Passwords To Plot: The Secret Of Nancy Drew Mysteries

Originally Posted: March 6, 2010

by Emily Goodman

Author Chris Eboch discussed tools for fast-paced plotting in an information-packed talk called “What I Learned from Nancy Drew,” at the SCBWI-Metro New York Professional Series lecture on February 2, 2010.

Eboch, author of the Haunted series of middle grade ghost stories and other books, said the most important features of a plot are to get off to a fast start, to pack the middle full of action, and to use cliffhanger chapter endings.

“A fast start grabs the editor’s and reader’s attention and keeps them reading past page one,” said Eboch. She likes to start a book when the main problem is already under way, even if the main character doesn’t know it yet, and introduce the problem to solve as soon as possible. Then she works in the back story.

“Your first chapter makes a promise to the reader that the rest of the book fulfills,” Eboch said. She advises writers to make sure this chapter accurately introduces the tone, genre, setting, main characters, and premise of the book. The book’s middle should be packed full of action, Eboch said.

Using as an example her mystery, The Stolen Bones, which takes place on a paleontology dig, Eboch described how in revisions she cut a lot of scenes showing daily life on the dig and replaced them with more exciting scenes: “I had them lost in the desert at night, being stalked by a coyote! Which do you think kids would rather read?” she asked.

Eboch recommends that plot complications make the story more dramatic, “not just longer.” Whether the stakes are positive (a reward for succeeding) or negative (a loss for failing) or both, she likes them to rise through the middle of the story. “In a 400-page book, the main character should be farther from her goal on page 200 than at the beginning,” Eboch said.

Cliffhanger chapter endings are a sure way to keep readers hooked, and here Eboch distinguished between surprise, defined as a single shocking moment, and suspense, the long, slow build-up to the surprise. She quoted her editor’s advice on The Stolen Bones: In a movie, she explained, suspense is “the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door,” and surprise is “the moment right after she opens the door.” Suspense is more exciting to read, Eboch said, and to create it, writers must give out information so readers suspect something.

She advised writers to add sensory details and characters’ thoughts to lengthen the build-up to the surprise. Visit Eboch’s blog,, for more plotting tips.

Emily Goodman’s picture book Plant Secrets is the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Book of the Year for 2009. Follow Emily on Facebook!

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