson confided that he was off to study law in Williamsburg, Patrick Henry had the bright idea to do the same thing. That moment changed his life. It was only at the end of the chapter that I used dialogue and invented the conversation that might have been. Try to stay with the historic moments and what led up to them. Try to use dialogue only when you are pretty sure from your research what might have been said at a given moment. Plan to write one draft of the manuscript with the basic facts of your subject's life. Then go back and add the details about the setting and the times. See if that helps you. But use the invented dialogue sparingly. It detracts from the true story.

Gloria: I would like to work with a delicate sort of plot based on a true incident. It begins with the death of my sister's infant son. Her husband's first wife (who died of cystic fibrosis) came to him in a dream and said she would care for Devon until he got there. I chose to believe that Susan, the first wife hand picked my sister Trudy to be Everett's second wife. What sort of time frame should I shoot for? Where do I end? Thanks for any suggestions you might have.

Teri: What a sad story, Gloria! Now, the first thing you have to do is choose your protagonist. Would this be Trudy? You might have to invent problems. For instance, could Trudy be uncertain about her relationship with Everett? Does she wonder if he truly loves her and if she can give him the love and the life he truly needs? What are the challenges facing this woman? Think, too about the husband and the kind of person he is. Your time frame is going to be determined by the goals these characters want to achieve. If Trudy is concerned about whether Everett truly loves and needs her, then the story is over when she learns that he does or does not. Your length is determined by the goals you set for your characters. I would start with character sketches and the needs of each character. See if that helps.

Anne: I am writing a middle-grade novel for ages 10 and above about a 13-year-old girl whose brother is missing in action in Vietnam. The book deals with her family's loss and her feelings. Further intensity in the plot/conflict follows with the girl's confusion about the war and whether it is something her country should be involved with. My biggest problem is deciding at what point in time to wrap up the book. Is it after she arrives at some kind of peace with her feelings about the war (or with people with differing opinions about the conflict)? Is it after she comes to terms with the death/disappearance of her brother?

Teri: I think that the girl has to come to terms with the death of her brother. She might be very angry because she lost her brother. Perhaps she needs to see that he gave his life willingly. He was a hero who fought, at the time, for what he thought was right. Now, later in the war and afterwards people had different opinions about the war, but the brother was not there to experience this. When you make a decision to fight for a cause the way the brother did, you have to accept his choice and the result. Maybe this is what the girl has to face. When she recognizes that his death was the result of courage and the brother's belief in what was right at the time, then this girl has to give up her anger. I wonder if you can add a character, another soldier who was in the war and returns with some insight for this young girl. Would that work for you? She has to give up her anger. Then the story is over.

Tweaker: I know you have used at least one pseudonym. What reasons are there for pen names, and how did you come up with a specific name?

Teri: Well, I had written about nine books for children under my own name when I started writing romance novels. The editor who worked with me on the romance novels wanted another identity, not associated with the children's books, so we used Therese Martini. It sounded romantic. I also wrote light romances that needed a different identity for another publisher so we used Wendy Martin, and the Gothic novel needed (according to the editor) a British sound, so she chose Alison King. I didn't mind. I still knew who I was.

Moderator: I'm sorry that I have to interrupt now, but we're out of time. Thank you for coming tonight, Teri, and talking about this very important--and hard to sometimes understand--topic! And thank you for the personal answers you gave to viewers who asked about specific plot problems and ideas.

Teri: I enjoyed being with you.

Moderator: Thank you again, Teri! And good luck with your plotting, everyone! I know you're leaving with some great ideas to consider. Have a great weekend. Good night now.

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