Plotting for Good, Not Evil by Dean Gloster

             Some years ago, my wife and I drove a ninety-plus-year-old woman from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, for the funeral of my mother-in-law. It was a long drive, and our passenger repeated herself a lot. The question she kept returning to, like a gravel rock rattling in a coffee can, was—because I was a writer—how I came up with my “little plots.”

            It was, dear reader, perhaps the most claustrophobic and repetitious variant of question flung by strangers at writers everywhere—“where do you get your ideas?” But I’ve thought about it since, and this month’s topic is plot, so here we go:

Yes, this is a structure

But it’s not Freytag’s pyramid

            Plot, unless you write thrillers like James Patterson, isn’t usually the most key ingredient for a book. There is character—someone admirable (or at least interesting) with flaws, a history, and an important goal and desire who faces obstacles. There is also bigger-picture story: An event that sets things in motion for that character, then a series of cause-and-effect-driven attempts to get around the obstacles in pursuit of the goal, all motivated by the desire, which builds to a satisfying climax and resolution, delivering the reader at the end with a satisfying thump after an engaging emotional journey.


            For me (but, heavens, not for many other writers—our processes vary) plot and structure are partly afterthoughts, sometimes fiddled with in revision—does the turn in the middle of the second act happen in the actual middle of the book, where new information comes into the story, or do some of the chapters have to be moved or trimmed to make that work? Do I have too many subplots and should I cut or revise some to make the story work better? Does the pace pick up in the last third of the book as we charge toward the climax and resolution?

 Okay. Fine. This is Freytag’s pyramid

            And as for story ideas, I don’t want to look too closely at where they come from, because that might involve dragging concrete blocks through the delicate crystalline machinery of creativity.

            But I do know some things work for me: A novel starts with a powerful emotional experience at the heart of the book. For those who haven’t tried it, writing novels is freaking hard. For many of us, it also takes a long time. So, of all the billions of characters out there and trillions of potential stories they could inhabit, the ones that speak to me as a writer, enough to make me sit down for months and years flailing with words, are the ones that convey a powerful emotional experience that I’ve had.

            I think, if you have a powerful emotional connection to your story, grab that third rail of emotion: you will pass some of the current to the readers you touch.

Please write responsibly

Only do this metaphorically

            My mother drank herself to death through most of my childhood, finishing that process when I was 20. (I wrote about it on YA Outside the Lines here.) Not surprisingly, my stories often involve death and whether it’s possible to save someone. (It sometimes isn’t.)

            In my first novel, Dessert First, smart, funny (and angry) 16-year-old Kat Monroe had to stumble through high school classes and social exclusion while her younger brother was dying of cancer, until she was his last hope, as a bone-marrow donor. That novel was fueled by the emotional experience I had as an adolescent, sitting in algebra class and trying to cope, while at home my mom was drinking herself to death.


            In the novel I’m revising now, Just Deal, two boys, reeling after their mom’s death, find out their lawyer dad has sold 54% of his soul to an interdimensional predator—essentially a demon—and that with the help of their smart friend Claire, they have to step up and save the world from demonkind. They have to be courageous and put themselves in danger, even when their classmates side with evil for personal gain or stay on the sidelines out of personal preservation.


            You can imagine what, since 2016, has made that resonate emotionally for me.


            Of course, some stories are more plot-centric: This coming month I’m working on a short story for an anthology that’s essentially a heist. It’s pretty plot-driven. But for me there’s also an emotional experience at the heart of it, because it delivers a satisfying comeuppance to a fictional someone who is not (but not completely unlike) the petulant racist man-child who runs the prince of fools app formerly known as Twitter and the car company that makes the alleged Cybertruck.

            So plotting is important enough that it shouldn’t just be left to Supreme Court Justices.

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press, and his YA short story, “Proof of the Existence of Dog” is now out in the anthology Spoon Knife 7: Transitions. He is at work on two more YA novels, one in draft and the other in revision, and makes periodic anti-authoritarian limericks and other ramblings on the app formerly known as Twtter, at @deangloster.


  1. Oooooh, I can't wait to read Just Deal!

    1. Thank you, Holly! (But, of course, given the glacial pace of my writing and the publishing world, that means you have to take care of your health to live a long time.)

  2. Well said. I'm always amazed at where my story ideas come from. I'm currently writing a book that was inspired by the numerous potholes in the road passing our home. I fondly remember Dessert First and look forward to the one you're working on now.

  3. Great reminders and well said, Dean. I’m inspired to get my BIC. Thanks.


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