Do the Twist

A great twist can make a story (think, would The Sixth Sense have been nearly as popular without people loving its?) but a poorly done twist can just as easily sink one (think every other M. Night Shyamalan movie that has been panned in the years since Sixth Sense).

The general advice I have when it comes to twists is only use them when it flows naturally in your story rather than being a planned gimmick. If you are trying to force your story to conform to a plan just for a twist, don’t do it. Ninety-nine percent of the time the damage you’ll do to your story will not be redeemed no matter how mind blowing the final twist is. Some gimmicks work, but more often than not a well-written story will beat out a mediocre but unique gimmick.

If you are planning part of your plot around a twist, however, some more specific things to keep in mind:

1. Make sure the story supports it. This is one of the major stumbling blocks that get many “twist-based” stories stuck. When the author starts becoming hyperfocused on their great twist, it often opens up the story to other plot holes. Sure, you can hand wave a lot of things in fiction if necessary, but when you start having readers question the very premise of your story (why would the aliens even want a planet that’s mostly water if they’re allergic to it?) you’re going to have a problem. If there’s no reason for the story to progress in the first place once you learn there was someone controlling it the entire time or it turns out a character is a turncoat, the twist isn’t going to protect you from criticism from readers left scratching their heads. Likewise, if your twist relies on other characters keeping information from one another, make sure they have a reason for keeping that information to themselves outside of “because the author said to” otherwise the rest of the plot can stop making sense.

2. Don’t make you characters seem like idiots. There is an ongoing joke that characters in Superman comics aren’t able to see that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person past a pair of glasses. At this point, it has simply become an accepted part of the storytelling along with the fact that no one ever really stays dead in comics. Unfortunately for those writing outside of the DC or Marvel universes, that level of suspension of disbelief doesn’t carry over to most other forms of prose. Where the people of Gotham may still not get that Bruce Wayne is Batman even though Batman for some reason disappeared at the same time as Bruce Wayne and he always seems suspiciously “away” when Batman’s out and about, readers are going to start getting a little annoyed when your character hasn’t put something together that it seems any reasonable person would have. You definitely want to have some sort of foreshadowing when it comes to a twist, but don’t offer enough so the reader has figured out the twist so far ahead of the character that the character seems dim for having missed the myriad of clues.

3. Foreshadow properly. As stated above, you don’t want twists to entirely come out of nowhere. If there has been absolutely no sign of anything nefarious happening, a twist that turns everything on its head can be just as annoying as a twist that was signposted way too early. Readers don’t tend to like being blindsided. Make sure there are some clues that foreshadow the ending. Just make sure they’re subtle enough so it make sense that your character has missed them without needing to throw in some sort of explanation about why they were uncharacteristically nearsighted when it came to an obvious twist. If some of your readers figure the twist out, that’s fine. You don’t need to try to trick every single reader. Readers like feeling smart, especially when it comes to figuring out where something is going before it’s revealed. You just have to make it difficult enough to figure out that 1) your character wouldn’t figure it out and 2) your reader doesn’t feel bored by the time they reach the twist because they figured it out ten pages in. So how do you foreshadow properly? It varies from story to story, of course, but some general tips to tread that line between blindsiding and boring:

  • Place “big” clues early on. The earlier on you are in the story, and the less your reader yet knows about the characters/plot, the simpler it will be to slip something in the reader will likely forget about until it becomes important later. If your reader mentions he has a sister working at [company] before [company] ever becomes important, it is more likely for the reader to take the fact and move on than if they just learned last chapter that [company] is doing something strange. If the sister is brought up following some suspicion being thrown on the company she works for, the reader is more likely to assume the sister is playing a larger role than we yet know about.
  • Spread foreshadowing out. Similar to utilizing dropping clues long before the reader has a reason to pay attention to them, it’s smart to not pile too many clues right on top of each other. If your readers just learned one piece to the puzzle, give it a little time before you give them another. This is especially true if the pieces don’t necessarily seem to connect. The farther apart you keep them, the less likely readers are to make the jump that X and Y must be related (or else why would they both be right here?)
  • Keep your characters from trying to purposefully mislead the reader (repeatedly). While it’s perfectly fine to have your character make an assumption that turns out to be wrong, don’t try to “trick” the reader by bringing up the wrong assumption repeatedly or you can quickly find yourself in a “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” situation. The more you bring up how obviously this means that, the more time the reader has to focus on that plot point and realize there must be more than meets the eye.
  • Determine how common your “twist” is. A twist doesn’t always need to be unique. There is a saying that there are no new plots, and in a way that is true. You can write something that is a fresh idea, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any tropes in it. And the more well known a trope is (especially in your genre) the more likely it will be that readers will be able to figure out the “twist.” For example, if it turns out that the “big bad” is a relative of your protagonist, that twist is well enough known that you likely will be able to get away with just a few clues before people start catching on (because they’ve likely seen Star Wars and a number of other stories with that same twist). There is nothing wrong with using the trope all the same, just keep in mind what readers might be expecting when choosing how much to foreshadowing. Also keep in mind, if you intend to subvert a trope, you can also use these assumptions to your advantage. By letting the reader believe you’re following a common trope, it’s possible to sneak in other clues to what the real twist is while readers are distracted by what they believe will be the twist.
  • Look for “throw away” lines. Especially if your twist is on the more common side, less is often more when it comes to foreshadowing. Readers are trained to expect that everything they read is important–after all, to keep up pacing, authors don’t tend to write in scenes that don’t matter to the plot. Because of that, if you put something in past the early “the reader doesn’t know what to look for” stage of a story that has a lot of attention drawn to it, the reader is likely to assume it is very important for some reason and take note. Look for ways to work in clues that are buried under other more obviously important information or in phrases that are nearly clichés. For example if someone says “what planet are you from?” when the twist is the character is an alien, the reader is likely to pass by the familiar saying less critically than something that sticks out as purposefully planted there (added bonus, the saying is also so easy to breeze over if you aren’t already thinking “aliens” that readers who have figured the twist out already will feel smart having caught it).

As with everything else, what exactly works for your story will be different from project to project. What is too much foreshadowing in one novel will be too little in another. When in doubt, look for beta readers who will be able to tell you if they figured your twist out too early or felt too blindsided at the end to have it be enjoyable. And then just keep on working at it.

Where to Start

Happy Halloween, or as it’s known around my house, Happy “Oh god, it’s the day before NaNoWriMo…” Day

For those who don’t know (and possibly have never visited this blog before) NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month” and is a time when writers of all levels come together to try to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

It can be a contested (sometimes loathed) event amongst those in the publishing world (mostly having to do with authors submitting unedited, literally “written in a month” books to agents or publishers December 1st) but for those who use it as motivation, it is a great program. After all, even if you only end up writing 1,000 words over the entire month, it’s 1,000 words you didn’t have in October. NaNoWriMo serves to be the kick in the pants some of us need to put our butts in a chair and start writing.

And, as long as you edit, it’s entirely possible to end up with good stories.

TBC         

All of the above, and my newest fantasy novel contracted with Red Adept Publishing, were partially (or entirely) written during NaNoWriMo.

Of course, with kickoff just around the corner, I have seen many authors asking how or where they’re supposed to start their novels. And it’s understandable. It tends to be much easier to write when you’re already in the flow of things rather than when you’re staring at a blank page.

Short answer: Start writing with whatever scene comes to you. Yes, openings are very important when it comes to publishing (if you don’t catch an agent/publisher/reader within the first 1000 words or so, your odds of them contracting you drastically drops) but as long as you do go back and edit (several times) before sending a manuscript off, it doesn’t matter. Many people end up cutting their first scene or two once they’ve written the full book because they realize they came in too early. Others end up adding a few scenes because they came in too late. It is actually often times easier to see where you need to start after you’ve ended. As long as you start getting words down on the page, it doesn’t matter what your opening sentence, paragraph, or even scene is.

Long answer: For those who want a little more advice when it comes to picking an opening scene, look to your plot structure. While you will tend to have some exposition at the beginning of novels, you generally want to start as close to the inciting incident as possible. You picked the story you are writing for a reason–hopefully because you find it interesting. Don’t waste time with scenes that aren’t involved in the story you want to tell. So, if your story follows a cop chasing a serial killer, it is perfectly fine to start with your characters finding the first body rather than with your cop waking up and going to work one day. Or even your cop going through the police academy, meeting his/her partner, being promoted to detective, and whatever else happened before your story actually starts. As an author, you will always know more about your character’s background than your reader will likely need to know. If it helps you in your rough draft to info dump some of that backstory right at the beginning of your novel, feel free to. You will just generally find the story flows better once you get rid of that come editing time.

But, hey, that’s what editing is for. Don’t stress it.

This Totally Makes Sense

A while ago I wrote a piece about Dei ex Machina (singular: Deus ex Machina), an inadvisable plot device where–when all else is lost and the protagonist is backed into a corner–something comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist from an otherwise hopeless situation. Meaning “god from the machine” dei ex machina get their name from Euripides’ play Medea where a god (in a mechanical chariot) quite literally comes down at the end of the play to life the titular Medea out of the mess that forms at the end of the play.

DoDMedeaonChariot300

Medea on Chariot
Source: Howling Frog Books

While you don’t generally see gods popping up to fix everything in modern literature, the plot device has kept its name, generally seen these days when a character suddenly develops a magical power they didn’t know about at the climax (oh yeah! She totally has the ability to teleport right when there’s no other way out of this corner I’ve written myself into) or less flashy acts of god (He’s about to be killed, but oh! A tree branch fell on the bad guy. The end). While I have already addressed Dei ex Machina specifically, more and more while editing/critiquing/reviewing, I have begun to see Deus ex Machina’s less offensive cousin in stories, the “Oh yeah, this is important” (doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way, but work with me).

Perhaps related to both foreshadowing and fixing deus ex machina, writers should always keep one thing in mind: If it’s going to be important later, mention it when it might pop up logically before you need it.

  • If your character is going to need to teleport out of the climax, show that they can teleport earlier on.
  • If your character is going to use a “prop” later in a scene, show they have it with them the scene before.
  • If your character has done something that doesn’t really make sense, don’t later explain why it makes sense three chapters in.

I understand why these things happen (especially points two and three) while authors often have climaxes planned out and know to avoid using a deus ex machina, when writing quickly (cough, NaNoWriMo, cough) sometimes you realize later on you haven’t explained something you meant to or you need something in a scene you didn’t of until the moment you need it.

What you  don’t want to do, however is end up with something like:

  • He pulled out his glasses, which he had put in his backpack that morning before leaving the house

-or-

  • [after a chapter of helping someone it makes no sense to in a zombie apocalypse] But she had always had a softness for people who limped. It made sense she couldn’t leave him behind.

Why? Because it makes those moments seem, at best, an afterthought, at worst, an author trying to write themselves out of a corner.

What should you do instead? Put the information in ahead of time where it logically fits.

Is your character going to need glasses he doesn’t generally bring with him later in the scene? Show him grabbing them on his way out the door the scene before. Is there an explanation for why your character is risking their life for someone they just met (which isn’t part of a larger reveal)? Put that information in when she decides to help them.

If there is a logical place for an event to happen/information to be placed, don’t put it where it will feel like an afterthought (or at least move it once you go back to edit if you’re still working on a rough draft). It’s a quick fix, and makes a world of difference to the reader (they don’t have to jump back and file that information away where it makes more sense themselves), the story (you don’t have to stop the action to explain, “oh yeah, this totally makes sense once you know X”), and your perceived ability as a writer (you don’t have a reader thinking “man, this writer had to throw something in at the last minute to make up for their poor planning”). Keep up with a little internal logical.

From Premise to Plot

As I believe I have said before, ideas are the easy part of writing. They are always the bright and shiny bits that bounce around in your head before you get to the nitty-gritty part of actually writing. But what happens when all you have is an idea–not even a true plot? That’s where you have to take your idea from premise to plot.

Now, when it comes to creative writing, I’m all for rule breaking. That’s the creative part, after all–not having to do everything to the letter, messing with grammar, all of those fun bits that make creative writing different from formal essays or business writing. As I have mentioned before, however, you need to know the rules before you can break them. And so, for building a plot, that entails knowing the general elements to a plot.

For those who paid attention to that day in English class, you might have seen plots lain out as a graph that looks something like this:

Basically these plot graphs break the essence of a plot into six (or so) sections:

1) Exposition (explaining your “normal”). Generally this section is one of the shortest parts of your story if you’re following the common advice of “Get to the Action”. This section of the story establishes what is “normal” in your story’s world. This might be what is normal in everyday life, or it might be dragons flying around and wizards having duels. The point of this section is to show what your character considers their normal life. Should nothing happen at this point, there would be no real plot. It would be a character study of how your protagonist goes about their day (generally not that exciting to read).

2) Inciting incident (changing “normal”). The inciting incident is the deviation from the normal. This can be something simple (the character deciding they are unhappy with their life) or catastrophic (terrorists blowing up the character’s hometown and killing the character’s entire family). The inciting incident just needs to get the character moving on their story–and ideally it happens as early as possible so you don’t lose the reader with boring “normal”.

3) Rising Action. Rising Action makes up the bulk of the story. It is a series of events (as shown above) which eventually leads to the climax. As this tends to make the bulk of a plot I will touch on this later.

4) The Climax. The climax is what the entire story has been building to. It’s the final battle with the big bad, the underdog sports team winning the championship, or anything else where your protagonist finally reaches (or learns they will never reach) their main goal that has been driving the story (see below section on rising action).  As the name would suggest, the climax is generally a large, blow out, (often) action-filled section, whatever it ends up being–the main point, however, is that it is definitive. Your protagonist wins or loses based on this moment (to whatever extent a win/loss is possible in your story).

5) Denouement (also called Falling Action like above, regaining “normal”). A denouement is the aftermath of the climax and a return to the “new” normal. Things may not have gone back to how they were at the start of the story (often times things are radically different) but the battle is over, the game is won, your protagonist has done whatever they can and are now going to settle into their new reality (whether that being their world changing, them changing, or everything actually going back to how it was).

6) Conclusion (settling into the new “normal”). Possibly part of the denouement, the conclusion is a (probably) short bit that shows the character living once again in “normal” Sometimes this is an epilogue, sometimes it’s not there at all (such as in open-ended endings). While some graphs show the conclusion as the opposite side of exposition (where it forms a mountain), I personally prefer the graph above, as it doesn’t make it seem like the conclusion must be in the same vein as exposition.

Now, as I said, writers by no means should feel married to this exact lay out for their story–if you can think of something awesome that doesn’t fit into this structure, do it–but most stories follow something of the kind.

Anyway, since the bulk of a story using this structure is spent in rising action, this tends to be the part that really turns a premise into a plot. For example, let’s analyze the first Harry Potter book. Before writing even started, there was a premise (boy wizard goes to magic school). From there you have exposition (life in the normal “muggle” world) and inciting incident (boy learns he’s a wizard/goes to school). There’s the climax (battle with the big bad [Voldemort]). And denouement/conclusion with leaving school for the year. Taking all those bits out, you are left with the bulk of the story–rising action.

So what do you do when you have a premise (or premise and ending) and not much else? You figure out what your character wants. Desires are what fuel action in real life, they’re what fuel story characters. If your characters are entirely content, why are they doing anything other than the boring stuff they were doing to start with? A character has to have a want–even if that want is just to get back to normal after being thrown out of it in the inciting incident. The events shown in rising action can be external (people attacking the protagonist, a natural disaster) but the character needs to be in those positions because of their wants and desires. Perhaps they are attacked while on the road going from point A to point B, but why are they on that road in the first place? Likely because it is a step to reaching whatever desire/goal they have for themselves.

(Note: The climax is the resolution of the character’s ultimate goal, but there should be smaller steps between the inciting incident and the climax. These are either steps to lead to that ultimate goal or smaller goals which generally make for subplots).

And so, long story short, when you’re caught trying to figure out how to plot out your book, stop focusing on the plot, and focus on your characters. Once you know why your characters are doing something, the easier it will be to have them realistically move the plot forward.

And if all else fails, throw in zombies. Zombies always get things moving.

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[X] Types of Plot

Not too long ago, I touched on the idea of “Accidental Plagiarism” that is, the experience of writing something that seems original and then finding out that there’s something already out there that seems to have stolen the idea straight out of your head. It’s more common than I’m sure any writer would like, but it’s understandable. The more you read, the more you realize that there really seem to be no original ideas out there. That idea of having ancient gods live in the modern world? It might have popped into your head from seemingly nowhere, but if you look into it, American Gods, Gods Behaving Badly, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, mention it to a couple of people and the list of people who have used the same idea goes on and on.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon I’ve recently seen comes from this thread in the NaNoWriMo forums (yes, yes, I’m always there, I know). A poster stated:

So, I had this idea pop in my head. Where it came from, I have no idea. The very depths of my brain I guess. Anywho, I saw this scene, and a story fell into place. A world where Death is a man. He knows exactly who is going to die, when, where, why, etc…. If he touches someone, they will die… One day, walking down an alley or street, a door bangs open in front of him and a girl tumbles out… She looks at him, and that’s it, he falls in love. The problem, he can’t touch her or she will die.”

I have no doubt that the idea did pop organically into the poster’s head, but what does that sound like? The forum helped with that:

Family Guy actually does a joke version of that [“Death Lives” for those who care] Death is in love with a pet shop owner, and actually ends up touching and killing her at the end.”

Sort of like “Pushing Daisies.” The guy there can bring people back to life with one touch, but then they die again the next time he touches them. He brings the girl he was in love with back to life, but can’t touch her ever again or she’ll die irreversibly. They have a really cute romance with kissing through plastic wrap and stuff since they can’t touch skin to skin.”

Isn’t that what “Meet Joe Black” was sort of about? I’ve heard the movie described kind of like that.” / “Yup, and “Meet Joe Black” is based off an old black-and-white by the name of “Death Takes a Holliday[sic]“.

Have you ever read “On a Pale Horse?” It’s not exactly the same idea, but it is about the person of Death and he does fall in love.”

It hardly means the original poster shouldn’t write their story, but obviously the idea that popped into her head also popped into a lot of other people’s heads at one point or another. And, as I pointed out in the forum, all stories that use the “can’t touch the thing you love” plot tie even further back to the Ancient Greek King Midas myth. The newer stories might not have the greed factor (turning things into gold) but it is still the idea of a life where touching something will destroy it.

These shared “out of nowhere” ideas are so common that Carl Jung came up with the idea of a Collective Unconscious, which has been described as, “a universal library of human knowledge.” Simply, it’s the idea that there are some ideas so innate in us that the mere fact of being human means it shouldn’t be at all surprising when you have the same ideas as others.

Whether or not you’re willing to subscribe to Jung’s theory, people at least seem to agree that there are certain similarities you can break down all stories we tell into. The Reduced Shakespeare Company, for example, in their performance “Complete Hollywood [Abridged]” says that all movies are one of three general plots:

1. Boy Meets Girl
2. Coming of Age
3. The Jesus Story

They then go on to take examples from the audience and break them down into one of the three (in a very amusing fashion. I got to see them when they were at The Kennedy Center).

Of course, as with any theory, there are plenty of suggestions about the “right” way to break down stories.

Foster-Harris, in The Basic Patterns of Plot also breaks stories into three categories:

1. “Type A, happy ending” (the central character makes an “illogical” sacrifice for the sake of another).
2. “Type B, unhappy ending”(the central character does what seems logically “right” and thus fails to make the needed sacrifice).
3. “Type C, the literary plot” (the central character’s decision doesn’t matter as much as fate [such as often seen in Ancient Greek plays])

Another suggestion is “The Seven Basic Plots”

1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment
4. man vs. technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. god

Ronald Tobias, in 20 Master Plots, has twenty :

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension

And, because twenty sometimes isn’t enough, Georges Polti gives us thirty-six in The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations:

1. Supplication (Supplicant must beg something from a Power)
2. Deliverance
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
5. Pursuit
6. Disaster
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
8. Revolt
9. Daring Enterprise
10. Abduction
11. The Enigma (a temptation or a riddle)
12. Obtaining
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
16. Madness
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love
19. Slaying of an Unrecognized Kinsman
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved One(s)
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
25. Adultery
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of Loved One(s)
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
30. Ambition
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
34. Remorse
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved One(s)

You can argue about the exact types of plot, or even if it’s possible to classify all plots under any amount of categories, but assuming you can (I believe you could with all my novels/short stories) it really shouldn’t be surprising that true originality seems to be all but impossible. Death falling in love? It could be 15 from the 20 (Forbidden Love) 28 of 36 (Obstacles to Love) 5 of 7 (man vs. the supernatural) or any of the 3 depending on how the author writes the story. And so, once again, it seems that struggling for originality seems futile. Does that mean we should stop trying and write the same story over and over again? Of course not. It just means it’s that much more important to know that it isn’t the plot that will make the story special, it’s how you tell the story.

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