Today’s WriteTip is a guest post by Desiree Villena from Reedsy.
By Desiree Villena
When every TV show, video game, book, and film these days is competing to out-thrill the public, any author could be forgiven for thinking that “mind-blowing” has lost all previous meaning. But the truth is that writing plot twists well is a careful craft — not a simple escalation of arbitrary shocks.
To get it right, you need to come up with the plot twist in the first place, work it into the plot, cover up your trail appropriately, and then make sure that the sumtotal delivers as you intended. Here are 5 key tips for writing plot twists that actually work.
1. Eliminate the obvious.
All plot twists may be equal in a vacuum, but in actuality, some are more satisfying than others. A good plot twist is one that both surprises the audience and is narratively sound. You want to blow your readers’ minds away, not blow their minds up. Your twist shouldn’t arrive completely out of the blue — but your readers also can’t see it coming from the very first page. Try to strike exactly the right balance for a twist that makes readers enjoy the new angle that it provides.
How can you come up with such a plot twist in the first place? First, get the ‘surprise’ element right. Eliminate the obvious. Don’t underestimate your readers, no matter your genre: they’re smart, and they’ve seen it all already. Some plot twist tropes are more popular than others. Peruse them all to understand what the classic books and films did to make them exciting and original in their eras, and then add your fresh take to it.
2. Make it matter.
To the point of “narratively sound,” a plot twist can make a reader sit up and go, “Wait, what just happened?” It should not then make a reader wonder, “Why did that just happen?” A good twist won’t contradict the established story: instead, it should develop the story’s central premise, moving it in a new direction that absolutely makes sense for the characters. You can tell a poor plot twist from a good one when it’s obviously more interested in shocking readers than in furthering the story.
Spend some time asking yourself if your plot twist actually possesses a purpose and will offer payoff to the reader. If you find that you’re writing a plot twist solely for shock value, you’re probably doing it wrong. To see bad plot twists in action, just watch seasons six, seven, and eight of Game of Thrones and then observe all of the irate reaction posts that they birthed.
3. Clue the reader in.
There are two types of plot twists: those that come out of nowhere, and those that are built up through clues that are carefully positioned throughout the story. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the death of (spoiler alert!) Ned Stark exemplifies the former. On the other end of the spectrum is the second — the kind that tends to induce that famous “Oh, so that’s why all of those things happened!” revelation.
If you’re going for this second type of plot twist (hint: you should be), then you’ll need to get the game of Clue down pat. Work interesting clues into your story that will build up to your plot twist, but don’t be too obvious or draw unnecessary attention to them. Think about it as a breadcrumb trail: readers can successfully follow your path, but only if they’re paying close attention to the tiny crumbs on the floor. The Sixth Sense is a classic example of this; the reveal at the end might shock you, but upon re-watch, all of the clues are there for you to trace.
4. Avoid outright lying.
How exactly can you go about this subtly? Don’t forget the other foolproof trick up any twisty author’s sleeve: misdirection.
The Harry Potter series, for instance, is a minefield of misdirection: Harry thought in Sorcerer’s Stone that Professor Snape was the one working with Lord Voldemort, when in fact it was Professor Quirrell. He believed that the villain in Prisoner of Azkaban was Sirius Black. Spoiler alert: it was actually Peter Pettigrew. Your misdirection, too, can easily go so far as your POV character’s understanding of the events, and any red herrings that you plant can distract readers from the truth. But never forget the golden rule of plot twists: never outright lie to your reader.
Neither should you overdo it. Some writers get so carried away with their own “brilliance” in creating red herrings that there’s ultimately more evidence in the story for the red herrings than for the truth. This is a red flag to any reader — indeed, your manuscript might not even then make it past a discerning literary agent if this is your strategy.
To that end, take a step back at the end of your draft to make sure that your story remains sturdy under inspection. Is it crystal clear what the truth is upon re-read? Did you balance the red herrings and the real clues? Do your details give away too much? Or not enough?
5. Test it on beta readers.
Film studios will conduct screenings months prior to a movie’s official release to test the audience’s reaction to said movie. Negative feedback can send the film back to the set for re-shoots, and even change the script substantially. (Can you say “panicked third act rewrites”?) But the primary goal of such trial runs is to ensure that the finished product doesn’t get any damning reviews on the day of its release, and so you should also share your manuscript with trusted beta readers to make sure that your story delivers as you imagined (after you self-edit your manuscript, of course).
Prepare a tally of questions for your beta readers to answer. Were your plot twists unexpected? Did any of them become plot holes? Did your readers feel cheated at all throughout the course of the story, or was the reveal (and the payoff) satisfying? When they answer to your satisfaction, you can be confident about (no plot twist in sight here) your book release in the future.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. Naturally, she’s a big fan of plot twists (when they’re done right).
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 13: Editing & Rewriting. It is part 2 of a multi-part series. For Part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.
Characters, Plot, and Theme
The order in which you review various aspects of craft as you revise is up to you but the one thing this phase has that the writing did not is the advantage of seeing the book as a whole and examining how and if the various parts work well together. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “Every book—at least one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or after your first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.” Things emerge as you write, such as themes which may not have been obvious from the beginning. So now you have the chance to go back through, examine them, and make sure all the elements support and expand the theme in ways that bring out the nuances and add depth.
I generally start with story and structure. So I look at my opening and I ask questions about it as I do.
Does my story really begin here? Or did I start in the wrong place?
Is the opening the right pacing and length or did I draw it out too much? Too much description? Too little dialogue and character? Too little emotion?
Are the story questions clear?
Is the length of the opening proportional to the rest of the story or is it too elaborate? Too involved?
Is my opening interesting? Is it compelling?
Does my opening have enough action?
Is my opening too flashy such that it effects continuity or does it flow well into what follows?
Is everything clear so readers know who is talking, where they are, and what’s happening?
After the opening, I start reviewing my plots and subplots and looking at their scene structure, flow, and arcs. I look at the action and conflict. Is something happening or is it static? Does every scene take us somewhere further in plot or character or both? Are the stakes clear? Is what my characters want clear? Will readers care? Do the setups lead to payoffs? Are all the questions being answered? Are they being answered at the right time—the best time to aid tension, pace, and comprehension? Is the information I am giving enough to reveal the story to readers as I see it or did I assume things I failed to impart clearly? How can I make it clearer?
Next, I look at Point of View. Is it consistent—no head hopping? Is the chronology clear and understandable? Am I shifting at the right points or should I rethink? What about too many shifts or too few? Is the tone consistent? Is the character with the most at stake always the point of view character for each scene?
I look at pacing, description and setting. Does the story start fast enough or does it drag? Are individual scenes dramatic and do they start and end at the right spot to keep the tension consistent throughout or do they peter off? Does the payoff at the end of each scene and chapter justify the build up? Did I balance showing and telling? Do I describe too much or too little? What details are missing that might be important? Does each setting add to the tension and tone of the scene in a way that makes it stronger or does it fall flat or detract? Does each scene leave readers feeling something important has happened? Do I use all five senses at least once every other page, if not more? Where can I add more visceral descriptive cues?
If any place bogs down, I look for places to trim the fat and tighten, not only for pacing and tension but also clarity. Too much information can overload readers, while too little can leave them confused. The trick is to find the right balance. Does each section function properly in the story or does anything need to be cut or moved to make the story flow better and stronger overall? This requires some cold efficiency and killing your darlings but the book will always be better for it, every time, and making your book the best it can be is essential. There is no room here for favorite scenes and characters that ultimately serve no purpose but author egos. “I liked writing that” is not enough justification to leave it in. Save it and try and use it in another book or story. Everything that stays here must absolutely belong and add something important or it has to go. Now is the time to reorganize scenes and details. If you reveal too much or too little, reveal it in the wrong order, or omitted important things, this is the time to find and fix it.
Next, I look at characters. Is each major character complete? Are they original or too much of a stereotype? Are they consistent or wishy washy? Are they distinctive or can they be confused with another character? Can anything be added to keep them distinctive? Examine diction and consistency of dialogue and tone—is the character being true to themselves in every word and action they take? Is it believable? What does this character want? What does this character fear? What do they overcome? Does the character grow and change? How? If not, what can be done to fix that. Does each character serve a function in the story or can they be combined or even cut? As editor, I once made a writer cut an entire character and give all her business to another character because she was a minor character who served no real purpose, whereas one of the major characters needed more agency, and so combining them was the best solution. The writer still complains about it to this day, even though she admits it was the best thing for her book. She was later able to go back in and make that character better and more essential to the next book so she could bring her into the story. Ultimately, only keep characters who matter to the outcome of the story. The rest have to go.
I often do a special pass just for dialogue because dialogue is so important. In this, I not only look at character’s diction but the pacing and conciseness of dialogue. I probably trim dialogue and description the most of any parts of any draft. Too much dialogue, too drawn out, not enough action—any of this can be a scene killer and has to go. How can you make the dialogue more dramatic and better paced and less wordy? How can you make even exposition passages feel like they move with action, instead of dragging like info dumps? The trick is to make exposition feel organic and necessary every time by keeping it concise and short. Simple is actually better than complex. Less really is more. Read aloud. Try it out. Do you stumble anywhere? Is it smooth and natural or does it need refining? Are the characters distinctive from each other? Is it clear who is speaking in each case? Characters should sound like individuals, not clones. Listen hard to them and make sure each character has some unique nuanced turns of phrase or styles. Maybe some speak in complete sentences while others talk in spurts and fragments. Some may discuss things directly while others beat around, especially when it comes to emotions. Whatever the case, all dialogue is transactional in nature: it is about an exchange of something useful between two parties, so make sure something happens in every exchange. Is the dialogue accompanied by appropriate actions and descriptive modifiers to show frame of mind, mood, etc.? Most of all, do they all sound like real people?
Ken Rand writes in The Ten Percent Solution: “We don’t just see words when we read. We use other senses. We make mistakes because sometimes the senses we’re using right now to read copy maybe dulled, distracted, or otherwise not functioning to capacity. The solution is to employ different senses in a systematic manner during the editing phase, to catch on the next pass errors that escaped the last pass.” Reading aloud not only employs your ears but your tongue, your eyes, and your mind and heart in ways different from just reading silently. You will hear the way things sound, rather than imagining it. You will hear repetition clearly, for example, because you ears picking it up even as your lips read it time and again makes it really pop out. Hearing how the pacing and flow aid the emotional effect of the prose is also invaluable. It is the best way to give you insight into the reader experience you are offering in time to make fixes. You will hear things that sounded complete in your head but are not—not clear, not complete, not as intended. You will notice sentences that seem to run on or end abruptly. Places where transitions between sentences, paragraphs, or chapters seem awkward or abrupt. And places where characters are speaking but it is unclear who is who. These and such more are things you don’t want to overlook, and reading aloud is a great tool to help you find them.
Let’s take a look at a passage now and see what it looks like between first and second draft.
After a day or two, I went back through the passage and did some tweaking. Here’s what it looks like after the polish draft.
You can compare the two and see how I went over the diction and conciseness of voice to tighten or add details as needed to make it richer and clearer, but also improve the pace at the same time. My goal was to write in a voice that implies a certain Midwest country accent without using any dialect or other tricks. I wanted the voice itself to just slip the accent into reader’s minds, but I also want it to be humorous, while still being realistic, gritty while still being believable. This is an example of how you might revise a passage.
Words On The Page
There a few concerns good writers learn to concern themselves with that beginners often leave to their editors or copyeditors. These are things that concern the way words look on the page. Ken Rand writes: “The very shape of letters has a lot to do with whether a reader enjoys or even comprehends the words.” This why choosing fonts is so very important, but additionally, if you have a paragraph with sentences using similar words that appear near each other (in the line above atop or the line below right under) each other, this can confuse readers or cause them to get lost as well. You’ll also want to look for “widows”—solitary words at the end of paragraphs that hang over solo onto the next line. Typesetters and editors will remove these. Your best bet to be sure it’s done the way you want is to find them yourself and see if adding or rearranging words in a sentence can help eliminate them before they ever get there.
I also mentioned earlier in the book that pace and flow of the reading experience come from how pages appear. Too many long descriptive passages with no blank space to breath can make reading difficult and make a book seem slow. Editors and Typesetters may want to break these up just for that purpose. It is in your best interest to make breaks yourself to avoid that, so you wind up with the book exactly as you intended. Looking for this will also aid your search for exposition info dumps and overly long description which you might take out parts of to insert at less busy spots later or just save for another book. Flip through a bound book and notice how the varied flow of pages is pleasing to the eyes as you scan or read, and you’ll get the idea of the subconsciously psychology involved here. It takes time to learn this well, but it is a very worthwhile skill for any author to learn, and allows you to influence parts of the process that tend to move on without you if you don’t know about them. After all, it is your book. You are the one who has to live with it. Wasted time and frustration arguing about recombining paragraphs and other details during editing is something that benefits no one, so the more work you do before then, the better your experience will be.
Knowing When to Stop
Everything we’ve covered so far in this chapter is aimed at one goal: helping you make your manuscript stronger and more professionally polished before passing it on to your editor and publisher. The last tip I want to offer is the answer to a commonly asked question: How do I know when to stop editing?
The best way to know is when you start noticing yourself putting back things you already removed, it’s time to consider stopping and handing it over to someone else. Don’t get stuck in the cycle of endless revision so that you never finish. At some point, you can only make each book as good as you are as a writer at that particular moment. Over time, each book will get better and better, but you do need to learn your limits. And no book will ever be perfect. I usually finish revisions and set the book aside for a day or two before doing another read through aloud. That gives me a break long enough to rest my eyes and brain and come back ready to hear it fresh again and make any final notes as I go through.
When I’ve reached a point that I know it is the best I can make it, then I send it to my agent or editor for the next stage: the editorial process.
For more tips, come back next Wednesday. For previous WriteTips, click here.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author/editor and Hugo-nominee who’s edited over a dozen anthologies and hundreds of novels, including the international phenomenon The Martian by Andy Weir and books by Alan Dean Foster, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Angie Fox, and Tracy Hickman as well as official entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s Wars. His debut novel, The Worker Prince, earned honorable mention on Barnes and Noble’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. His adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction books have been published by publishers such as St. Martins Press, Baen Books, Titan Books, IDW, and more. Find him online at his website bryanthomasschmidt.net or Twitter and Facebook as BryanThomasS.
To download How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction free one book, click here.
The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write a Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction Chapter 12: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, the first of three parts in a series covering Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. To see part one, Beginnings, click here.
The middle of your book makes up its largest section: Act Two. It is half the book in length generally. This is often the section where writers struggle to find focus and feel bogged down. It helps if you approach your middle (Act Two) using the Syd Field paradigm we discussed in Chapter 2 on Three Act Structure, considering it two parts of a whole, divided by a Mid-Point. Everything after the Plot Point I turning point of Act One forms an Ascending arc that rises toward the Mid-Point. Everything after the Mid-Point forms a Descending arc that descends toward the climax. On a chart, it looks something like this:
The arcs represent the curve of the action, emotion and character development, which rise in the first half toward the Mid-Point and then descend after to the Climax. In her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, Nancy Kress writes: “The middle of a story develop’s the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing incidents that increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax.”
In the first half of Act One, it is very much a journey of discovery as the character experiences Plot Point I—a Call To Action—and responds, trying to rise above his or her weakness, overcome obstacles, and gather the clues or complete the steps necessary to be ready to face the Antagonist. The Mid-Point, as we will discuss in a moment, is the point where the Character has a revelation that changes him or her in a way that redefines the journey and sends him on a descending arc toward the final confrontation—possessed of more certainty about where she must go and what she must do and more confidence to do it. This is why the Mid-Point is so important. Although it is not always an overtly dramatic moment, it must always be an internally dramatic one.
As we discussed in my post on Three Act Structure, the Mid-Point is a key turning point where the drama goes from Ascending to Descending. Something happens that twists the story a bit, either personal revelation for your protagonist or reveal or event that changes direction and pushes him or her forward into the second half of Act Two on their drive toward the final confrontation. Although the Turning Points at the ends of Act One and Act Two tend to be larger dramatically, this event is still a significant moment. It’s the scene where the protagonist and readers stop to take stock of how far they’ve come and put together many of the pieces further revealing the map they must follow going forward.
For authors, this is the same opportunity. A chance to look back at what you’ve done so far and regroup. You’ve established your setting and significant characters. You’ve set out your arcs and written one and half acts. You’ve described many key things that are recurring themes, settings, and items throughout the story. Ask yourself what you’re missing? Did you forget anything? Is anything confusing or unclear? Is anything feeling incomplete? What do you need to do to proceed on with confidence? Then take the time to tweak a bit and revisit or at least make appropriate notes in these places before continuing, so that you can revisit them later.
One of the common occurrences during a Mid-Point that is helpful to remember is a shift in driving motivation for your protagonist. The character has changed over the course of what you’ve written so far in several ways (or should). At this point, he or she will consider all that’s happened and reevaluate the why and how of the rest of the journey. The event, reveal, or revelation that serves as your Mid-Point is a great spot for them to solidify motivation, even revise it. For now they see things more clearly, they have more pieces to the puzzle, and they can reevaluate their chosen course and make corrections. Here’s where they go from an insecure, but determined person forced to embark on a heroic quest to a more confident, deliberate acting hero. Their growth journey is not over but they are much more sure of themselves, what they are doing, and why. And they have a much clearer sight of the endgame and the stakes as well. This should make them stronger in determination, vision, and even confidence, even if they and we still have doubts about whether they can succeed in reaching their goal. From the Mid-Point on, the protagonist moves with a new drive forward, even as the antagonist becomes more threatened and desperate in efforts to thwart the hero/heroine.
One of the best ways to work out the next phase is to examine the character and how they’ve changed so far. What has led to the changes and have they and we recognized actual change in attitude, approach, confidence, etc.? If not, perhaps work on tweaks that slowly reveal the change or use the Mid-Point for a big scene where the change is made manifest and we all realize it. Go back and look at the key scenes that set up that change and then consider where they need to be at the end of the story and imagine scenes you will need to complete the arc and get them there.
You can do the same with every plot and subplot in the story, revisiting key moments for each and planning the next steps needed to carry them to the natural conclusion. And by natural conclusion I don’t mean whatever comes. I mean what you envision as the best ending for the story. If you weren’t sure before, you should have a better idea what this is by now. Go back and look at your Three Act Structure outline of your ending. Does the ending you envision still look like what you envisioned at the beginning or does it need tweaks? Remember, in Chapter 2, I said your Outline was just a guideline and could change. This is a good point to reevaluate and restate or revise your goals so you know where you’re headed; what you’re working for.
It is also important to examine the Antagonist and any main supporting characters the same way. How have they changed? What led them there and where are they going the rest of the story? Having in your mind a clear sense of what is going on with your story and characters is key to feeling unstuck and prepared to write your second half. Mid-Points can often be points where a writer feels stuck and confused about where to go next. So thinking through all these key aspects is a great exercise for escaping that trap and being renewed in vision and confidence to continue on with a sense of direction.
What clues and key questions were asked and answered that provided the suspense and plot twists so far? Which are still unanswered that compel you and readers forward? And how will you answer them and in what order? Do you need to rethink any of them? Do you need to add or subtract any?
Take our earlier example of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has now rescued the princess with Han and finds himself trapped in the Death Star Detention block with his companions, fighting against incredible odds. They must find or make a way out and get back to their ship. And then hope Ben Kenobi has disabled the tractor beam. From this point on, Act Two becomes a chase with Han and Chewie and Leia and Luke separately fighting their way back toward the Millennium Falcon to escape, while C3PO and R2D2 do their best to lend whatever aid they can and Kenobi reaches and disables the tractor beam then faces a confrontation of his own.
Looking at this famous story it is easy to identify a lot of key moments: from R2D2 revealing Leia’s message to Luke finding Ben to meeting Han to arrival at the Death Star which all led up to where they are now. Their goal remains clear: to get the plans and the princess back to the Rebel Alliance. And Luke has also learned many skills of the Jedi and how to fight and has gained confidence as a leader and hero that he never had in the beginning. He’s never embarked on such an important and dangerous quest before and he is actually pulling it off. He moves forward with a sense of drive and direction stronger than he had before. This is what good Mid-Points should do in a story.
Getting Through and Staying Unstuck
Middles are places a lot of writers get stuck. I used to find this a problem, until I started focusing on the throughline—a film industry term for the main plotline, the one that focuses on what happens between the protagonist and antagonist in the story. Since the middle is the core journey wherein the protagonist and antagonist prepare to confront each other and fight out their opposing goals, keeping this in focus can give your middle a sense of direction. Everything that happens should feed this storyline taking plot and characters toward that ultimate confrontation. In the first half, on the ascending arc, the focus is on preparing the character to know how to confront the antagonist and believe he or she is capable to do so. The second half, the descending arc, focuses on final preparations and moving directly and determinedly toward that final showdown as all the necessary pieces are put in place and final preparations taken. If you keep these two goals in focus, it should help shape your middle and allow you push through any uncertainty that blocks your writing.
Additional space in the middle is made up of the various subplots and the scenes required in their arcs. But again, every scene must serve character or plot growth. Every single scene. So before you write a scene, figure out what it accomplishes toward the throughline and the character growth necessary to get the protagonist and antagonist to that final confrontation. Knowing that will help you write the scene well and also give you a sense of its belonging in the story. If you have a scene you can’t answer this question about, don’t write it. It probably doesn’t belong yet, though it may be relevant later. You may just be trying to put it in the wrong spot.
Ultimately, if you are blocked, the problem is always internal, not external. Think of it like your character’s journey. You have flaws and obstacles to overcome. So to get past it, you should ask yourself some questions about why you are stuck. Is it fear—fear of failure, fear of success? Is the scene not a good fit for the advancement of plot or character at this point in the story? Have you answered all the questions in your story that led to this scene or is something missing? Make a list of the next few scenes you envision needing to advance your story and then consider whether they are in the right order or need to be adjusted. Does the present scene need to shift within that rough outline? That could also be why you are stuck. Your mind may know subconsciously you are not ready to write the scene you sat down to write and you need to go elsewhere first before you can make it work. Another trick is to think through the plots and subplots and ask to which the current scene contributes. Perhaps you have not revisited a certain plotline for a while and need to take a detour there before you can continue with the story or perhaps a certain scene can contribute to the advancement of multiple plot or character arcs and writing it that way will free up your mind so you can get to work.
Whatever the answer to these questions, the best approach is to always think in terms of the short term, not the overall when sitting down to write. Don’t think about sitting down to write the whole story but the scene at hand. Putting the rest of the task out of mind allows clarity of focus and single minded attention on the scene at hand, which can unclog any blockage or confusion or at least help reveal answers to the questions that are causing uncertainty. It also can be helpful to set word count goals and mini deadlines for yourself. Most professional writers write whether they feel like it or not and are prepared to completely toss aside a day’s output if warranted. They know that the act of writing is like exercise and doing it every day is key to progress, even if the usefulness of the output isn’t as equal some days as others. Often the very act of writing can get you over the hump and clear your thoughts, allowing you to regain focus. Sitting and stressing over a blank mind is not the helpful way. The only way to get more story is to write. Sometimes a trigger helps, and can be provided by reading another novel as your work. Something in the subgenre you are writing perhaps or something so different it completely takes your mind in different directions. The goal is to unclog your mind and regain clarity and focus. Whatever route works best to get you there is a good route to take.
Some writers use rewards to spur them to write, disciplining themselves to deny the rewards when they don’t reach word count or page number goals. Some writers research to break free of the fog, finding it stimulates new ways of thinking and various ideas that can open the mind and free it to write. Many find that discipline is key. For me, when discipline in one area drops, I find it bleeds into others. If I get lazy with exercise, I get lazy with writing, diet, bill paying, and so much more. So having focus in one area affects the others and it is key to my writing therefore to maintain a lifestyle of discipline in many areas. Certainly taking breaks to walk my dogs or exercise is a very good way to unblock by getting my mind on other things and pondering the scene and the questions I need to answer to be able to write. It will be different for every writer, so until you find the best method for you, experimentation may be necessary. But all of this is part of finding the way to write that works best for you.
Whatever you wind up doing, it may also help to have some idea of the climax you are working toward to write the middle that leads there. This is why the structural outlines I suggested in Chapter 2 can be good road maps to help you write. After all, knowing the goal and the destination is often the best way to sort out how to get there. And in fulfilling the promise of a satisfying climax, it is helpful to know where you’re going so you can set it up properly with foreshadowing, character growth, plot twists, clues, and the various pieces it will take for everything to fall in place that allow the climax to satisfy us both mentally and emotionally.
Next week, in Part 3, we will consider the Ending of your story—especially the Climax.
This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.
In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:
A sympathetic character.
So every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well developed plot.
Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.
Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.
For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.
The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.
Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.
In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.
In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.
Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies five basic plot elements that all plots must have. They are:
A sympathetic character
So, every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well-developed plot.
We’ve already talked about how the plot is a series of questions asked and answered, so now let’s look at a key question we must always ask to make our plots stronger: What’s the worst that can happen?
You start with conflict and then consider what the complications might be. In doing so, there may be a temptation to like the character too much and not want to make things too hard on him or her. But that is the death of good drama. Instead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and consider the more dire possibilities. This is what makes good drama. Maass writes: “What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex, and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate.” So, don’t go off the deepest end necessarily, choosing something so dire and outrageous that it seems too hard to believe. You want to complicate and create disasters and dangers, not create incredulity in readers.
What you do want to do is push your problem far beyond what readers might imagine. Maass suggests: “Push your characters into situations that you yourself would never go near in your own life.” Remember that the characters should speak and act in ways we only wish we had the courage to do. This is what inspires us to admire and follow them. So they will be capable of facing situations we wouldn’t dare take on ourselves. The key is to push things to utter extremes while still managing to make them feel familiar to readers. Not outlandish, then, but familiar. In other words, possible.
When we create conflict that is credible, relatable, and familiar, we create stories with tension on every page. These are the kinds of stories that keep readers turning pages and coming back time and again to the same authors for more. John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Connelly, Jonathan Maberry, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Heather Graham, J.K. Rowling, Rachel Caine—these are examples of authors who have mastered this technique. If you want your plots to become breakout, hit stories, you must create tension on every page. Make us desperate to know what happens next. Create urgency in the questions the plot asks. This will drive the story forward, increasing the stakes and tension with each scene and page, until readers may feel they or the characters can’t possibly take anymore, but they do every time. And we are dying to know how they manage it and can possibly survive, so we stay up all night reading to find out. We’ve all read and loved books like that, right? Imagine what it would be like to write one.
One technique that aids this kind of tension is nonlinear narrative. Grisham is a master of this: constantly holding information back from his readers to surprise them with later. Nonlinear narrative is storytelling that increases tension by telling the story in a nonchronological fashion, using flashbacks and other such techniques. Basically, you start telling the story in the center of the action at the most dramatic place and then go back and fill in the backstory and details as necessary through the course of the novel.