Friday Morning Pages: On Practicing Plot Twists

So far I’ve gone over several ways to practice writing. Retyping favorite books, adding all five senses every five-hundred words of manuscript, writing every day, and general study. Now for some more advanced stuff.

The question for the week is: How do you make a story feel twisted, with lots of surprises? Surprising your reader is a practiced skill in itself, but there are some practical considerations.

First, you can’t outline surprise endings. So just don’t try. I used to believe you could, with enough effort and creative sweat. But the reality is, if you can think it through logically within the confines of an outline, your reader can do the same, and probably will. Outline the bare bones of your story if you must have a road-map, but learn to toss the map out the window at a certain point. Don’t give your reader an itinerary of the trip you’re about to take, most readers will be bored out of their minds.

Far better if you don’t know where the story is going as you write it, that way the reader will wonder where you’re taking her.

The first trick to writing surprises is to make everything up as you go, and thereby surprise yourself. The second trick can be thought of as “the rule of four,” or Kate Wilhelm’s Law.

When you come to a major turning point in the story, where the character makes a big decision, or something remarkable happens, stop for a bit and do this: Think of the first next logical step that could happen. Then toss that out, and think about what else could possibly happen. Repeat. Toss that idea out too, and then go with your fourth idea.

So, throw out the first three ideas that come to mind, and use the fourth.

All readers will see the first idea a mile away. About half will expect the second. The savvy readers won’t be surprised by the third. The fourth idea, the one you have to reach for, will be surprising to almost everybody.

Again, use this technique at major turning points. If used at the end of every chapter, you might be writing a rather confusing tale. Used at the right moments, Wilhelm’s Law can make your novel extra twisted, and make your readers wonder what happens next, which is a very good thing.

This is something that can and should be practiced, whether as a thought experiment or in an actual story. The more you practice throwing out the easy ideas, the more automatic the process becomes. Eventually, you won’t have to do the exercise as often. Your subconscious will reject the easy ideas right off hand, and then you’ll surprise yourself by the twists you never saw coming.

Maybe you think you can do this step while outlining, before you begin the writing. Maybe you can, I won’t dispute that. Read “Writing the Blockbuster Novel” by Albert Zuckerman, for examples of how to outline a story idea to death. (Read the book anyway, worth it whether you outline or not, or whether you want to write the kind of novels Zuckerman suggests.)

I argue, however, that outlining is just flat boring. I’ve never finished a book from an outline. My early outline attempts don’t resemble the finished product, and most of my outlines never even made it to the writing stage. (And all my early novels were terrible. You’ll never get to read them.) I paid lip-service to outlining, because “that’s how real writers did it.” Later, I discovered that outlining wasn’t working, and instead of deciding I wasn’t a “real writer,” I simply found other methods.

Your mileage will vary.

But stories are organic things that grow and change with every passing day. Confining a story to what you originally had in mind is a terrible way to kill a project’s momentum. Using Wilhelm’s Law can help you move a story forward when you get stuck, and find a fresh angle to a story problem that brings the entire narrative down.

So the homework this week: Come up with an opening. Any character, any setting, 500 words, all five senses. No plot in the opening, just the character in a setting. Then use Wilhelm’s Law, toss out the first three ideas you had, and move forward with the fourth. Then, of course, finish the story.

Have fun.

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By David Anthony Brown

Indie writer and publisher. Among other jack-of-all-trade skills...

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