Plot Construction Advice From Dr. Tom Greenslade

Plot constructionIn The Three Hostages, Dr. Greenslade has useful advice on constructing plots and he offers it to Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps and several other novels by John Buchan.

The First World War is over and Hannay, now married and the father of a young son, has settled comfortably into life at Fosse Manor, which he purchased as a wedding present for his wife Mary. He is, he says, “anchored at last in the pleasantest kind of harbour”, blissfully unaware he will soon be setting sail on another adventure in order to locate the titular hostages.


One evening Dr. Greenslade, an old friend living nearby, dines with the Hannays. After dinner, they sit around the library fire and the doctor picks up a detective novel his host has been reading. Their guest is not impressed by it and reckons Hannay could do better. Naturally the latter wishes to know how this could be accomplished.

It is at this point Dr. Tom Greenslade’s plot construction advice is revealed:

“Well, imagine anything you like. Let us take three things a long way apart–” He paused for a second to consider–“say, an old blind woman spinning in the Western Highlands, a barn in a Norwegian saeter, and a little curiosity shop in North London kept by a Jew with a dyed beard. Not much connection between the three? You invent a connection — simple enough if you have any imagination, and you weave all three into the yarn. The reader, who knows nothing about the three at the start, is puzzled and intrigued and, if the story is well arranged, finally satisfied. He is pleased with the ingenuity of the solution, for he doesn’t realise that the author fixed upon the solution first, and then invented a problem to suit it.”

Alas, Hannay, now in on the secret, laments he will no longer be able to marvel at writers’ cleverness.

Thus for what Dr. Greenslade calls shockers — but why not also for a mystery? We’ve not tried this method ourselves as yet but one day….

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Ten for Dying. Mary has also co-written The Guardian Stones a mystery set in England during World War Two/

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.