Laura Howard: Getting Bendy with Hart Johnson


Getting Bendy with Hart Johnson

It's Friday, and that means we're talking about Writing. I am honored to present you with the talented and sweet Hart Johnson, whose novel The Azalea Assault was released under the pen name Alyse Carlson. Hart is serving up a wonderful post on the ever-intriguing art of The Plot Twist!

First, I want to thank Laura for having me. I'm thrilled to be here. When I asked if she had any requests on topics, she suggested I could talk about plot twists and I jumped at the chance. You see... I'm really twisted. But in addition to being twisted, I also LOVE twisty plots—those that turn back on themselves and surprise you, but that maybe you could have spotted earlier, or that make total sense once you have full information. These are NOT to be confused with the 'out of nowhere moments' that are just for shock value—that's cheating. Real life is allowed to do that to you, but not fiction. 

So how does one get bendy without cheating?

Relationship Maps

One of the things I like to do, and I definitely did it for The Azalea Assault, is to draw a diagram of how people are connected to each other—connections the reader isn't going to learn for a while, necessarily, but that as a writer, you can drop hints about (or at least not contradict) earlier in the story. 

This is CRITICAL for suspects (how are they connected to the victim and how are they connected to people our sleuth cares about (or the sleuth herself)—for maximum impact and tension). [just as a tattle on myself, in plotting, I decide SET-UP first, VICTIM 2nd and SUSPECTS 3rd—so these come early—they are primary building blocks] I figure each suspect should be connected to the victim and at least one character that is only one degree of separation from our sleuth so we have a reason to care or be suspicious—or at least have reasonable source for information about them. 

But to be connected, there needs to be some history. Maybe it is current history—simultaneous with the plot—or maybe it is history history. One of the reasons this is so important is because, while our sleuth will now and again question people she finds suspicious, most real suspects don't have a reason to be forthcoming—and if they lie, there needs to be a way to uncover that, eventually. Someone who knows the suspect (or sees them do something) can act as an informant (sometimes worried and protecting, sometimes suspicious and accusing).

Clues and Herrings

In addition to informants, there are honest to goodness clues—things found at the crime scene or on the suspect, or in the suspect's space that connect them to the victim or a reasonable motive [this is my 4th 'plotting' step—connect EVERY suspect to the victim in some way or other]. 

Some of these clues are really part of the mystery and the OTHERS are called red herrings—clues laid so the reader (and sleuth) is misled... This just makes for a story that keeps delighting and surprising. Think of the mystery shows you may watch (my contemporary favorite is Castle, though I've been watching since Murder, She Wrote or Hart to Hart and Magnum PI)--there are ALWAYS clues that lead to the wrong person in the mix. It just makes for better story-telling. It helps engage the reader/viewer—keep them guessing.


This is an important piece of solving the mystery—one-by-one each of the FALSE clues and suspects needs to be debunked, unveiled or... um... murdered... *cough* Yes... often there is a second death and typically it changes the landscape—either it is the prime suspect, or it is a person who really isn't CONNECTED to the prime suspect, so makes the sleuth rethink matters entirely.

Getting Caught

Another trick to really increasing the tension is to make our SLEUTH not particularly stealthy... When your sleuth gets caught snooping, she has to talk fast, and SOMETIMES somebody dangerous catches on to what she's up to, putting her in danger. I don't do that (only) to be rotten, but because it tightens the screws and makes the story have more tension. Somebody who is ALWAYS good at their job is fabulous and all, but not that interesting. Have you ever watched a no-hit baseball game? I by far prefer minor league baseball for the same reason—errors make it more interesting to watch.


My final trick, and I do this in all my fiction, not just mystery, is timelining. Some writers can fly by the seat of their pants and still end up with a great story, but I don't believe in pants. They are binding and uncomfortable (and have allowed me to write myself into a corner on more than one occasion)--I write a timeline. And as I look at the main events that HAVE to happen to solve the mystery, I think about 'what is the most interesting way from A to B? Or... What might happen between A and B that will then pay off at E? And I add those little details to my timeline. I am not a true outliner. I'm a statistician by day and too much structure just makes my voice sound clinical, but knowing the details to hit before they come up again feels like I can then create a little treasure hunt for readers without having to plunk in all the hints on the rewrite, which can seem contrived. So there you have it... Bendy Plotting A-La-Tart

The Azalea Assault Cam Harris loves her job as public relations manager for the Roanoke Garden Society. It allows her to combine her three loves, spinning the press, showing off her favorite town, and promoting her favorite activity. She's just achieved a huge coup by enlisting Garden Delights, the country's premiere gardening magazine, to feature the exquisite garden of RGS founder, Neil Patrick. She's even managed to enlist world-famous photographer Jean-Jacques Georges. Unfortunately, Jean-Jacques is a first-rate cad—insulting the RGS members and gardening, goosing every woman in the room, and drinking like a lush. It is hardly a surprise when he turns up dead. But when Cam's brother-in-law is accused and her sister begs her to solve the crime, that is when things really get prickly.


Alyse Carlson is the pen name for the author some of you may know as Hart Johnson.

She writes books from her bathtub and when she isn't writing, does research for a large,
midwest University or leads the Naked World Domination Movement (your choice).

Barnes & Noble Paperback or Nook
Amazon Paperback or Kindle


  1. Pants are overrated!
    Un-cluing. You just invented a word, Hart.

  2. This is really great advice on plotting!

  3. Alex-I definitely like wordmakeupping! *shifty* And yes, pants are evil! Down with pants!

    Jay-thank you!

  4. Love your idea about having a diagram showing relationships at the start of the story! Lately I've gotten more off-track...focusing a lot on motive and less on relationships. But relationships are the genesis of a lot of motive! Nice tip.

  5. Hart, I can't believe you let out all these secrets. Not that cozy is ever going to be my genre, but this is like Bruce Springsteen saying, "This is how to write lyrics that make people remember your songs and play them over and over for the rest of their lives, NEVER tiring of, 'The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves..." I'm on p. 133 thinking, "How on earth does she keep this all straight and when did she decide X was the aunt of Y?" I've always loved "the making of" shows. Nice to read, "The Making of a Cozy."
    Btw, pg. 127 is nothing short of brilliant. I love Annie and Cam's relationship and how you show us just how close they are without exposition, just by action. Ok, I know, I'm one of them. Gushy fans who won't go away. At least I don't where you live, and I'm not leaving flowers on your doorstep...
    Laura - thanks for hosting my friend.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  6. Elizabeth-Yeah, I have had motives I thought of first and then written the character who would have it, but that link matters!

    Tina-I'm so glad you're enjoying it! And I really love writing Cam and Annie. i have so much fun. I'm glad you're enjoying it!

  7. I like that idea of the relationship map. Thanks!

  8. I'm saving this for my knowledge pot (or file). Thanks Hart!

  9. I think its necessary to point clues to innocent people. This will help with twists and turns in the plot and help introduce new conflict. Un-clueing? I like it!

  10. I like your pants-free time-lining technique.

  11. M-they are fun to do, too! It is one of the best places to really throw the story for a loop! (I mean we ALL have wacky relatives!)

    Teresa-thank you! I have one of those files and know it's an honor to make one!

    Stephen-absolutely! I mean not necessarily with suspense or thriller, but for mystery, it's a must!

    MP-Yes! PANTS-FREE!!!

  12. Great Post ... Very informative! Liked the relationship maps and diagramming. And, I couldn't agree more--plotting and having a timeline are SO important!!

    xx, Lauren

  13. I'm glad you tweeted this recently, Laura. I'm working as a mystery for a sub-plot on a book and this is one of the best lessons I've seen on how to weave a mystery. Thank you, Hart!


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