Monthly Archives: April 2011

Carefully Plotted Twists

    The story, as I recall, opens with a young women in the hospital. She’s badly hurt and has amnesia — temporary, the doctor hopes. She was in an accident and the ensuing investigation uncovers that someone tampered with her car.
    As she begins to recover, she responds strangely to her husband. He doesn’t pay attention to her odd comments but concentrates on trying to help her become reacquainted with her life.
    He introduces her to their own personal history, when they were married, how they first met, where they live now. Slowly she improves.
    Other friends step up to help, and eventually she is well enough to go home.
    Then a stranger is spotted near the house. Once, after the young couple goes out, they come home to discover a break in. Stalker signs escalate into threats.
    As the story unravels, the truth comes out. The young wife and her estranged sister met to end their differences. The stalker, out to kill the sister, tampered with the car, causing the accident. Oh, and did I mention? The sisters are twins. The young wife is the one who died.

Now be honest — did you see that end coming?

I borrowed that story, with some embellishment to fill in the parts I’ve forgotten, from romantic suspense author Michelle Perry, a former critique partner. She is a master of the surprise ending. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what was coming in her stories, though I never felt as if the ending was pulled from thin air. Instead, my writer friend always embedded clues that made me slap my head and say, Of course, I should have seen that one coming.

So how did she do it? How do any mystery or suspense writers do it? Ah, you might be thinking, I don’t write in those genres.

My contention is, no story should be predictable. Consequently all writers can benefit by learning how to incorporate surprise twists in our stories.

In a recent Writer’s Digest interview, mystery/thriller author Harlan Coben (Caught, Long Lost, Hold Tight and most recently Live Wire) was asked about the twists he incorporates in his novels:

You’re the master of the twist. How do you walk that fine line of giving readers an ending they didn’t see coming, while making sure they don’t feel cheated?

It has to make sense in line with the story. Sometimes it’s a little bit of a sleight of hand, where I’m showing you one thing, and then all of a sudden something else will be there.

You know, people call mystery novels or thrillers “puzzles.” I never understood that, because when I buy a puzzle, I already know what it is. It’s on the box. And even if I don’t, if it’s a 5,000-piece puzzle of the Mona Lisa, it’s not like I put the last piece in and go, “I had no idea it’s the Mona Lisa!”

I look at it more like a camera coming into focus, where the first shot is kind of blurry: You see someone kind of tall with long dark hair, and you think, Oh, it’s Cindy Crawford. Then it gets a little bit more in focus, and you see the nose is a little off, and you go, Oh, it’s Cher. And the final turn, when it becomes all clear, you see it’s Howard Stern—and you should have known it was Howard Stern right from the beginning. That’s what a good crime novelist—any good novelist—should do with you: play with your perceptions while showing you everything in plain sight.

I think the “sleight of hand” analogy is excellent.

In the story I told at the beginning, the first and clearest clue the reader has about the ending is in chapter one. The accident victim says confusing things to her “husband,” things that don’t ring true, but because of the amnesia, the reader can dismiss them as caused by her injury, not caused by her being a different person.

Sleight of hand.

The gradual unfolding of what is true also makes a story feel twisted (in a good way. 😀 ) As long as a reader has four or five options that keep him guessing (will she choose this, that or the other? If it’s the first, will the opponent counter with A or B or perhaps even C? But, if she chooses the second or third, then how will he react?) the story will feel unpredictable, surprising, twisted, even as options are eliminated and the eventual ending draws closer.

Some readers will shout triumphantly, I knew it! Others will think, I should have seen it coming, but what a surprise!

Just a note. The necessary foreshadowing to give a story a surprising twist must not exist in isolation. It needs to be reinforced along the way so readers don’t forget the vital piece of information.

Surprise! I said thread, but I meant thread.

And finally, for seat of the pants writers, to properly foreshadow twists, I believe you must commit to serious rewriting so that you wind the surprise thread all the way around the story (even in the early chapters before you thought about this particular ending).


Which brings up perhaps the final topic for this series on novel plotting, which we’ll look at next time — endings, how tied up do the loose threads need to be?

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Shoring Up Sagging Middles

“Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.” That line concluded the article “Develop Your Antagonist,” posted here back in December.

As I see it, good antagonists are also the key to avoiding sagging middles.

By way of reminder, the antagonist is not necessarily an enemy. Rather he is the character who wants what the protagonist wants. Significantly, both cannot achieve this goal; otherwise there is no real conflict.

Think, for example, about The Fugitive. In that movie, the escaped convict Richard Kimbel wants to be free in order to prove his innocence. Throughout, he is thwarted by the federal officer who wants to capture him. This lieutenant blatantly states he doesn’t care that Richard didn’t kill his wife. For most of the movie, these two are in opposition, and the viewer understands they both can’t achieve their goal.

The plot turns, however, when another antagonist surfaces — the real criminal. At that point, the lieutenant realigns his goal, and this new antagonist becomes Richard’s opponent and the lieutenant’s opponent, trying to thwart them both.

The middle of the story, then, is the point where the conflict between the protagonist and one or more of his opponents is ratcheted higher. John Truby, author of The Anatomy Of Story explains it like this:

Throughout the middle of the story, the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal. The conflict heats up.

Again, the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile” shows this increase in tension as a friend becomes an opponent.

Previously, a hungry crocodile becomes friends with a monkey who shares his bananas day after day. Then this middle section of the story:

One day the crocodile began talking about his wife and family. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you had a wife?’ asked the monkey. ‘Please take some of the jamuns for her as well when you go back today.’ The crocodile thanked him and took some of the fruit for his wife.

The crocodile’s wife loved the jamuns. She had never eaten anything so sweet before. ‘Imagine’, she said, ‘how sweet would be the creature who eats these jamuns every day. The monkey has eaten these every day of his life – his flesh would be even sweeter than the fruit.’ She asked her husband to invite the monkey for a meal – ‘and then we can eat him up’ she said happily.

The crocodile was appalled – how could he eat his friend? He tried to explain to his wife that he could not possibly eat the monkey. ‘He is my only true friend’, he said. But she would not listen – she must eat the monkey. ‘Since when do crocodiles eat fruit and spare animals?’ she asked. When the crocodile would not agree to eat the monkey, she pretended to fall very sick. ‘Only a monkey’s heart can cure me’, she wailed to her husband. ‘If you love me you will get your friend the monkey and let me eat his heart.’

The poor crocodile did not know what to do – he did not want to eat his friend, but he could not let his wife die. At last he decided to bring the monkey to his wife.

‘O dear friend’, he called as soon as reached the jamun tree. ‘ My wife insists that you come to us for a meal. She is grateful for all the fruit that you have sent her, and asks that I bring you home with me.’ The monkey was flattered, but said he could not possibly go because he did not know how to swim. ‘Don’t worry about that’, said the crocodile. ‘I’ll carry you on my back.’ The monkey agreed and jumped onto the crocodile’s back.

The crocodile swam with him out into the deep wide river. When they were far away from the bank and the jamun tree, he said, ‘My wife is very ill. The only thing that will cure her is a monkey’s heart. So, dear friend, this will be the end of you and of our friendship.’ The monkey was horrified. What could he do to save himself? He thought quickly and said ‘Dear friend, I am very sorry to hear of your wife’s illness and I am glad that I will be able to help her. But … ‘

Notice the punch-counterpunch, first with the crocodile and his wife, then with the crocodile and the monkey.

The initial clash of goals is between the crocodile and his wife. They want the same thing — the monkey, he as a friend, she as dinner — and this makes them opponents for a time. Later the crocodile and the monkey want the same thing — the monkey’s life — and they become opponents.

Interestingly, as the conflict intensifies, the stakes also become higher. Instead of sagging, the middle of the story creates more tension and drives the reader on to the resolution. Part of the tension, of course, is not knowing what will happen in the end. At this point the reader has some ideas, but carefully plotted twists will keep the story from being predictable.

I guess we really do need to discuss that aspect of the story, don’t we. Perhaps next week.

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After The Inciting Incident

In last week’s post “Plot Weaving – Where To Start” we looked at where to begin the plot of a novel, often called the inciting incident — an event the protagonist responds to by forming a plan and taking action.

What comes next?

In the process of putting a plot together (either in outline form before writing or by piecing together scenes after writing, depending on the preferred work style), the novelist should remember three things.

First, every scene needs to move the story forward, that is toward bringing the protagonist closer to change or toward showing why change is impossible. Scenes that do not contribute to this end slow the pace and may cause the middle of the novel to drag.

Second, every scene — in fact, every page of every scene — needs tension. But where does tension come from? Some professionals have said when the story stalls, pull a gun. But that kind of solution is why novels become episodic rather than organic. Instead, a novelist can create tension by raising the stakes for the protagonist, by adding natural and believable complications, and by creating situations in which the character actually may fail.

Recently, Writer’s Digest offered a free download of Donald Maass exercises from his latest work The Breakout Novelist. A number of these will help a writer create more tension. Take, for example, Exercise 13: Raising Public Stakes or Exercise 14: Making Complications Active. In these assignments, the novelist must consider what will make the story problem worse and what might actually cause the protagonist to fail.

Scenes must move the story forward and there must be tension on every page, but there’s still a third element that helps the writer craft what comes next. Each of the events must be connected causally.

In other words, in a linear telling of the story, the inciting incident takes place, causing the protagonist to react. He must take action, put a plan in motion, establish a goal. His first step then becomes the cause of the next event which in turn causes him to react. His step then causes the next event which in turn causes him to react, and so on.

See how this cause-effect cycle works out at the beginning of the plot of the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile”:

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree. [Inciting incident] ‘Hello’, called the monkey, who was a friendly animal. [Protagonist Reaction] ‘Hello’, replied the crocodile, surprised. ‘Do you know where I can get some food?’ he asked. ‘I haven’t had anything to eat all day – there just don’t seem to be any fish left in the river.’ [Next event]

‘Well,’ said the monkey, ‘I don’t eat fish so I wouldn’t know – but I do have plenty of ripe purple jamuns in my tree. Would you like to try some?’ He threw some down to the crocodile. [Protagonist Reaction] The crocodile was so hungry that he ate up all the jamuns even though crocodiles don’t eat fruit. He loved the sweet tangy fruit and shyly asked whether he could have some more. [Next Event] ‘Of course’, replied the monkey generously, throwing down more fruit. ‘Come back whenever you feel like more fruit’, he added when the crocodile had eaten his fill. [Protagonist Reaction]

After that the crocodile would visit the monkey every day. [Next Event]

By utilizing this cause-effect means of determining what happens next in the story, the plot arises naturally out of the personality, wants, and needs of the characters. The writer does not appear to be imposing his will from the outside, though of course he is. After all, he has given the character her strengths and weaknesses, her goals and plans, and the inciting incident that starts all the dominos falling.

In addition, the writer keeps back a few twists that will still arise organically but will nevertheless surprise even the most astute reader. We’ll look at plot twists another time.

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Plot Weaving – Where To Start


Novelists report common problems. One has to do with “sagging middles” — stories that dead end or lose steam somewhere in the middle. A second is not knowing where to start.

In actuality, the two issues might be related. Story consultant and critic of the popular three-act story structure, John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story says this about crafting a plot:

Because plot involves the intricate weaving of characters and actions over the course of the entire, story, it is inherently complex. It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole. Often the failure of a single plot event can bring the entire story down (p. 258).

It’s fair to say, then, that a bad beginning can affect a story’s middle. That’s not to conclude that a good beginning will automatically eliminate the possibility of a slow or stalled middle, but I’ll explore causes apart from the beginning another day.

I’ve suggested in earlier articles — “How to Start A Novel”, “The First Five Pages”, and “What Goes Into A Plot” that the writer should know his protagonist and his main opponent. He should know his theme and have the setting firmly in mind. But that still begs the question — where to begin the plot?

To figure out the answer to that question, it’s important to know where the story will end up. Mr. Truby says it like this: “An organic plot shows the actions that lead to the hero’s character change or [that] explain why the change is impossible” (p.259).

He then makes, what I think to be a central observation about good plotting: the events of the plot need to be “causally connected.” In other words, one event needs to cause the next event, and in the end the character needs to be changed (or the reason he isn’t clarified). To accomplish both of these goals simultaneously, the writer must weave the story events together in such a way that they appear to grow naturally, one from the other.

It’s possible to do this as an outliner who thinks through the events ahead of time, or as a seat-of-the-pants writer who creates scenes, then pieces them together and fills in gaps later on.

But that still doesn’t answer the “where to start” question. Think of a story as the reason why — the reason why Gillian is blind, the reason why Tad loves soccer, the reason why the sky is blue, or any of a countess number of scenarios. Each of these names the outcome. The story will detail the events that brought about the outcome. The start, then, is the first of those events — the trigger, if you will, or what most writing instructors refer to as the inciting incident.

As a reminder, I suggested in “The First Five Pages” that the opening scene should be a bridge between the story and the back story, so a novel generally doesn’t start with the inciting incident. In reality, however, the inciting incident is the beginning of the plot.

Here’s what Mr. Truby says about the inciting incident: “This is an event from the outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action” (p. 278).

From that point on, the events will have a cause-effect connection.

Fairy tales often used a nice prompt to alert the reader to the inciting incident. After setting the stage, a paragraph would inevitable begin, One day … The implication is that on that day something new and different will happen — the inciting incident, the first step in a series of steps leading to ultimate change.

And that, my friends, is where a plot should start.

Examples
From “The Monkey and the Crocodile”

Once there lived a monkey in a jamun tree by a river. The monkey was alone – he had no friends, no family, but he was happy and content. The jamun tree gave him plenty of sweet fruit to eat, and shade from the sun and shelter from the rain.

One day a crocodile came swimming up the river and climbed on to the bank to rest under the monkey’s tree …

From “Little Red Riding Hood”

Long, long time ago, in a little village at the edge of a forest, there lived a little girl with her mother and her father. This little girl was the sweetest, kindest child there ever was. She was always dressed in a pretty red cloak and hood that her mother had made for her, so that everyone began calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood’s mother called her and said, ‘Daughter, your grandmother is very ill. Please take her this pot of butter and some custard that I have made.’

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What Goes Into A Plot

A recent article in Writer’s Digest on writing short stories included a succinct explanation about story plots:

    Plots, Aristotle told us, have beginnings, middles and ends, and they proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions, a reversal being a shift in a situation to its opposite, and a recognition being a change from ignorance to awareness. The basic plot of every story — regardless of length or complexity — is: A central character wants something intensely, goes after it despite opposition and, as a result of a struggle, comes to either win or lose.

    – “Letting Plot Guide Your Narrative” by John Dufresne

In a pea pod, there are the basics of a plot and the basis of an outline.

Because I believe it is important to craft our theme with the same skill and attention I give to the other fiction elements, I’ll add that I think it’s necessary to know what it is I want to say before I begin work on my plot.

Let’s say I want to write a book that speaks to God’s faithfulness and Man’s need to trust Him. With that direction in mind, I can craft a character who has an intense want in line with this direction.

Because I have a direction, however, I am not cornered into creating a stock character. I have choices. Do I want my character to be a person who has it all, only to lose it, a la Job? Or perhaps I should fashion a character who has it all except for the one thing he thinks will make his life work. Another approach might be to start with a character at rock bottom who is in survival mode.

There are any number of characters with differing situations who can intensely want something only to discover that their real need is to trust God.

My first major plotting decision, then, is to determine my theme, and my second is to create a character.

I can’t emphasis enough how important it is to create a rounded, believable character, not simply affix a name to a particular gendered individual of a certain age with specified hair and eye color. The more a writer can know about his character, the easier plotting is.

For example, suppose your character happens upon a person in the park lying next to the bicycle path, bleeding, not moving. What does your character do?

Your answer as the writer should depend on what kind of a person you are creating. If your character is a take-charge individual, her first actions will be very different than if she is timid and quiet. Does your character have a medical background or does the sight of blood make her squeamish? Was your character helped by a stranger at some point in her life or was she a rape victim? These and a dozen different personality issues, background experiences, and relational influences will affect what your character will choose to do first.

Once you know your character as well as you can, it’s time to put him into a setting. Yes, before your plotting can get started, you need to know where your character is. Of course, setting also must serve your theme and the character you have created.

If he is poor and desperate, don’t assume that he needs to be on skid row. What if he’s poor, desperate, and living in Beverly Hills? How did he get there and why does he want to stay? What will it take? What does it cost him if he fails and has to leave? Where will he go?

Questions, questions, questions. Ask yourself as many questions as you can imagine. When some answer intrigues you, follow that line of thought and ask another series of questions, especially if it’s concerned with why.

Within those questions you just may have found your beginning.

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