Swamp Survival Strategy 5: Surprise Central

The center of novels written for the commercial genre market generally serves up a shocking plot twist or a large, highly anticipated pivotal event that marks a turning point for the characters and sends them rushing toward the finale.

Either approach is fine. Each has its own merits. Let’s look at them separately.

Wowza Surprise Injection:

We owe this method in part to thrillers and their dominance over the entertainment market. Yet any genre can utilize this technique. After all, what’s better than jolting readers with a logical but unanticipated plot twist? Depending on the type of story, this stinger can be funny, tragic, heartrending, scary, horrific, tragic, dangerous, or intensely romantic.

Two evenings ago, I was reading the latest John Sandford thriller, OCEAN PREY, and the middle of the book served up a doozy I didn’t see coming. I won’t spoil it, but it was a big shock. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t like it. I wish it hadn’t happened. However, it was logical. It made sense. The story events supported it. It raised the stakes. It fit the thriller genre perfectly by providing both thrill and chill. It’s the kind of plotting that put Sandford on the bestseller list to begin with and keeps him there, year after year. It gave me my money’s worth even before I finished reading the book.

Unexpected central events can come into a story as a huge confrontation between oppositional characters. It can be a startling revelation. In whatever form it takes, the surprise should deliver maximum entertainment value (up to that point in the story; remember the climax must top this.) Whatever it does, it should grab reader attention in a big way.

Spoiler Alert: In the mystery novel HOT MONEY by Dick Francis, the protagonist’s father’s home is exploded by a bomb in the book’s middle. In the urban fantasy, FOOL MOON by Jim Butcher, a horrific demonic monster breaks loose in a police station and kills cops, nearly destroys the building, and injures the protagonist who tries to stop it.

Even in quieter stories, the surprising plot twist is placed to wake up the saggy middle and give it fresh dramatic punch. In romantic fiction, for example, the center of the book can be where either member of the couple reaches the realization of intense physical attraction for the other. Or it may be the first bedroom scene of the book.

Disadvantages to the shocker plot twist:

  1. It may prove impossible to top this plausibly. Evaluate this plot development carefully to make certain you have a bigger and more compelling finish.
  2. You must plant for it, so that when it occurs it seems logical to readers, but take care you don’t give it away.
  3. It can be so shocking and destructive that it generates an enormous letdown in the aftermath. This can slow pacing too much, and some writers find it difficult to regain their story’s momentum.
  4. Avoid the temptation to kill your protagonist in the middle of the book. Although this may seem clever to you while you’re deep in the throes of swamp floundering, it’s rarely a brilliant idea. It’s extremely difficult to persuade readers to shift over to a new lead character.

Anticipated Pivotal Event:

This confrontation or story event is dangled before readers and characters from the book’s opening. Signals are clear that it’s coming and it won’t be pretty. Anticipation–and its by-product of suspense–builds scene by scene, leading up to whatever is going to take place.

The central pivotal event is a signal–well understood by readers–that the swampy middle is ending, and the author is about to lead everyone into Act III of the story. Up until this point, the protagonist probably had a safety line of some kind that would allow retreat. From the central event, however, there is no turning back. Whatever happens, the story stakes should go up. A gauntlet is thrown.

In some mysteries, a major clue is discovered that may turn the investigation around. In some thrillers, the killer’s identity is exposed. In some women’s fiction, marital infidelity may be revealed, shaking the relationship apart. In romance, the couple may break up. In science fiction, the ship may be severely damaged, putting everyone’s life in danger.

This type of looming central event must fulfill all the anticipatory buildup leading to it. Therefore, it must be large and it must be long in word count. That’s because in reader perception, length equals importance.

In the twentieth century, book chapters tended to be much longer than they are now. For example, Dean Koontz’s breakout thriller, WHISPERS, features a 7,500-word scene of intense, dangerous action between two characters. It’s tightly focused. The goals are directly oppositional–one wants to kill the other–and there’s nothing extraneous, nothing padded. With a single scene exceeding the length of a conventional short story, this is obviously of deep importance to the plot. We call this type of confrontation a Big Scene. It’s long, dynamic, impossible to put down, and very much delivering on reader expectation.

However, thanks to the influence of marketing guru, James Patterson, writing in the twenty-first century has become broken into smaller segments reflective of how people absorb information in quicker bursts, with myriad distractions vying for attention. Chapters today may be only 1,000 words–or less–so does that mean the Big Scene has become extinct?

It does not.

Instead, authors employ what we refer to as a Scene Cluster. This is three or more very short scenes jammed together without aftermath or character reaction. The clustering allows authors to keep the intensity or danger going, and the pacing very fast, but the segmentation allows viewpoint cross-cutting or stopping points for readers who may be interrupted. Once the cluster is over, then a long reaction is supplied to carry across all the scenes that were clustered into a single pivotal event.

While the Big Scene and the Scene Cluster are two very different writing structures, they accomplish the same result of spinning out and fully developing a momentous, terrible, horrific event taking place in your characters’ lives.

Disadvantages to the Central Pivotal Event:

  1. It can be challenging to build anticipation for the coming confrontation while not boring readers. The solution lies in finding fresh ways to keep raising the stakes just a little, just a little more, and more until the suspense seems unbearable. Simply relying on repetition will make readers impatient and jaded.
  2. Scene clusters can be difficult to manage without splitting story focus or losing control of what’s happening in a logical, cause-and-effect pattern. If you’re trying to juggle two or three viewpoints, stay aware of your protagonist and don’t let other characters seize too much limelight.
  3. Scene Clusters run the risk of losing reader involvement since the story action doesn’t stop to allow viewpoint character reaction to what’s happening. This is dangerous ground. Tread carefully.
  4. Either a Big Scene or a Scene Cluster must deliver whatever has been built up for it, and then add a little extra.
  5. Remember that the Climax of the book must top whatever happens in the story’s middle.

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