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Keeping Things Unpredictable: The Dos

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Sun Jan 02, 2011 8:18 pm
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RacheDrache says...

This is a continuation of Keeping Things Unpredictable: The Don’ts.

And in this continuation, we’ll be discussing the other basics of keeping things unpredictable in your story. These are I guess what you’d call The Do’s of Unpredictability. Some of them could have been in the Don’ts, but oh well!

1) Do be original

I realize that this is, in many ways, just the opposite of Don’t Be Predictable In The First Place, but not quite, since you can be original and still be perfectly predictable. But, regardless, having a plotline or plot element that the reader hasn’t encountered before at multiple occasions during his or her lifetime will be your advantage.

Giving examples of originality is difficult, possibly impossible, so instead, I’ll just some general tips on how to go about being original, at least in terms of plot. (Despite what some people might say, being original is still perfectly possible. It’s not that everything’s been done before and we’re just recycling; it’s just that a) writers can be wimps and b) boring people keep interpreting different stories the same way. If you ask me.)

Anyway. Tips for being original:
1. Avoid clichés. Also avoid using opposites of clichés, gender-swaps in clichés, and sharp role reversals. Unless you’re doing parodies.
2. Avoid writing the current pop culture trends. Be a wave maker, not a wave rider.
3. Avoid planning your plot out all at once, or ahead of time. If you plan everything out ahead of time, you’ll be far more likely to rely on cliché and otherwise unoriginal ideas, and you’re likely to resist spur-of-the-moment brilliance halfway in. If you add in the inspiration as it comes, you’ll end up with a more original story.

2) Do provide your readers with the information they need. Or else.

You have an obligation as a writer to your reader. That obligation is multi-faceted and complicated, but what we’re concerned with here is you have an obligation to provide your reader with all the information that the reader needs for the story to make sense.

Not necessarily all the information the reader wants, mind. And not necessarily all at once or directly, and most definitely not necessarily in ways that the reader will realize.

But, if you don’t give the reader all the information he needs, you’ve just cheated your reader. I don’t know of many greater shames for a writer.

Examples and such:

The climactic battle between Evil Dude and Hero comes down to a chess game (I do realize this is cliché in itself). Your Hero’s going to win this chess game and save the world. A horrible plot scenario, yes. But, nonetheless, at some point before this climatic battle, you need to establish either that this hero character has played chess well before, or you need to show throughout the novel through your characterization of Hero that he is, in fact, the sort who’d be good at chess or would have played chess before. To have him randomly sit down and win chess, at least if this is from Hero’s perspective, would be a big no-no.

An even more blatant example. Remember that important necklace? You just can’t have Character A run onto the stage in the middle of a scene and defeat the Evil Dude and then say, “Oh, she has this crazy powerful necklace.” No, you’d need to mention the necklace beforehand. Unless the viewpoint character has never seen Character A before and so she’s just bursting onto the scene… In which case, you’d need to have established that there’s magic in the world. Unless the character doesn’t know there’s magic in the world… in which case you’d need to establish …

Okay, so determining if a reader needs to know something is a complicated business. If you’re unsure about whether to include something, err on the side of caution, because it’s better to have a reader figure something out than to have a reader feel cheated.

Just remember to keep in mind the next tips.

3)Do respect your reader’s intelligence

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen (even published) writers make is to underestimate the intelligence of readers. This isn’t to say that you need to have rocket-science twists and turns and leave heavily coded clues.

On the contrary, what respecting the intelligence of your reader amounts to is this:

A. You take care of the reader who isn’t so bright, or used to reading, or who is just plain unobservant, or who has had a long day and is now on the red-eye flight to Tokyo and doesn’t want to think. See the rule #2 about making sure your reader can follow along, and do it in such a way that a duller reader isn’t confused. But don’t dumb it down, either.

B. You honor your middle-level readers by not having long explanations of things, or having blatantly obvious twists, or by avoiding having blatant information reveals. J.K. Rowling always did an excellent job here, I thought. Category A readers had instant No Way! reactions to her twists, and Category B readers were surprised. And Category C coming up…smug grins from them, probably.

On a similar note, it’s quite annoying to B and C readers when the characters are, liek, So_Shocked, at something and the only explanation is that you, the writer, thought that this moment should floor the reader. Well… it didn’t. So now you look silly.

C. You reward your Observant Reader. Yes, reward. At least, occasionally. You do this by making your plot entertaining from a technical standpoint, so we don’t get bored. And you also do this by following all the rules before, during, and after this point.

To readers like me, plot is a game played with the plot creator. The type of game depends on the type of plot you have. I love the process of trying to figure out everything ahead of time. The fact that I’m nearly always right is a tad unfortunate and the inevitable result of me always trying to figure out things ahead of time.

I think it’s important, though, that as a writer you acknowledge that my kind exist. Sometimes, you might have to concede points. Sometimes you might have to concede victory. But going about it nobly—and not insulting readers—is the difference between we Observants having a smug grin on our faces or the dreaded annoyed frown.

It’s like poker. Know when to show ‘em, fold ‘em, and how to bet. I wish I knew a way on how to teach when to do what, but I don’t.

And this is tried in with rule 4…

4) Do start reading like a plot writer.

This won’t work on all books, no. But next time you read something with a fairly solid plot—so-called “genre” fiction’s probably your best shot—take note of what information is introduced and when. Look for the strings. Try to guess what’s going to happen next. Get really daring and try to figure out what will be said, who’ll be involved, etc.

5) Do know your plot.

By this, I don’t mean that you need to know everything that happens in your plot. On the contrary, I don’t recommend outlining or preplanning, especially not in extensive readers. You know that Robert Frost quotation about “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader?” Same applies to the plot. If you don’t leave room for it and its characters to surprise you, you’re far less likely to surprise your reader.

What I do mean by Rule Number 5 is that you need to know what your plot feels like. Plots aren’t the same beasts. Good ones don’t consist merely of Exposition, Call to Action, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Those terms are rudimentary analysis words for readers that you should abandon now if you ever want to be a good plot writer.

Plot is the experience of the characters and is also the experience of the reader from cover to cover. Know the feel of that experience.

Is it a rapid-fire plot like a wooden rollercoaster, going this way and that?
Is it more gentle, but deceptively so?
Does it begin with a bang and never cease its pace?
Or is it a tense stroll, like two enemies having tea?

Speed and intensity are two main factors. The POV style changes things, too, as first person is different from third person, and multiple characters are different from just one. How many plotlines you have going is another element.

My best advice, in the end, is to have a metaphor for your plot’s experience. Then you’ll be able to see it as an entity, not some list of events, and you’ll be able to know when to release Important Information. When your Observant Reader will be most alert. What things to give away and what things to play close to your chest. And you’ll be able to do all that because you’ll know what will and what won’t contribute to that feel you’re going for.

At least in theory.

6) Do adopt a “No Inexpendables”/”Getting Your Hands Dirty” policy or strategy

Appropriate to the story, of course. Light-hearted fantasies are probably not the best place for a character killing spree. But, the point is that being a wimp when it comes to your story isn’t going to help you write a good one, much less surprise anyone with a twist.

This is another thing even published writers have a problem with. They get attached to characters and don’t take risks and the characters never get seriously hurt or die. And it’s not even that you need to go around killing main characters like in Hitchcock’s certain film of fame, but if your characters exude the aura of I’m Safe, it quickly becomes clear that the readers not exuding that aura are likely to die.

Where there are clear Inexpendables there are clear Expendables. And while Expendables can be amusing to an Observant Reader—I like to count them and try to guess what order they’ll die in—they really can get old. Same goes for the somewhat important characters who might as well have a “I’m Going to Die and Cause the Main Character Great Emotional Distress” sign around their necks. Don’t have those if you can help it.

As for getting your hands dirty…don’t let your attachment to characters get in the way of a good story. And….

7) Do be willing to sabotage your own plot at any given moment.

This is part of the willingness to get your hands dirty. Because if you’re halfway in and suddenly you get this brilliant idea, or your characters want to do something else, but you don’t do it because it’d mess up your entire plot, you just lost out on an entire opportunity.

Blowing up your own plot doesn’t mean you have to start over. It means you’ve just opened up whole new opportunities for yourself, your characters, your plot, your reader. While I understand how hard it is to watch the future of your plot explode into smithereens because your character decided to go and die, there’s a reason I advise not planning out ahead of time, and hey—if you didn’t see it coming, I didn’t either. Most likely, anyway.

There’s a reason why one of my writing mantras is, “When in doubt, blow something up.”


8) Do have fun!

Because we Observant Readers will have fun unraveling whatever plot you come up with, so you might as well.

And that’s it for the Basic Do’s. In retrospect, I should have written the entire article at once, since many of these Do’s would have made better Don’ts. But the next part of this article will move into techniques for hiding Important Information and dealing with readers like me in hopes of (*crosses fingers*) thoroughly throwing them for a loop.

I hope this helps and/or inspires someone out there!

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Tue Jan 04, 2011 8:44 pm
AngerManagement says...

Rachael, you're too awesome for words.
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Sat Jan 08, 2011 10:01 pm
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Sins says...

In fact, your awesomness actually hurts.
I didn't know what to put here so I put this.

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Sat Feb 19, 2011 2:57 am
Horrorwriter says...

Oh man.
Are you writer's encyclopedia or something.
That really helped me out with my novel.

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Sun Feb 20, 2011 3:39 am
mellophone7 says...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This helped a lot with my writing. I now know what I should do when I get stuck!
"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean." -Robert Louis Stevenson
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JA hatar pisanje.

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Thu Jun 02, 2011 12:47 am
Stori says...

You might've made a tiny mistake here. There are two sections labeled 5, then 7 and then six. Actually, Fire Light spotted the error. (Maybe it threw someone for a loop, which is one of your bits of advice.)

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Thu Jun 02, 2011 4:59 am
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RacheDrache says...

Stori wrote:You might've made a tiny mistake here. There are two sections labeled 5, then 7 and then six. Actually, Fire Light spotted the error. (Maybe it threw someone for a loop, which is one of your bits of advice.)

Sequential ordering is predictable.
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Sat Jul 09, 2011 9:06 am
paperbackheart says...

I suppose that I should be glad that I screwed up my entire plot? Haha, thanks for the tips though!
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