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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If you’re old enough to remember the TV series Charlie’s Angels, there was always a scene about halfway through where our feisty gals recapped everything they knew about the current case.
Crass though it sounds when described like that, viewers were probably grateful.
There are two reasons. First of all, it can provide a welcome breather from the hurly-burly – especially if the rest of the time has been spent in breathless danger. No matter how exciting your plot, readers can only take so much before they get numbed and will welcome a lull where everyone can relax.
Second – more obviously – it’s useful if you’ve got a complicated plot with lots of twists, turns, red herrings, thrills and spills. By having a ‘you are here’ moment, it lets the reader refocus on what’s been learned and what the stakes are.
But this can easily descend into exposition – explaining information for the sake of the audience in a way that seems unnatural. It can also be a yawn if it doesn’t move matters on in some way. Of course, your characters could spot a missing link or a deadline, which would galvanise everyone. But there are plenty of other ways to give this kind of scene more pizzazz.
I saw the ‘let’s get it straight’ scene deployed very nicely in a manuscript I recently critiqued. Two characters who had been thrown together in a dangerous investigation found themselves with time to breathe – and to discuss what they should do about the trouble they were in. Also, the trust this had built up was leading to an intriguing sizzle between them. By this time, we’d have happily watched them discuss their laundry lists, because we were really reading their reactions.
Cementing a friendship
In Dark Lord : The Teenage Years by Jamie Thomson, the mysterious main character Dirk explains for the first time where he’s really from and what he’s trying to do. This is the first time he’s taken his friends into his confidence – and we’re waiting to see their reaction.
Planting seeds obliquely
In Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey is trying to clear Harriet Vane of murder. Half-way through there’s a scene where he reluctantly visits his family for Christmas and they talk about the case and what they think about Harriet (deft use of a recap, as Peter Wimsey doesn’t want to be there). They also talk about another family member who is – perhaps daringly- marrying a Jewish girl, which draws our attention to love across boundaries. It also plants the seeds for (spoiler alert!) his ultimate proposal to Harriet.
Or you could be delightfully silly, like this scene from Carry On Screaming where the detectives list their clues and stand back to learn from the result.
Thanks for the top pic, wolfgangfoto
The ‘let’s get this straight’ scene is often necessary to keep an audience on track with a complex plot, but it can do so much more. Do you have any examples of it, good or clumsy? Share in the comments!
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
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
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!
I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.
In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.
First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.
Spice it up
But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.
We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.
Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.
On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’
Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.
Do it in order first
If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.
Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.
In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.
If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.
Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.