Friday, June 3
Write What They Don’t Know: Manipulating Your Reader for Better Plots
This week's Refresher Friday takes an updated look at ways to develop better plots. Enjoy!
When you think about it, writers are quite manipulative. We craft situations designed to cause different emotions in our readers. We want them to worry, to care, to laugh, to cry. The more we play with their emotions, the better our stories can be. And that includes a little harmless manipulation.
Just because we know what happens in a scene, doesn’t mean we can’t fake out our readers and make them think something else might happen.
Say we have a scene where the heroine is cutting through a dark, scary park on her way home. Plot says she’ll make it home fine and there’s a big surprise waiting for her. Her long lost (and much hated) father is home from prison. But let’s also say there’s a girl missing at school. It hasn’t been made a big deal yet in the story, but it’s there, and readers have it in the backs of their minds. We might:
1. Have the girl get home with nothing happening, then be hit with her shocking surprise. Or…
2. Have her hear things in the park, fear for her life, think about that missing girl and wonder all sorts of horrible things, then get hit with a nasty shock about Dad.
If we never planned anything happening to her in the park, odds are she makes it through with nothing going on. She’ll probably be thinking about some related problem, there will likely be description and maybe even some characterization. We know nothing happens, so we don’t suggest anything might happen.
And we miss a wonderful opportunity to build tension and put readers in the right frame of mind for the nasty shock at home.
(Here's more on writing unpredictable plots)
Take a look at your own scenes. Are there opportunities to make readers feel more emotion? Can you heighten anything, suggest anything, play with anything, even though you don’t plan to follow through with it? Would tweaking the emotions make the scene better and subtly prepare readers for what's to come?
While you don’t want to mislead readers and make them feel cheated, you can use any inherent aspects of a scene to raise the emotional level of that scene. You know it won’t happen, but the character doesn’t, so whatever they'd feel at that moment is fair game. The girl in the park is in for a nasty surprise, so making her fear something horrible is about to happen (even if what she worries about isn’t what does happens) makes the real moment all the stronger. It’s usually an even bigger surprise because readers were looking somewhere else for trouble. You gave them what they expected, just not in the way they expected it.
(Here's more on defying expectations to raise tension)
Predictability can kill a story, no matter how well written it is. Readers know what’s coming, there are no surprises, and it all unfolds exactly as they expect it to. It’s not uncommon for a story to telegraph what’s coming. We hear so often to show “what matters” that we forget red herrings and mood setters are just as important as hints of the actual plot. We only show they stuff that affects the plot.
How many times have you seen something in casually mentioned, but it seems like a little too much attention was paid to it? Maybe it didn’t fit as naturally as it could have, or it was an odd point to make. It stood out for whatever reason. You know for sure that that piece is going to matter in the future. It will be the key to something and save the day.
Are you surprised when it happens? Probably not.
But what if you see several other things as well? Multiple snippets of information, hints at a variety of outcomes. Suddenly the story could go in any number of ways. It’s more interesting because you don’t know for sure what’s coming. Anticipation is a big hook. Expectation not so much.
(Here's more on telegraphing your plot)
When we know what happens in a scene, we tend to write it that way. There’s a difference between a scene that says, “The protagonist overpowers the bad guy and gets away” vs “the protagonist battles the bad guy, trying to escape.” It’s subtle, but mentally, it’s easy for us to write the scene knowing the protagonist is in no real danger when we know she gets away. If we think about the protagonist trying to escape instead, suddenly we have more we can do to suggest the outcome might be different.
(Here's more on creating plot twists)
A great novel is more than just watching the characters do things we expect them to do. It’s being drawn into a story and wondering what will happen next. It’s the difference between watching a movie for the first time and watching one you’ve seen a dozen times. No matter how much you like it, knowing what happens affects you differently than that thrill of the unknown.
Don’t forget the thrill of the unknown. Just because you know what happens doesn’t mean the reader or the character does. Use that to create uncertainty, unpredictability, and keep the reader guessing what will happen.
Do you write what you know happens or do you explore other possibilities on your scenes? Are there places where you can add uncertainty?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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