Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Dean Koontz on Plotting

Best-selling suspense author Dean Koontz had a violent alcoholic father who threatened to kill him and other members of the family. He says, “The benefit of my childhood was to show that there is evil in the world and that you have to find a way to thread through it, reject it, and find other ways to live.”[1] 

Koontz found another way to live through his Christian faith. He also realized that this pattern was a classic plot outline, which he described this way:

1) The author introduces a hero (or heroine) who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble. 2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble. 3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before, until it seems as if his situation could not possibly be any blacker or more hopeless than it is—and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse… 4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant, and having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.[2]

This worsening-trouble story line “has proven, through generations of novelists, to be the most satisfying, flexible, and least constricting structure by which to order and give meaning to a long piece of fiction” (75). Let’s see how some best-selling authors plunge their heroes into “terrible trouble” with their opening lines:

Ernest Hemingway:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish (The Old Man and the Sea).

James Herriot:

They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back (All Creatures Great and Small).

Beverly Lewis:

Something about heading for home at nightfall tugged at my better judgment that Thursday evening (The Guardian).

Cara Putman:

“You have one chance to make this thing fly” (Shadowed by Grace).

Follow each of these stories and you’ll see the protagonist trying to resolve his/her trouble, only to get pulled into worse trouble, then worse and worse, like the tightening of a screw. (This is what we call the narrative arc.) The plot builds to a climax, to be resolved when the protagonist gains a new insight into the situation or (in the case of Christian fiction) new insight into the hero’s relationship with God. (This is the character arc.)

Evaluate the plot of your current work in progress with these questions in mind: Do I get my hero/heroine into trouble at the outset? Are the stakes high enough? Does the trouble become progressively worse as the protagonist tries to resolve it? Does the protagonist get a new understanding of the situation or of herself that leads to a resolution of her problem? 

This kind of plot makes a compelling story because it's true to life. Just ask Dean Koontz.

[1]Interview with Raymond Arroyo, “The World Over,” October 19, 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyVAddoJByU

[2] Dean Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Cincinnati: Writers Digest, 1981), 74.


  1. Ah yes, the ol' "get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them." Great evaluation questions. Thanks, Joe.

  2. And not just super-action thrillers. Even a cozy mystery or a Scholastic Book Club offering has the main character get more and more tense over the situation they must deal with.