Tag Archives: plot twists

Swamp Survival Strategy 7: Incorporating Multiple Story Lines–Part B

The last technique I want to address in this series on coping with a book’s second act has to do with Hidden Story. This is the third of three story lines that books contain. It’s not a subplot. It is instead what’s happening among your characters who are offstage.

You dramatize the Ongoing Story (your main plot line) in successive scenes and present them onstage for readers. But while that story action is happening, what is going on behind those scenes?

Hidden Story runs parallel to and simultaneously with Ongoing Story. Consequently, it’s far more challenging to handle than Back Story. The Back Story is about character secrets and motivations. It’s invented as needed. Hidden Story is about staging the next conflict that will take place. It’s about the trouble that will hit your protagonist next. Most of the time, Hidden Story is far more important to a book’s progression than Back Story. Hidden Story should be plotted with as much care as the Ongoing Story.

Don’t let this intimidate you. In your first few learning-novel manuscripts you may not deal with Hidden Story other than indirectly as you keep track of what your antagonist is doing, plotting, scheming, and planning when not confronting the protagonist in scene action. It can be sufficient to focus on the central, dramatized plot and simply figure out where and when the antagonist will throw a plot twist at your hero.

However, you may find yourself with that empty stretch of pages in the middle where nothing seems to be happening the way you planned. You may find your ongoing story action stalled while your protagonist waits passively for plot developments to unfold. You may feel that you’ve lost your way. You may worry that the excitement of your opening is fading.

When you start to want more from your book idea, when you find yourself eager to add dimension, when you feel ready to stretch and grow a bit, then it’s time to take on the strategy of where and when you’ll reveal glimpses of Hidden Story to your readers. Doing this in the book’s swampy, dismal, gloomy, dark middle can spark new interest in moving the plot forward.

Handling Hidden Story can be managed in either single viewpoint or in multiple viewpoint. Most of the time, Hidden Story involves tracking the movements of the antagonist, although the POV shift can move focus to any secondary character capable of carrying a subplot.

If you choose to write from a single POV, the Hidden Story will be much more hidden. Readers don’t know what’s going through the villain’s mind. They have to settle for allusions through character action, behavior, reaction, and dialogue.

If you choose to shift viewpoints, Hidden Story becomes much easier to handle because the characters are onstage more often. Readers gain the privilege of seeing much of the antagonist’s plotting and planning against the protagonist. Readers are privy to actions which serve to raise new threats over the hero or endanger people the hero cares about.

Of course, if you’ve never tackled multiple POV before, you may not feel ready to take it on. That’s perfectly okay. Remember that I’ve shared six other strategies for keeping your book’s middle from sagging, bogging down, or drowning. However, if you decide to shift viewpoint to try this strategy, please remember that changing viewpoint effectively requires adept story sense and timing. You need to set hooks and switch clearly from your protagonist’s perspective to follow story action that doesn’t involve your primary character.

Please understand that if you stick to one viewpoint, your story’s plot twists will be less predictable and more surprising to readers.

On the other hand, if you choose multiple viewpoints, you can raise threat and generate suspense, but it’s possible to reveal too much Hidden Story and thereby undermine your plot twists.

The proper handling and management of the three story lines can make a vital difference in whether your manuscript seems to flow plausibly from character goals and motivations instead of featuring puppet characters being moved too visibly by the author’s hand.

The proper handling and management of these three story lines will also affect your decisions of how to order your scenes and their reactions for the best dramatic result. Just remember that although Hidden Story often will be revealed for the first time in the dismal middle, you should have plotted it carefully in your initial outline. You will also wait for the revision process to best determine where you’ll allow Hidden Story and Ongoing Story to intersect.

And so this wraps up the seven strategies for dealing with the dismal swamp. Using one or several of these techniques should help you navigate the most challenging section of a novel and make it as much fun to write as it is to read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Swamp Strategies

I was driving recently atop a levee built to contain swamp land. It’s spring. The rains are falling in drizzles and torrents. The rivers and lakes are swelling, backing extra water into sludgy swampy places where varmints like snakes and alligators await the unwary who dare venture there.

Sounds fanciful, right? Well, the man who taught me most of the writing craft I know–Jack Bickham–had an apt term for what fancy book writers now tend to call the second act. Jack called it the “Great Swampy Middle.” In my books on writing craft, I refer to it as the “Dark Dismal Middle.” Neither term makes it sound appealing, but they are–I think–apt descriptors.

It’s the longest section of a book manuscript. It’s possibly the most challenging segment to write. It’s where a writer can become lost, flounder, and sometimes sink. It’s the perfect portion of a story to release plot twists that Jack used to call “alligators.”

Although ideally a novel should start in an intriguing or exciting way, escalate strategically through increasing trouble and conflict, and wind up the story problem in a smashing climax, all of that is easier said than done. Once the thrilling opening of your story loses momentum and you reach that section of your plot outline where everything becomes vague because you hoped you’d be inspired by the time you got there, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a slump. The story’s not so fun anymore. It can seem bewildering and endless. It can become a flat, dull slog. Savvy writers equip themselves with multiple techniques of the writing craft to fend off such problems.

So in this blog series, I want to address what I call Seven Swamp Survival Strategies. They are as follows:

  1. Juggle plates
  2. Check plot progression
  3. Introduce subplots
  4. Use multiple viewpoints
  5. Execute a large or pivotal central story event
  6. Heighten plot suspense
  7. Reveal hidden and back story

They’re by no means all a writer can utilize to keep the middle from sagging or stalling, but in my career I have found them to be effective and useful. I’ll be explaining them one by one in the posts to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Watching People Work

Last weekend, I treated myself by attending the Land Run Antiques Show in Oklahoma City. It was a two-day show at the OKC fairgrounds. At closing the final day, I lingered to watch the dealers knock down their booths. I am friends with several of them, so no one minded if I hung around and stayed out of the way.

How people prepare for their work has always fascinated me. Whether it’s just my natural inclination or because it reminds me of how my grandfather carefully planned a project in his shop and kept his tools always in their proper place, I like to see how a toolbox is filled, how an office is arranged, how a secretary sets up her desk or a supply closet, how a wallpaper hanger positions her sawhorses, brushes, knives, and glue. Some people perform tasks carelessly and sloppily. Others are skilled, efficient, and highly organized.

Antiques and vintage dealers are expected to set up artfully arranged booths that will attract shoppers, yet it all must be packed and hauled out within a brief number of hours.

With the shoppers gone Sunday afternoon, the ambiance changed like a flipped switch. Out came boxes and plastic bins. Down came stacked shelves and folding tables. Away whisked the tablecloths. In roared a cavalcade of minivans and commercial vans with trailers.

I watched one dealer pack her wares by color. Her shelves broke down into a stack of boards and pipe framework that fit flat on the floor of her van. Her delicate china plates and porcelain figurines and pieces of Victorian silver vanished into bins that stacked neatly together behind the driver’s seat. A box of stacked mirrors followed, then a box of framed art. Then her array of vintage clothing was hung along the sides of the van, and finally more shelving and tables were folded and stowed.

The booth behind her was filled with costume jewelry and a few small pieces of vintage furniture. The elderly lady commanding it quickly and efficiently filled her minivan by stacking the thin flat showcases of jewelry, sliding her folded display tables into place, and fitting the rest together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. She was done in no time.

Over to the side, the dealer I always call “the glass guy” was busily wrapping an enormous booth filled with crystal stemware, serving pieces, and art glass. Each piece had to be carefully swathed in paper to avoid cracks or chipping, and there were a lot of pieces. He went at it systematically, with his wrapping paper stacked on the table beside him and as he filled a plastic bin he put it on the floor and proceeded in a systematic, orderly fashion around the perimeter of his booth. Green depression glass together. Purple crystal and serving bowls together. Blue opalescent items together. Pink cake pedestals together. He knew exactly how long it would take him to wrap his wares. His helper could not come, but he remained cheerful and busy, doing what had to be done.

It reminded me of my childhood, when the circus or a carnival would arrive. A cavalcade of trucks and trailers would roar into the outskirts of my community, heading for the county fairgrounds. By nightfall, the magic would be in place, glittering under an early autumn’s evening sky. You couldn’t look too closely or you’d notice peeling paint and worn rides and poorly maintained safety bars, but if you worked with the magic, if you tried to stay within the enchantment, it was fabulous. And then, after a few short days, would come the closing. The carousel horses would be removed from the merry-go-round. The Ferris wheel cars would be unhooked and folded and stacked. The magic would fade, and when all was stowed, strapped, and secured, away the cavalcade would go.

As I’ve said, last Sunday several dealers seemed surprised that I lingered to watch them close down. But my fascination wasn’t idle curiosity; it had a purpose. As a writer, I must  know the subtext of any scene I write. I must know what lies beneath the surface of my characters. If I don’t understand their background, history, and motivations, then they become flat, lifeless shades mouthing dialogue without effect. I must know the Wizard of Oz’s secret.

When my protagonist makes a promise, does he plan to honor it or is he lying? Why? What will be the result of that? Can he fool his enemy, his friends, my readers?

And just as important as knowing what lies beneath the surface is understanding how to hide it, how to create the surface magic, how to make lies sound like truth, how to spin suspicion into trust, how to persuade that horrified little girl who’s just beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus to hang onto her belief for one more Christmas.

Learning to shift adeptly back and forth across both the surface and subtextual meanings is part of my writing job. It’s part of what makes plot twists halfway predictable, or exciting, or galvanizing stingers.

Whether we realize it or not, we bring a carnival to town every time a reader opens the pages of what we’ve written.


Filed under Uncategorized

Chapter Structure

Long ago in the far away of my writer’s training, I was taught to focus on my plot, write it according to valid story principles, and relax in the knowledge that chapters would take care of themselves.

But although this Zen approach works for me, I’m asked about chapters enough to realize that not everyone understands what chapters are, what they do, why they’re structured as they are, and what their purpose is.

Now I haven’t bothered to research the history of chapters or when they first came about in the musty tomes of past literature, but my guess is that they were devised to aid readability, just as the Bible was divided into chapters and verses at some point. If the family gathered around the light of a candle in the evening and listened to someone reading aloud, chapter breaks were useful in providing a stopping point so that weary folks could go to bed.

Modern authors have put a different spin on this by building in hooks and plot twists to make it difficult for a reader to stop at the end of a chapter. We want readers to remain enthralled, unable to put the book down.

So what, then, is the structure?

I might as well say now that there are no particular rules about what makes up a chapter, much less how long it should be. For example, my favorite chapter of all time occurs in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It consists of one sentence:  “And nothing else happened for the rest of the night.”

Most chapters, though, run longer than that. If you’ve read a LOT, then you should have a pretty good idea of how material is grouped together. Some writers make a chapter of each scene. That worked pretty well a couple of decades ago, when scenes were long and thorough, running perhaps 10-12 manuscript pages. But today, scenes tend to be shorter and tighter. We have authors who specialize in what I call scene fragments, where they hit the heart of the conflict and break away quickly to some other portion of the plot. (John Sandford is a master of the scene fragment, although he doesn’t write all of his Prey thrillers that way.)

These days, scenes and chapters alike are growing shorter. Why? We live at a faster clip. We are inundated with more and more information–valid and useful, or not–and much of what we encounter is telegraphic to fit tweets and sound bytes.

This reduction within chapters has happened gradually during the 21st century. Although I’ve known about the trend, I hadn’t really noticed the difference until I recently started converting some of my backlist titles to digital versions for Kindle’s platform. (Then I saw how long my scenes used to be, and how my book chapters usually featured at least two scenes bridged by a sequel.)

Feeling confused yet?

Okay. Let’s simplify the topic. Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.

Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion.

The chapter’s content should span a single event that’s written as a scene of conflict. Or it should span a series of incidents related in narrative summary where the protagonist is pursuing some objective.

For example:  Let’s say Paul Protagonist wants his mother to loan him her house in the Hamptons so he can throw a big party.

He calls her. No answer. He texts her. No answer. He drops by her Park Avenue apartment, but she’s not at home. The manservant tells him that she’s at her favorite spa, getting a facial. So he goes there and finally tracks her down. Coated in mud and up to her neck in a boiling hot tub, Mom peels the cucumber slice off one eye and glares at him.

“Are you nuts?” she asks. “Of course you can’t borrow my house to throw a party. The last time your friends were in there, you let an elephant knock down the kitchen walls.”

“I didn’t bring the elephant,” Paul assures her. “I won’t invite the guy who did.”

“Absolutely not,” Mom replies, sticking the cucumber slice back in place. “Go hire a house if you want a party.”

“Hire one? Hire one? It will cost me a fortune, and I have to pay for caterers and booze.”

“The people next door are renting their place for events. Cheaply, I understand. Try them.”

“But they’re Russian vampires.”

“I know, darling. Such tacky people. How they ever got into our gated community, I don’t know. They keep trying to join the country club. So tiresome, but try them anyway. Now leave me alone.”

Okay, this is admittedly a very silly example, but it demonstrates how Paul has pursued his objective in several ways through scene and narrative clustered around the common goal of finding his mother.

Now, because she won’t cooperate, he must form a new objective and decide whether he’s going to approach the vampire neighbors or do something else. But that should fall into a new chapter.


Filed under Uncategorized

Scene Check: Part How

In planning or editing any given scene, consider the “how” questions:

How long will the scene be?

Answer? A scene’s length depends on what’s at stake, what the two opposing characters’ motivations are, and how strong the conflict will be.

Let’s say a scene’s purpose is for a private investigator to gain the answer to a question. He goes to the victim’s sister and asks her about the strange clothing the victim was wearing the night she was killed.

If the sister wants to help, but she doesn’t know the answer, the scene conflict will be mild and brief. She’ll evade a little, then when pressed, she’ll admit she doesn’t know the reason. When pressed a little more, she’ll insist she doesn’t know. It’s obvious she’s telling the truth, and the detective moves on.

But if the sister is hiding something, if the peculiar clothing points to an aspect of that secret she doesn’t want known, she’ll be nervous and irritable. Her evasions will be stronger, and as a result the detective will be more suspicious. He’ll ask tougher questions, and she’ll lie, and maybe flirt, and maybe try to change the subject, and finally throw him out.

How much conflict should there be in a scene?

To reiterate the point made above, the degree of conflict will depend on what’s at stake.

If the issue is simply whether to eat a hamburger for lunch, then the low stakes hardly merit a scene at all.

But if the issue is really about a rocky relationship, where the woman has celiac’s disease and the man insists on their eating lunch in a burger joint, now the argument isn’t over the menu but about how little he cares for her health or safety; in fact, how little he cares about her.

How can a scene be lengthened?

Before you solve that problem, examine why you think the scene is too short.

Do you feel your characters overlooked something as they argued? Did you intend to include a particular point but as the scene heated up, your characters skipped it? Or do you have the sense that the scene just isn’t doing enough?

In the latter case, compare the protagonist’s motivations and goal to his emotional involvement. Is he a bit passive? Has he given in too quickly? Those are signs of insufficient emotional involvement with the goal.

On the other hand, if a character really cares about what he’s trying to accomplish, then he won’t stop at the first maneuver of opposition. Or even the second. He’ll persist as far as he can take the confrontation until that persistence lands him in trouble.

Also, when a scene falls too short or seems too skimpy, look at the antagonist’s emotional involvement. Perhaps this character’s motivation isn’t strong enough. If you make adjustments, what happens?

Or, perhaps the antagonist’s motivation is strong but for some reason you had him rein back much of his temper. Why? Are you inadvertently trying to protect your protagonist? Unleash the antagonist’s temper. Stop coddling your protagonist. Let one character needle the other one, and see if it pushes any emotional buttons.

How can a scene be shortened?

Maybe you’ve written a strong, tense scene where the conflict level escalates well and the confrontation ends in a setback for the protagonist. The scene is well-crafted, but for some reason you’ve got to shorten it. Perhaps your story is over the assigned length and simple tightening hasn’t reduced it enough.

To shorten a scene, first look for any chitchat. Get to the argument quicker. Look for internalizations, gestures, or mannerisms. Trim them. Look for pauses while you describe the room or a prop one of the characters is handling. Shorten or eliminate those. Then search for any attempt by the antagonist to get the protagonist off track or on a tangent. Eliminate that tactic.

How can a plot twist be incorporated?

First of all, let’s nix the kind of brainless plotting where a writer simply thinks about the most horrible random thing that could happen and tosses it into the scene.

For example, a teacher and her principal are sitting in the school’s office, having a civilized disagreement over whether the after-school music club should be discontinued. And suddenly there’s an earthquake, and a bookcase filled with books and school trophies falls on the teacher, breaking her collarbone and giving her a concussion.

Plot twist! Right?

Well, not exactly a plausible or effective one. It’s not organic to the situation. It’s sheer, coincidental bad luck. It may seem exciting, but how does it actually contribute to the story?

Plot twists work best when they come from the antagonist. So the teacher goes into this meeting thinking she’s got to stand up for the music club and find some way to persuade her principal from cutting it, and the principal tells her the real reason he’s ending the club is that he’s learned she was accused of pilfering club funds at her last teaching position and he doesn’t want her trying such shenanigans here.

Miss Jones is left stunned, hardly able to respond as she stumbles from the office. She did not steal at her last job, but she was never fully exonerated. She moved to another state, trying to get away from the scandal, but now it’s followed her here. She should have kept her head down and simply taught her classes, bringing no attention to herself. But she wanted to help her young students. She wanted to bring an extra dimension of music appreciation to their young lives. And now, the lie is hanging over her again.

Plot twists pick at the issues the protagonist most fears and bring them forward. Not only can’t she have the music club, but now she’ll fear for her job as well. If the principal doesn’t like her, he’ll use it to end her teaching contract. So the plot twist was unexpected, hit her like a ton of bricks, and has made her story situation much worse than before.

That’s much more effective than a random earthquake, isn’t it?

How can a scene make things worse for the protagonist?

Through setbacks and plot twists, as I’ve just showed you in the above example.

The worse the scene ends for the protagonist, the better–as far as the story is concerned. Remember that this isn’t to be sadistic toward your protagonist, but to force the character to change as a result of meeting challenges.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Moon Alligators

I think that sometimes the writing craft can start to take itself too seriously. We can get so wrapped up in scene structure and character complexity and viewpoint rules that it’s possible to lose our nerve, our verve, and our sense of fun.

After all, the imagination is like a child. Nurture it and set it free, and it will laugh, skip, and play. Hem it in and restrict it with too many rules, and it will sulk.

That isn’t to say that we should set aside what we know about structure and craft. But we should never let those elements chain us down until writing is a dreary, tedious chore.

When the storyline is bogging down … when my creativity seems stilted and static … I know it’s time for a plot twist, the less predictable the better.

In such emergencies, I can’t worry about what’s already been laboriously set up to happen in the story. I need to bring something in from left field. My writing teacher Jack Bickham called this tactic an “alligator” because it would be dangerous to the hero, arrive unexpectedly in the story, and be capable of doing anything.

Last week, I read a zany fantasy novel by Jim C. Hines called LIBRIOMANCER. Halfway through the book, the protagonist Isaac suddenly finds himself on the moon where he proceeds to fight robotic automatons in conditions of zero gravity and kicked-up moon dust.

In a million years, I wouldn’t have expected a fantasy novel to suddenly land me on the moon. (In the words of that Dish satellite commercial: “How’re we breathin’?”)

Hines doesn’t care how his protagonist is breathing. I’m still not entirely sure how Isaac even got up there or how he got back, except that magic was used.

Going to the moon was an alligator. It was unexpected. It woke me up. The protagonist was so jazzed to find himself on the moon that he made me happy to be there, too. The event didn’t make a lot of logical sense and it could have been cut without affecting the story. However, I’m so glad no dour editorial instinct slashed it to the trash bin. It’s charming.

Long ago, when I was writing the first novel that I would actually sell to a publisher, I got stuck about halfway through. I was befuddled and tired. I couldn’t think of what should happen next. I knew I wasn’t ready to push the characters into the climax. What to do?

That’s when I learned to cut loose with the “what if” game.

The only requirement for the “what if” game is that you should go for the most outrageous, crazy, wild thing you can think of.

Never mind how it will work or connect. Let yourself go with anything that strikes a chord with you.

In effect, give yourself permission to throw a pie in the protagonist’s kisser.

Hines let his protagonist walk on the moon. Then he found a way to make it fit.

In my first novel, A LOVE SO WILD, I put a dead rat in the heroine’s picnic basket. Why? Where did that come from? Dunno! But it made her scream, livened up a blah scene, and gave her a reason to fling herself, weeping, into the hero’s manly arms.

Even better, by bringing in an alligator, I found my flagging interest in the story revived. My energy level improved. My imagination went back to work. Yes, it was a challenge to plant a plausible explanation for the rat, but that’s what revision is for. Meanwhile, I wrote onward with renewed zest.

So when you’re stuck, try reaching for a moon alligator. Don’t censor yourself. Just have the courage to play.

You’ll write all the better for it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Jump Forward, Fold Back

Linear plotting may be straightforward and designed for readers to follow easily, but that doesn’t mean it has to plod or be predictable.

Hooks and plot twists serve to jazz up a story and hold off monotony.

One variant of the hook technique is known as the jump forward, fold back strategy. It can be used to open a book chapter partway through a story. It can be used in the middle of a short story to keep readers slightly off-balance and intrigued.

Generally, it’s most often employed after the protagonist has planned what he or she will do next. Okay, Reader thinks. This is what we’re going to do next.

Except that when the page is turned, Reader finds herself jumped ahead of the planned event with the characters already involved in what follows it. Then there is a foldback that summarizes what was jumped over.

This technique injects a little excitement into a story event where something important to the characters is going to occur, but it lacks enough conflict to be dramatized into an actual scene.

Let’s draw an example from romance author Betty Neels, one of Harlequin’s most successful authors, who wrote well into her 90s. Often in these “sweet romance” stories, the waif-heroine will be offered an outing or a date with the handsome, rich hero. It’s built up with much anticipation. The heroine has to plan the outfit she’ll wear, and she usually worries a little about how the date will turn out. Directly after this build-up, Ms. Neels jumps forward with a transition sentence such as …

“Late that night, Heroine climbed into bed and thought over the evening. It had been more special than she’d ever dreamed possible. The restaurant was … ” And then the high points of the lobster thermidor gourmet meal, the dancing, etc. are mulled over in the heroine’s thoughts.

Another variant of this technique is when the event that’s jumped over is both dramatic and vital to the development of the story. In such an instance, the fold back becomes a flashback delivered in full scene/sequel structure. In novels, it’s useful in the middle to convey backstory and explain character motivation by dramatizing some key points of conflict between the protagonist and another major character. Televised soap operas also employ this method.

It can also be used to open a story at an exciting point and then deal with what led up to it.

An example would be this week’s episode of the television program CASTLE. Generally, CASTLE is one of the better-written shows on television. Aside from the little injections of humor, a deftly handled romantic subplot that’s broken the so-called MOONLIGHTING Curse, and engaging characters, the show is worth being studied for the way its scripts are written.

Last night’s teaser opened with a night-shot. A huge building fire roars in the background. Firemen, cops, and paramedics are standing around helplessly. Beckett is on the phone with tears in her eyes, telling the pregnant wife of a fellow officer that “something’s happened.”

Then the story rolls back twelve hours and brings us up to speed on the case and the investigation.

This was a brilliant plotting strategy, given that the crime of arson this time overshadows the crime of murder. And the best way to effectively convey arson isn’t by showing a ruined ash heap but by showing fire engulfing a building.

Jumping forward and folding back is simple enough to use. It works effectively, yet it’s not confusing. Just make sure that you work out your plotline in a straightforward, linear, step-by-step fashion for your own understanding. Pick the slowest spot in your story and jump over it, making sure that you then inform or show the reader what initially seemed to be skipped.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

SPARKLE: Dramatic Flair–Part II

When incorporating flair into your stories, here are a few suggestions:

1. Be willing to take risks. (Sounds like a repeat of a previous post, doesn’t it? You betcha! I repeat points when I think they matter.)

If you’re going to be a strip-tease dancer, you have to come out on stage and at least peel off a glove.

Characters that are shrinking violets lack flair. The safe, boring, plain, mousy character that never changes will lack what it takes to carry a story to its finish.

One reason I enjoy watching DANCING WITH THE STARS is waiting to see whether some of the celebrities with two left feet are ever going to get the hang of ballroom dancing. There’s technique and footwork to learn, choreography to master, posture to improve, trust in a partner to develop, stage fright to get over … and above and beyond all of that, delivering performance flair that makes the audience cheer.

Some of the celebrities have lovely technique, but they’re shy or wooden. They never manage to sparkle, and they don’t reach their audience.

They’ve taken the risk to put themselves in the competition, but they never make it over the threshold to self-expression and performance.

Others are all sparkle and can’t discipline themselves to master technique. So the audience loves how they shimmy, but the judges loathe what they do with their footwork or posture.

2. Whatever you come up with, EXAGGERATE it. If you’ve devised a competent starship captain that always manages to bring her cargo in on time … excuse me while I yawn.

All we have so far in this example is a foundation, a list of qualities: good at job, highly skilled, responsible, and reliable. (Snore …)

How, then, do we exaggerate competent? Well, this captain is soooo good that she’s Captain Kirk good. She’s the best captain in the commercial fleet of Galactic Starlines Shipping. She’s their highest-paid officer. Every manufacturing in the colony worlds is clamoring to hire her.

Every other captain in the fleet hates her guts and is out to beat her, either fairly or through sabotage.

Now, when you’re really good at something and you know it, you don’t have to swagger and posture. You just are. So Captain Kira has nothing to prove to anybody. That gives her a certain manner, a confidence, an assuredness that many people lack.

Let’s say, though, that she goes out armed because of her many rivals and competitors–and also to protect the cargo she’s hired to carry.

So when she lands in spaceport, she crosses the terminal in her uniform, with military bearing, and alert. She’s carrying a PPK pro-load plasma pistol on her hip. It’s a non-concealed weapon, and the fact that she’s allowed by security to wear it in a crowded, intergalactic space terminal means she’s licensed and knows how to use it.

See how I’m pulling her toward the flair end of the spectrum? Exaggerating isn’t a matter of dressing her up in a purple cape and having her snarl rudely at her minions. It’s building a character up from the inside out.

When you do that, readers understand instinctively that you should test this highly competent, take-no-prisoners captain. They’ll expect you to drop some major trouble on Captain Kira and see how she handles it.

3. Increase the plot’s conflict. However much trouble you’ve cooked up, it probably isn’t enough.

I don’t mean that you should scrape up a lot of incidental problems and pitfalls that aren’t connected to the story. Remember that we want flair, not random chaos.

Instead, look at the characters you’ve designed and exaggerated. What makes them tick? If you were in their situation, how would you react? What exactly would you do? Would you ever, in a thousand years, do or say what you’re assigning to them? Why or why not?

And whatever they’re involved in, how can the villain make things worse for them?

4. Try to inject some humor. One of the endearing aspects of the television character Rick Castle is his boyishness, his delight in little details of the case he’s working on, his enthusiasm, his imagination and creativity, and his willingness to play. Such qualities bring sparkle to the show to offset what would otherwise be very grim crimes.

The silly, delightful fairy tale film, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, is bristling with flair. There’s danger, exaggeration, swashbuckling, pathos, and a great deal of comedy deftly mixed together. In the scene where Wesley has to choose which chalice contains the poison, the situation itself is a serious one. The bad guy holds a knife at Buttercup’s throat. If Wesley refuses to participate, she will die. If he chooses the wrong chalice, he will swallow poison. Anticipation is built during the banter between Wesley and the bad guy. More anticipation is built with the absurd little tricks they play on each other in order to switch the cups. And even the twist is comedic.

5. Throw in the unexpected. Sure, you need to design your characters and plan your plot. You need to consider how best to construct plot twists for the key turning points of a novel. You should outline and consider how you can make the story better and stronger and more compelling.

But don’t be afraid to pitch something completely out of left field into the story now and then, just to keep it going.

I learned how to do this early on in my writing career, back before I had much skill at plotting. My outlining abilities were poor. I knew my protagonist’s goal. I knew enough to set up a villain in opposition to that goal. I knew how to write scenes of conflict. Beyond that … I was weak!

Often, in those early writing projects, I just cooked up some cliff-hanger on the spur of the moment–using anything that came to me as a hook so I could close the chapter and go eat dinner.

Then, if my wild turn of events actually worked, I would backtrack to an earlier portion of the manuscript and plant a few details to make the event plausible.

When I was writing the story that eventually became my first published book, I got stuck in the middle. I knew how the story would end, but I was bogged down and couldn’t seem to get there. I needed something to happen, but my hero and heroine were just going on a picnic. Nowadays, I recognize this as an obligatory element in romance fiction called “getting-to-know-you time.” Then, I felt like my plot had stalled, and I was fighting off impending panic.

While I was moaning about this, a friend said, “Why don’t you have the girl discover a dead rat in the picnic basket?”

In the abstract, what an absurd suggestion! It was so left-field it was crazy. Yet I was desperate enough to do it.

Yes, I had to scramble a lot to make the setup for that rat plausible. I was forced to really think through what possible motivation a character could have for doing such a nasty thing to my heroine.

That thinking and plotting was good for me. It forced me to be creative and grow as a young writer. In using a zany, unpredictable development, I was able to think beyond the box I’d wedged myself into. I improved my skills as a result.

It also gave my heroine a jolly good reason for wigging out and bursting into tears, which gave the hero the perfect opportunity to take her in his arms.




In going for flair, loosen up. Relax and set the wild and wacky notions in your imagination free once in a while. They might surprise you. Better still, they might surprise your readers.

Study the classic films made under the studio system and observe how the major movie stars dominated the screen or stole scenes from other actors on the set. Look at what they’re doing and how they were doing it in the days before method acting took over.

Borrow and adapt. See what you come up with.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sparkle: Make That Plot Zippy!

When I’m reading a novel, there’s nothing more disappointing when–after a promising chapter one–the story slows and dulls down.

This week, I’ve been wading through excessive explanation, dialogue without conflict, and banal incidents strung together. It’s a second book from a new author whose debut last year was a real sparkler. Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. Alas, this one has all the zing of a wet sponge.

Do not let this happen to your story!

What do you do to avoid it?

Make sure you keep the plot strong by utilizing three techniques: hooks, conflict, and twists.

Hooks: You probably know there are myriad hooks of all shapes and effects. We’re not going to count them here. What’s essential to understand about them is that any hook you use should result in–unpredictability.

That means you open your story with a hook. You start your chapters with hooks. You end your scenes with hooks. You introduce your characters with hooks.

Grab your reader’s attention without stalling, without hesitating, without timidity. Think about the opening line to Sidney Sheldon’s IF TOMORROW COMES: “She undressed slowly, dreamily … and put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

I refer to this example often because it never fails to deliver zing. Sheldon leads your imagination in one direction (the feint) and then socks you with surprise (the upper cut). Is it subtle? Not at all. Hooks are not about subtlety. They’re about giving the reader entertainment.

Conflict: What makes a story boring faster than any other cause? Lack of sufficient conflict. If your protagonist isn’t in trouble, facing trouble, wading into trouble, or fleeing from trouble, YOUR BOOK IS IN TROUBLE.

It’s that simple. So what, exactly, is conflict?

Conflict is goals in opposition.

That’s a pat and quippy definition. What does goals in opposition mean?

Simply that as soon as your protagonist wants something specific, tangible, and obtainable, the antagonist will seek immediately to thwart the attainment of that objective.

Example: Polly Protagonist wants to buy a horse.

I’ll warn you right now that the above goal statement looks specific but is in fact vague. Push Polly to do better.

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis.

Why? (What’s her motivation?)

Polly Protagonist wants to buy her neighbor’s horse, a bay gelding named Artemis, because she’s dreamed about owning a horse of her own since she was a child. Every day, she drives home past the pasture where Artemis is grazing. She sees the sun glinting on his reddish coat. The wind tosses his dark mane and tail. She knows he’s a gentle animal from the times she’s sneaked over to the fence and lured him to her with apples and carrot chunks. She’s fallen in love with him, and she wants to take him home.

Now for the conflict. Remember that it’s goals in opposition. So we need Andy Antagonist to step in and thwart Polly. Andy can be the owner of Artemis, and he doesn’t want to sell. Or he can be a guy who wants to buy Artemis because he’s also fallen in love with the horse.

Again, in either scenario, you have to know why Andy is taking action. It needs to matter, so let’s push the scenario a bit and say that Andy has an autistic daughter and Artemis is the only creature the little girl has responded to. So he’s desperate to obtain this horse in order to help his child.

Now we have conflict between two people with valid reasons for being in opposition. Each wants to buy the horse. One wants the horse because of a lifelong dream. The other wants the horse for his daughter’s health.

Only one of them can buy the animal. Who will win? Which of them will persuade the owner to sell first? Who deserves to succeed over the other?

Weak conflict equals weak story.

No conflict equals dull story.

Strong conflict equals a story that has spark, life, and movement.

Twists: These are unexpected developments that turn the story in a new direction. A twist can appear as a plot point, a piece of information, an attack against the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares about, or a threat.

As with hooks, the effect that a twist should create is unpredictability. You may have only one twist in a short story. In a novel you need at least three, strategically placed so that a twist lands in each story act.

Keep your readers guessing. Keep your readers intrigued. Achieve this by doing anything but what’s expected, and motivate those surprising character actions through conflict and strong goals.


Filed under Uncategorized

Plot Twists

So you’re reading a story and you think you know where the thing is headed next. You know what the characters are about to do. You’ve figured out who killed Cock Robin.

And then–WHOA! What the blazes just happened?

The characters didn’t follow the plan. The plot swerved left when you thought it was heading right. And your prime suspect now has an air-tight alibi.

How did the writer do that to you?

Even more importantly, how do you do that to YOUR readers?

Effective plot twists should be unanticipated by the reader, but logical to the story and its premise. In other words, once you’ve jolted your reader with this surprise, the reader can think it over and realize that it makes sense.

I should have seen it coming. But I didn’t. Wow, what a great story this is.

Plot twists are going to come from three primary sources: the protagonist, the antagonist, life.

Let’s consider them one at a time.

Plot twists from the protagonist: Okay, in plotting our story we’re dealing with two kinds of dramatic units known as scenes and sequels. Scenes deal with story action, conflict, and setback. Sequels deal with reaction, analyzing a problem, and planning the next course of action.

Your protagonist weighs options and chooses what he or she will do next. In the following scene, your protagonist may follow that plan exactly. That’s fine. But if you do this every time, soon your story will become predictable. And predictable leads to boring.

But what if your protagonist makes a plan, and then in scene action deviates from it? This impulsive action may be rash; it may also make the difference in the scene’s outcome. It will perk up the story because the character is doing something other than what was expected.

Another way the protagonist can inject plot twists is through unpredictable behavior. It may seem zany or bizarre. It may not make a lot of sense initially, but through later sequel-internalization the character’s motivation is shared with readers.

An example: In the film classic, Bringing Up Baby, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Hepburn’s character takes any number of silly, unexpected actions. At first, the audience (and Grant’s character) thinks she’s a nut. Eventually, we begin to understand that she’s intensely attracted to him and does whatever random stunt comes into her head to stay close to him. Her methods may be wild, but she’s believably motivated.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn search for the missing dinosaur bone in BRINGING UP BABY, a Howard Hawks directed film from RKO Pictures, 1938.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY, a 1938 classic film directed by Howard Hawks for RKO Pictures.

Plot twists from the antagonist: Even when out of sight, the antagonist isn’t frozen in place. This character is up to something in his or her efforts to thwart the protagonist. When the next attempt or attack occurs, it feels like a plot twist because readers haven’t been in the antagonist’s viewpoint and–like the protagonist–don’t know what’s coming.

So, for example, in the Dick Francis mystery, Hot Money (1988), readers and the protagonist are jolted by an explosion that blows up the house. It’s a complete surprise to everyone except the antagonist who planted the bomb.

Dust jacket for the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, published by Putnam.

Plot twists from life: If twists from the protagonist are the most challenging and twists from the antagonist are the easiest, then twists from life run the risk of being the least believable.

Be very careful when designing a “random” event that’s going to wallop the protagonist from nowhere. This type of twist may appear coincidental. Too much coincidence in fiction becomes unbelievable.

For example: Gary Paulsen’s YA book, Hatchet, deals with a boy who survives a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and must then stay alive until rescue comes. There are any number of hazards in the woods. One evening, the mosquitoes are biting the boy mercilessly. To protect himself, he kneels at the edge of the lake to smear mud over his skin. While he’s doing this, a moose comes running out of nowhere and crashes into him, knocking him into the water.

Say, what?

It’s unexpected. It’s shocking. It’s unpredictable. But why has the moose chosen that instant of time to charge? What did the boy do, if anything, to provoke this animal?

As long as the story establishes that the woods are dangerous, or that moose herds are migrating through the area, or that at certain times of year moose will charge anything that moves, then when this event will work well as a plot twist. If moose aren’t mentioned at all as a possible hazard, then the event may be perceived as too coincidental.

Cover art for Gary Paulsen's 1987 Newbery winner, HATCHET, published in paperback by Simon and Schuster.

Setting up for a twist to come is called planting for future action. You don’t call attention to the information. It’s slipped into the story as unobtrusively as possible. If done well, readers will barely notice it and the story action will distract them until the twist appears. Then they realize that they should have made the connection.

Planting done poorly will telegraph the twist to come by calling too much attention to it and giving it away. Even worse, if a twist is planted in an obvious way and then happens exactly as expected, it’s ho-hum predictable.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized