Plot Twists

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 19. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

I admire great plot twists. The go-to example of plot twists has to be the movies Sixth Sense and Snowpiercer. In the literary world, Isaac Asimov does a brilliant job in Second Foundation where the heroine succeeds almost by mistake in solving several problems at once.

I aspire to writing great plot twists. In my experience these have been a mixture of planned and unplanned events. When I wrote my short story The Captive I knew from the beginning that essentially the whole story is about the plot twist. In writing my first novel Vengeance Will Come I have plot twists which occur in the novel and twists that are only foreshadowed to be revealed later in the series.

What is a plot twist?

  • A plot twist should be something that surprises the reader (they weren’t expecting it), but makes total sense in hindsight.
  • Using plot twists correctly is about out-thinking your readers: fulfilling the promises you made, in a way they don’t expect.
  • Plot twists should be character- affecting, because otherwise there is no emotional investment for the reader.

How do you ‘come up’ with plot twists?

  • For the discovery writer it is an act of discovery, for the outliner it is discovering a conflict that can be used.
  • Sometimes its serendipity: you might not plan it, but it works out that way.

How do you do plot twists?

Surprising: The reader should not expect the plot twist. Throw away the first couple of ideas you have that readers would assume is going to happen.

In the podcast they say: “If you’ve seen it before in a movie or read it before in a book, then it’s not good enough.”

This statement stopped me. I agree with the following:

  1. A fresh plot twist is an excellent plot twist
  2. An overused plot twist is a bad plot twist

But what about those plot twists that sit in the middle; not fresh, but not overused? Surely there is room for some of those plot twists occasionally? To me books are not all about plot twists. I can enjoy a book with basic plot twists if it also has great characters or a solid plot. In all the books that have been written over the centuries, I think truly fresh plot twists would have to be rare. I think the statement is a little strong: or it could be the difference between being a writer and an amazing writer.

I wonder also whether it will get harder to write good plot twists. For example, previously killing off a main character might have been a good plot twist… after George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series (aka Game of Thrones) which kills of characters as regularly as most people take showers the wow factor is gone. Seriously, I think the man single-handedly saturated that technique, among others. So a good plot twist is going to require something more intelligent to do well.

Foreshadowing: Because a plot twists must make sense, it must be foreshadowed carefully. This is normally ‘added’ during successive drafts (retroactive foreshadowing). They suggest that for foreshadowing you should mention something three times, in a different context, to hint at it. Anything that you needed to use in the third act has a story of its own, told in act 1 or early in act 2.

Thankfully, this means you don’t have to get it right the first time. You can have many drafts over which to perfect the execution of it. (You may not even see the major plot twist until you have nearly written the entire story).

Misdirection: Make sure there is a lot going on so that the reader gets ‘red herrings’ and can’t guess what the plot twist will be. Think of a magician who keeps the audience looking at his left hand while his right hand is performing the trick, and aspire to that.

Research and practice: Analyse critically how other authors do it.

Other Tips

  • You don’t want to dilute the impact by putting too many plot twists in a single story.
  • Keep ideas for plot twists. It may not fit in this book but it might in the next.

Laying out the Plot

As I learn to write I am developing my own tools and techniques of how I write. This is of course mostly through trial and error; the methods I use are improving incrementally all the time. What works for me might work for you. I recently shared how I solve plot problems (part one and two), but how do I go about planning the overall plot of a story? This is how I did it for my current project, The Rebel Queen.

I designed the plot document in Microsoft Excel because it formats things nicely in a grid. Otherwise I would have to line them all up myself; I’m a bit OCDish in that regard. I will admit that I do tend to spend a bit longer “tidying” (aka procrastinating) on these things than I should so the formatting can get a bit pedantic. I do however like to work with things being “neat”, so it is still a valid and important part of my process. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I almost believe it.

Step 1: Identify the actors

plot-actors

These are mostly the characters, but can also be a faction or group within the story world who are involved in the plot.

Each of these I place in the first column of the spreadsheet, with a small row between each to provide a visual gap. I have written the character’s name and role, and sometimes also add their mood or disposition at the start of the story.

(Pedantic detail: The background is the same colour for the different core factions e.g. the good guys get one colour, the bad guys another colour etc. The “main” character in each group gets a slightly darker shade. All of the characters have a different colour font which is consistent throughout the plot document).

Step 2: Outline plot elements

plot-example

Under a heading of “Chapter 1” I then use the background colour to shade the cell. Inside of the cell, I add a brief description of what the character is doing or feeling in the chapter. Note that this is per chapter and a character having a box here doesn’t mean they necessarily get a point-of-view in the chapter. Not every actor will have a plot box in every chapter. Any additional detail that I want to write beyond a short description goes into a comment attached to the cell.

(Pedantic detail: The columns are uniform throughout the rest of the document. I always have the text box with a width of 16.09, then a visual gap column of width 2.18 and then an indicator column of width 0.5. Just to be clear the columns in the document are therefore 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5, 16.09, 2.18, 0.5 etc).

The “indicator column” which is green in the above picture starts off life with a grey shading. Grey denotes that it hasn’t been written yet; I change it to green when it has been written. Writing one scene may result in “completing” one or more indicators at a time.

Obviously I then continue with a column for each chapter…

Step 3: Tweak, and repeat

Inevitably the plot will change as you write. It’s a living document and I make changes as I realise that things needs to be adjusted.

Final thoughts

  • I haven’t described it above, but I also use the COUNTIF formula and text hidden in the indicator column of the plot boxes to calculate the percentage of how far through the plot line I am.
  • I probably should write a macro to make it easier to insert columns as needed; it’s a little tedious.

If you want to see the full plot laid out (but obfuscated) I posted it in a previous blog post. Hopefully you found this post or part of it helpful.

If you have any hints/tips that work for you I’d love to hear them.

How I Solve Plot Problems (2/2)

This post is part 2 of how I solve plot problems in my fiction writing. (See part 1 for the background and an understanding of the problem to be solved). Note that this post contains some spoilers for the novelette I am currently working on, The Rebel Queen.

I’m not sure why, but the process tends to work better for me if I write it out on paper, at least initially. I think it’s because of the speed with which I can strike out, draw arrows etc. Or perhaps it is because I have less distractions trying to format perfectly 🙂

Identifying the problem

I start by writing down the problem to solved at the top left of the page. Normally I put it inside of a starburst or a bordered-box to make it stand out. It’s the problem to be solved and it’s what I want to focus on.

I don’t usually get it right the first time. For example when I started working on this problem I wrote down ‘Make The Touched an integral part of Deckarian society’. But as I worked through the problem I realised that making them integral to society wouldn’t work because of the power imbalance it would cause. Instead the problem description became: ‘How can the cloaking devices be maintained by the Touched?’

Identify the Constraints

On the left hand side of the page below the starburst I write down the constraints. These are the things that need to happen. I try to think about them and work down the issues to the lowest level, without any previous thinking slipping in to muddy the waters.

In this case I need to:

  • Limit the exposure of the Talmeni secret to the outside, including the colony and other species.
  • The Talmeni/Touched must still be involved with the colony, at least annually and have influence over the colony.

Brainstorm Solutions

On the right hand side of the page I start to brainstorm solutions. Indented under each solution I try and identify its strengths and weaknesses, and assign a positive or a negative number (as to how badly or positively they affect things).

In this example I had written:

  • The ships could be serviced at the Talmeni homeworld
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -3 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
  • The ships could be serviced at a satellite/hidden location
    • -3 chance of keeping secret from outsiders/aliens
    • -2 chance of the Deckarians learning the Talmeni secret
    • -1 The Talmeni are supposed to be non-expansionist
  • The Touched could live in the colony
    • -5 power imbalance caused by their presence
    • -5 unlikely to be kept separate and for secret to remain intact
    • -2 The possibility of The Touched being captured is greater if the Deckarian world were invaded. Chance of a suicide-pact working for a large group.
    • -2 Talmeni control would be reduced.
  • The Touched could visit the colony periodically
    • +2 limits exposure of The Touched to aliens
    • +5 no power imbalance created
    • +2 allow strengthening of associated plot.
  • Ships could be delivered “whole” to the Deckarians; no maintenance provided.
    • -4 Realism. The Talmeni are not going to want pay for entire ships, or be happy with half-working ships travelling around. Creates too much of a dependence.

From these options, it’s fairly clear which solution would be the best: the Touched could periodically visit the colony. This solution solves the plot problems, and allows for strengthening of other plot issues.

 

 

 

How I Solve Plot Problems (1 of 2)

To explain how I go about solving plot problems it will be better to use a real-life example. This will result in a small spoiler for the novelette I am currently writing The Rebel Queen. I will be vague at points to minimise spoilage.

(Given how long this post has grown, I will make it a two-post subject. In this first post I will explain the background of the plot problem and in the second post, how I go about solving it).

Story Origin

The Rebel Queen came into being when I excised the plot line from my first novel Vengeance Will Come. I loved the plot line but it simply added too many characters too late in the novel. Even though it shared some common characters it was a separate story, and so it was best that I treat it as one. My intention is that it would not be the second story in the series, but bonus-content.

So after completing Vengeance Will Come I started working on shaping The Rebel Queen into a fully-fledged mini-story of its own. Foolishly I thought that as I already had 10,000 words written I could knock off the project in a month. (For more such foolish thoughts, please go to http://BenEzar..). My point is I wasn’t starting with the blank canvas, but from existing content and a requirement that certain elements remained true to the ‘canon’ I had laid out in Vengeance Will Come.

Background of the Problem

The Rebel Queen is a story about a semi-communist, matriarchal colony of aliens called Deckarians. Think of the species as a futuristic space-fearing version of pirates; friends of few, and pestilence of many.

Deckarian society is composed of 3 classes of individuals based on rigid occupation selection:

Pilots – spaceship captains who fly trading or raiding vessels. Retired pilots transition to become wealthy merchants. This is the most prestigious class.

Soldiers – provide internal security and defence of the colony from outsiders, as well as providing military might to the raiding vessels. Soldiers lack the wealth of the pilots, but have more prestige than the workers.

Workers – every other task. Necessarily this therefore contains administration, education or medical work but the class is considered to be blue-collar workers – too weak or cowardly to be soldiers, and not smart enough to be pilots. Though the vast majority of the colony are workers, it is the most scorned role.

When The Rebel Queen had to be elevated from plot line to story I felt it was necessary to do some world building of the species. From that work I discovered that the social structure with its bias against academics (workers), and the fact they live underground would result in a primitive technological level. The technological advancements that they have achieved or stolen are very focused (space travel) and do not extend into other fields of endeavor. Consequently the wealth of the colony is invested mostly in ships (to bring in more wealth), to the detriment of the rest of society.

This spawned a series of minor problems, and the one major problem.

Minor Problem 1: Technology. In Vengeance Will Come the Deckarians are said to have highly advanced cloaking technology on their ships, which help them evade detection. This is in contrast to the low-level of Deckarian technology, and so needs to be plausibly explained.

I resolved this problem with the introduction of another alien race, the Talmeni. The Talmeni are very advanced technologically in most fields of science. They supply the cloaking technology to the Deckarians.

Minor Problem 2: Commerce? But why don’t other species who lack the cloaking technology just buy or trade it with the Talmeni? (Thus nullifying the Deckarian advantage).

The Talmeni are exceedingly private to the obsessive extreme. They are isolationists who prefer to hide in the shadows. They are anti-expansionist and so still reside on their own single homeworld, seldom leaving it. They only deal with Deckarian colonies, at their complete discretion.

If any species can hide from the universe, it would be a species with advanced cloaking technology 🙂 For privacy (and other plot reasons which will stay under the veil of secrecy) only the Queen of the colony is aware of of the Talmeni’s involvement.

Major Problem 3: Upkeep with Privacy. But if the Talmeni provide the technology, who maintains it?

While The Rebel Queen involves a single colony of Deckarians, there are numerous colonies all who deal with the Talmeni. A steady stream of Deckarian ships, some with faulty cloaking devices, even in the incredible vastness of space would surely not go entirely unnoticed. (Let’s say that, anyway). Further, if most Deckarians don’t know of the Talmeni’s existence…they can hardly be visiting their homeworld often.

To try and solve this problem I thought that a group of Talmeni-trained Deckarians (“the touched”) could be returned to the colony. This has a number of flow-on problems which I didn’t identify until later:

  • The need for the secret shroud of the Talmeni would mean these touched would have to remain isolated in the colony, essentially a fourth group in society.
  • The touched having experienced Talmeni technology would hate being on a primitive, technologically-backward planet where they are kept isolated. Control and separation of this group would be impossible, and the secret would leak…
  • The solution felt ‘bolted on’ as though it didn’t fit with the rest of the world-building (mainly because it was added last from necessity, not from design).
  • If the touched taught other Deckarians the secrets of Talmeni technology, the Talmeni lose their bargaining chip.
  • The main problem with this is though it creates a power imbalance. These touched are smarter than the rest of the colony and they know a secret with which they could blackmail the Queen. They would effectively be in control.

Tune in for an upcoming post on how I went about solving this problem.

Planning: Setting

The three key aspects of any story are setting, plot and characters.

Here are some questions that I ask myself when developing the setting. You won’t necessarily need to answer all of these questions for every story. (I will add to these as I think of them; can you think of any others I can add to the list?).

Where is the story set?

  • Is it in a physical, real-life location, or a made-up fictional place? Is it in a spiritual realm or in a dream-like state?
  • What are the key areas within this ‘world’ where events will take place? It is common for epic fantasies to visit multiple cities and space operas to visit multiple planets.

Environment

  • What kind of environments are these – urban, rural, desert, frozen tundra…?
  • What does the topography/geography look like? Is it flat, or mountainous terrain? Are there any main visible features?
  • What kinds of flora (plants) are in the area? Are there many of them, or a few? Are they native or imported? Are there part-sentient yellow tulips with razor-sharp edges or head-high sugar cane?
  • What kind of fauna (animals) are around? Are they native or imported? Are there chirping birds overhead or herding cows on the hillsides? Or are there ominously no animals?
  • What time of year does the story occur in? What is the season/weather like? What is the temperature, humidity and precipitation like?
  • What time is the sunrise and sunset?
  • How has the environment shaped and been-shaped by the inhabitants? Do the people love or hate where they are? Has it made them strong, or are they weak because it is so luxurious?
  • Is there one or more magic systems in play? If so, who gets to use it? What are the rules for its use? How do you learn it? Are there ‘costs’ or dangers involved in its use? How do the general populace feel about magic-wielders?

Society

  • Are the people insular or multicultural (or multi-species)?
  • How are the groups (if they exist) in society different? How do they feel about each other? How much do they interact or keep themselves segregated? Do they serve specific and regimented roles within the society?
  • Who are the people ‘in charge’, and why are they in charge? Is it because of a specific attribute (physical strength or ability, mental ability). Or is it because they belong to a certain family, profession or are special in some other way? Do they fight to hold onto their power, or are they appointed by the populace? e.g. political, religious, technocratic (Forms of government)
  • What is the general mood of the people? Do the people like their rulers? Are they heavily taxed-until-death or pay no taxes? What kind of laws (legal and religious) exist? Are the people well-educated or considered expendable? How much self-determination do the people have? Are they in control of their own destiny or do others dictate it?
  • What level of technology exists? Does it belong to everyone, or can only certain people operate it? If a subset, is it because of genetics, education or a religious taboo…?
  • Do the people in this area all have a common occupation (e.g. farming) or is it diverse? Do they work hard or not work at all? Are the occupations ‘real world’ or fantastical? Are they content in their roles?

Infrastructure

  • Are there any buildings around? What is the architecture like? What are they constructed of? What kind of condition are they in? Does the infrastructure work, or is it dilapidated through misuse, neglect or harsh conditions?
  • How populated are the locations? Are they densely or sparsely populated, or not populated at all?

Writing Excuses: Generating Story Ideas

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the first part of WritingExcuses podcast Season 1, episode 2. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section). There are so many comments to make on this episode that I decided to split it into two blog posts.

Writing Excuses suggest:

  • When coming up with a story blend an ordinary idea (that people can relate to) with an extraordinary idea (something new). Screenwriter Terry Rozier calls this a “strange attractor“.
  • Be aware that the “trendy” ideas that are originally extraordinary become ordinary or cliché when over used. e.g. vampires. It was extraordinary in “Buffy” but now has been so overdone that someone really does need to stake the idea entirely.
    • You can however take an overused idea, and spin it differently by turning the idea completely on its head.
  • How much “ordinary” and “extraordinary” readers want depends on the genre and the modern-trend of the genre.
  • Ask yourself the hard question (and consider it deeply): Is this new or has it been done before?
  • Genius isn’t often about coming up with something new, but combining two existing things together in a way that no one has done before.

I don’t think you have to have the blend of ordinary and extraordinary. If you can, that will make a good book, but you can have a good book by re-telling essentially the same story. Dirk Pitt anyone? In the defence of the Writing Excuses crew they gave a nod to this with the idea of reader expectations. e.g. romances are all the same, just with different character names.

Fiona McIntosh says about generating story ideas:

There’s always a trigger. We may have read an article or seen a documentary. Something has caught out attention on the internet, or someone has told us an anecdote or recounted a particular experience. Sometimes the spark comes from our own lives but more often than not the seed of a story is given to us by an outside source. We water it and nourish it and look after it and that seed grows and flourishes into a full-blown tale because we’ve added our imagination and our life experiences to it. It may even be a series of ideas blending and working together. Essentially stories for novels are drawn from everyday life.

That’s not helping you, is it? Much too vague, right? Sigh. I know. I warned you, we don’t really know.

Update: In fairness to Fiona McIntosh I later read further and she goes on and describes how she came up with ideas for her books, in much the same way as I did below.

For what it is worth, I get my inspiration from many different places. It can be something I have been thinking about, something I witnessed or simply a story based on a desire to experiment with the writing craft.

  • I first began my novel Vengeance Will Come when I was about sixteen and under the influence of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and the Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins. Honestly it’s evolved favourably since then because it was pretty terrible at its birth. The story theme is as old as the first hell-fire sermon: a great apocalypse is coming. Being the first in the series it is an origin story for some of the characters and plots. There is nothing particularly new in it’s themes: brooding war, political wrangling and personal struggles are all well worn themes even when set on the broad canvas of the universe. It’s a fairly standard sci-fi fantasy mix.

If you haven’t read my novelette Escape from Hell or my short stories then I suggest you do, or stop reading now.  There is about to be spoilers.

  • My novelette Escape from Hell came from dreams and thoughts of what heaven and hell could be like. It was also partly inspired by the Bible, Heaven is For Real and Saved by the Light (which I didn’t finish).
  • The short story The Captive was born because I wanted to practice the writing technique of a “reveal”. To do this, I needed a surprise, and in the same week I began thinking about what it must be like to live with dementia or another medical issue which distorts reality.
  • The short story Alone was a follow up story (from The Captive) was written as a challenge to myself to write a parallel story that was limited and yet still emotive.

I have a dozen ideas of varying themes and genres that I am looking forward to writing, once I get Vengeance Will Come finished.

If you’re so inclined, tell me how you come up with your story ideas…