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Sleuthfest: Part 1

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 5, 2012

SleuthFest Orlando 2012

I had a great time at Sleuthfest held in Orlando this year. Attendance was fabulous and everyone was friendly and eager to make new friends. The Royal Plaza worked out fine, just minutes from Downtown Disney. Aside from speaking on three panels, I attended several sessions that I will describe for you here. Day 1 began on Thursday with a special fee and workshops for aspiring authors. You could also sign up for evening events, but since we have a condo in the area, I didn’t partake of the dinner opportunities except for the final night. So beginning on Friday, here is a summary of what I learned. Any errors in interpretation or transcription are mine.

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Registration Desk

THE PLOT THICKENS with Keith Thomson, Elizabeth Hand, Chris Grabenstein (moderator), Michael Wiley, Maris Soule, and John Gilstrap.

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Chris uses a paradigm for screenwriters. Consider a two hour movie. Plot Point 1 is where a twist turns the film in another direction. It occurs about 30 minutes in. Act 2 is midway, at 60 minutes. Then there’s another Plot Twist at 90 minutes. He used Sister Act with Whoopie Goldberg as an example. She’s a nightclub singer who confronts her lover only to witness him getting killed by the Mob. The FBI puts her into witness protection at a convent, which is Plot Point 1. During the first half, she hates the place and wants to leave. Midway, she goes out with the nuns and has a good time. Act 2, Part 2—She’s making the best of her situation and teaching the nuns to sing in the choir. This section ends with Plot Point 2: The mobsters see her on TV. Act 3 is a chase scene where the thugs are after her. For a 50,000 word book, the plot points would come at 12,500, 25,000, and 37,500 and then a final twist at the end.

John outlines the beginning, middle, and end. He includes character development in his plotting. Changes to main characters occur slowly over the course of a multi-book canvas. In a hostage rescue tale, the kidnap victim might be the one who has a full story arc. The bad guys also need to be well motivated. What do they want? What do they have to hide? What’s at stake in the big picture?

Keith says to “concentrate on one or two fundamentals.” Get a character up a tree and then figure out how to get him down.

Michael writes a PI series set in Chicago. He devises strong beginnings and endings. Michael explained three types of plot:

1. Take two seemingly unrelated story threads and weave them together.

2. Have historical and present day dimensions that relate to each other later on.

3. Go from Point A to Point Z without any secondary story. A hostage situation or a bomb about to explode would go here. This is often the choice for thrillers.

He sets up his conflict within the first few pages rather than choosing to build it slowly. Within the first fifty pages, the reader may suspect who is the bad guy but then doubts are raised with twists and turns. Two-thirds of the way through, there’s a crisis followed by a chase. At the end is a final twist, so the bad guy might turn out to be someone else.

Elizabeth comes from a playwriting background. “Everything should come from character.” She doesn’t outline. She’ll create a memorable character and follow that character wherever he goes. She’s drawn to disturbing landscapes. “What could possibly go wrong here?” Find a place where things can happen and then put your character there. A cascade of reactions follows. Elizabeth may have two endings in mind and not know until she gets there which way the character will go. That brings an element of surprise to the story.

Maris, an art major and teacher, says “You pick up plotting from the act of having read.” She began her career in romance writing and had to write synopses as a sales tool. So she knows the beginning and end but the “middle can become the hairy thing.” She recommends Debra Dixon’s book on GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers.

Chris recommends Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. If a scene starts positive, he says, it should end negative—and vice versa.

FAMILY TIES with Hank Phillippi Ryan (moderator), Julie Compton, Reed Farrel Coleman, Patricia Gussin, Donna Andrews, and Nancy J. Cohen.

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I participated on this panel. We discussed the importance of family ties in our mysteries, and I added how this factor motivates the characters in my romances as well. It doesn’t matter if the story is set in modern day times, a historical setting, or outer space. Family is what matters to our protagonists.

Our stories center around relationships. In the mystery/suspense genre, the focus may be on the criminal’s background and what made him the way he is, the victim’s family and how the crime affects them, or the relationships among the suspects. Plus, giving your sleuth a dynamic relationship with family and friends will round her out and make her more real.

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Vicki Landis, Gregg Brickman, Ann Meier, the Boa Ladies selling raffle tickets.

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Coming Next: Bestselling Author Jeffery Deaver’s Luncheon Speech

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6 Responses to “Sleuthfest: Part 1”

  1. Excellent summary of plot structures. I feel as if I had the perfect proxy go to Orlando in my place and take notes. Thank you Nancy.

  2. Thanks for checking in. Keep watch for more exclusive reports. And I’ve uploaded photos to my Facebook author page at http://on.fb.me/slLj8C
    While you’re there, please “Like” my page! Click on Photos on the left and then on the Sleuthfest album.

  3. Sounds like a great conference. I especially like the one on Family Ties. Reminds me of Oline Cogdill’s description of a “family thriller”–my favorite kind.

  4. Looking forward to part 2!

  5. Thanks, Nancy. I usually go to SleuthFest but did not this year. Looking forward to more of your reports.
    Cynthia Thomason

  6. We missed you there Cindy.

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