Plot, Mood and Character

Kath here.  We kick off Character Month with a guest post by the superlative women’s suspense author Emily Listfield.

Emily is a writer, editor, and single mom living in New York City. A former magazine editor in chief and author of six novels, including the New York Times Notable It Was Gonna Be Like Paris and Waiting to Surface, her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Parade, More and many other publications. Visit her delightful blog Brunch Babble, where she tackles all the topics hashed out over a cup of coffee between girlfriends.


Years ago, I remember hearing the story of a writer (alas, I can’t remember his name) who had written on his tombstone, Finally, a plot!

I’m sure there are writers (plenty) who begin a new book with a firm plot in mind and then fit the mood, character, and tone to that scheme. I’m not one of them. When I first started thinking about Best Intentions, I knew that I wanted to combine social observation about the social world of Manhattan with a question that had been stuck in my head for months: What happens when you think you know what the person you love is thinking – and you’re totally wrong. I wanted to explore the price of miscommunication in a variety of relationships: Marriage, friendship, dating. Slowly, the characters began to take shape – four best friends from college reuniting with all their history and their hopes. I had the tone now, and the characters, and the theme – but the novel needed bones. Though I hadn’t initially set out to write a mystery, I realized that the best way to underscore the true danger of miscommunication was for one of the characters to pay the ultimate price for it.

I first tried to write Best Intentions from the four main characters’ points of view. About thirty pages into it, though, I realized that, because they are all suspects, this wouldn’t work. It gave the reader too much information and risked ruining the suspense. (I have to admit, even I wasn’t sure who did it until half way through.) By having Lisa (the main character) tell the story in the present tense, the reader only learns what she learns, and draws conclusions as she does. Lisa – and the reader – both experience first hand how easy it is to be wrong, in this case dead wrong – despite your best intentions.

Thanks for blogging with us, Emily! Best Intentions releases tomorrow, May 5 at booksellers everywhere.  Don’t miss it! 



  1. says

    Thanks for the anecdote about how this book came about! Very interesting. I love behind-the-scenes sort of things. ;)

  2. says

    Me too, Kristan. I’ve also had the problem of writing in too many viewpoints, but sometimes it’s good to get inside your characters’ head before you can show them to the world.

  3. says

    Just ditto what the others have said. I love hearing about how writers experiment and swap things around before their novel can finally emerge, and this one sounds really good!

  4. says

    When I started writing my first novel, which became Unbinding the Stone, I had one character, one sentence, and a ‘theme’ of sorts. I had never written anything before and had no idea how to write fiction, but I had read an awful lot of fantasy in my time. I focused on what I had, my character and what he was trying to do, and worked from there. I didn’t have a plot, I had him and his actions and those of the people around him. The plot, and my character’s understanding of what had been happening, took shape as I wrote, and the more I wrote the bigger the story became.
    I have never known, at the beginning of any of my stories, what was going on. I had to finish my last novel and wait two weeks before I suddenly had my flashbulb moment of what the story had been about all along.