Archive for category Plots
Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.
Being killed or falling in love
In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.
But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.
Finding the murderer
In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.
When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.
In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)
Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.
What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.
Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)
Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.
A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.
Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity
Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!
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I have a soft spot for hypnotists, as anyone who’s read My Memories of a Future Life will readily believe. Required viewing in our house is the illusionist Derren Brown – and part of the fun is how he puts a show together as a story.
In the first show of his latest series, The Experiments, he tested whether a nice ordinary bloke could be conditioned to assassinate a celebrity – and then, like the man convicted of shooting Robert Kennedy, have no memory of doing the deed*.
It’s a lot to believe, for both volunteer and viewer. There were the obligatory demonstrations. We saw the lucky chap develop super-marksmanship under hypnosis. He was put in a trance and did things he couldn’t remember.
But he could have been faking, of course. So before any of these demonstrations were done, the audience had to be primed to believe they could be true.
With some nifty foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing, sometimes known as prefigurement, is a way of suggesting developments that may happen later in a story so that the reader is more ready to accept them.
1 Foreshadowing amnesia
Derren mentioned moments of amnesia we all naturally have – driving a familiar route and not remembering the journey, or if you locked the front door. Hey presto, amnesia is something that could happen to us all.
This is what a writer might do if a story pivoted on an event the reader might find hard to believe if confronted with it cold.
Imagine a story that revolves around mistaken identity. Before you see the actual mistake, the ground is prepared obliquely. So a man meeting his wife off the train might hug the wrong woman, fooled by her coat. Or two characters might talk about a situation where a friend got in the wrong car. You think the scene’s about something else – perhaps their friendship – but it plants the seed that mistaken identity could happen to anyone. So when later it does, it’s easier to swallow.
2 Foreshadowing the killer trance
The assassin in Derren’s experiment was activated when he saw polka dots. This was demonstrated in action a few times. But before all that, we were primed too.
While Derren was describing what witnesses saw when Kennedy was shot, he mentioned a woman in a polka-dot dress. It seemed like one of those details to make the story more vivid, as insignificant as what time it was or whether canapes were served. Until he introduced his visual trigger later in the show – polka dots. On a handkerchief. As a surprise picture on the inside of a restaurant menu.
Now we remembered they were associated with something sinister. And in the climax, they appeared on a dress…
And the sore thumb?
In Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, a blacksmith remarks that if you whack your thumb in cold weather it hurts a lot more. Not long afterwards, on an icy cold day, Little Bill gets in a fight with English Bob. But this is more than Little Bill playing football with English Bob, we’re primed to feel the pain of the blows. Unforgiven is a world where everything is a struggle, where people are fragile. And a sore thumb tells us a kicking is really nasty.
*Derren Brown’s show was testing one theory of the assassination. The true circumstances are of course more complex than summarised by him or here in this post. This isn’t a post about that, it’s about storytelling. To check out more thorough examinations of the assassination, see this piece.
Skilled storytellers don’t leave your reaction to chance. More often than you think, they’re planting clues to finely control the way you feel.
As always, give me examples you’ve noticed! Or used in your own fiction
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We’ve been away for a few days and one of my holiday reads was David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (appropriately enough, as we stayed at an eighteenth-century hunting lodge by the name of Fox Hall). Written in the 1920s, Lady Into Fox is about a man whose wife transforms into a fox shortly after their wedding. They are devotedly in love and determined that this strange change does not matter. He dismisses the servants and shoots the over-excited dogs. She wears clothes, bathes fastidiously and continues to eat her favourite well-bred breakfast of ham and eggs. But her feral nature grows stronger. She forgets to walk on her hind legs and starts to chase ducks – and his struggles to keep her civilised grow more desperate.
Mention fantasy and most of us assume a story set in a world of mythical beings, dragons, elves, unicorns, vampires, magic-doers and medieval technology. But the fable, fantasy’s discreet cousin, is another breed entirely.
In Lady Into Fox, the world and its trappings are normal. There is a hint that the lady’s transformation may be a long-buried family trait; her maiden name is Fox and she has russet hair. That’s the only attempt at explanation; this happening is what it is. Nothing similar befalls anyone else, either. It seems the act of marriage has put this lady in a peculiar state of animal rebellion.
It reminds me (very obliquely) of Dean Spanley, the film based on Lord Dunsany’s novella, in which a clergyman may be the reincarnation of a spaniel. The mood is somewhat lighter and in Dean Spanley, the fabulous happening may be all in the minds of the characters. However, the author is teasing the audience to believe too. There’s a whiff of sorcery when a swami gives a lecture on the transmigration of souls. The Dean remarks that cats don’t like him. He has a weakness for Tokay, which gives him licence for almost hallucinatory flights of fancy as a young, gambolling spaniel. And finally we go along with the fantasy – because of what it will mean to the characters.
Fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a fantasy world.
While I unpack and catch up on emails chaos, tell me – do you have any favourite unusual fantasy or fable-type stories? Share in the comments!