Friday, June 03, 2016

Write What They Don’t Know: Manipulating Your Reader for Better Plots

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Thanks for another great post. This has really got me thinking about some of my scenes.

    I also liked:

    "But what if you added 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."

    This reminded me of Toy Story 1, when we're shown the "plot point" of Woody having a match in his pocket. At just the right time, when all seems lost, he pulls out the match and prepares to light the rocket. The first time I saw the movie, I wasn't at all surprised. It was completely and utterly expected. But when the match went out, I was shocked. I didn't know what to expect. Even though the magnifying glass had also been foreshadowed, I'd completely forgotten about it in light of the match being provided.

    *Off to look at where I can add extra snippets of information...*

  2. Great tips. Having multiple snippets to make the reader wonder is a great idea. Thanks.

  3. Great post. I think we can feel less guilty about being manipulative since after all we're hoping to manipulate ourselves at the same time (rather than coldly pulling other people's puppet strings). It's possible to overdo this - I'm thinking of the profusion of random stuff I've seen in a few contexts in Harry Potter, where only one thing would later prove relevant - but it's an excellent idea.

  4. Ooooh excellent point! It's subtle, but I like the idea of checking the mindset that you're writing the scene in. We know how the story turns out, but the characters don't. Sometimes just a subtle shift in our POV can really help add some extra tension to the scene.

    I am making this into a Post-it note, and adding it to the herd on my monitor. Thanks!

  5. Thanks again Janice. I learn so much from your posts :)

  6. Great post. I used to not think about this (pansters = I don't know where it's going), but I've been outlining lately, and this is something I've been wrestling with. I love your way to phrase it differently to yourself, "gets away" vs. "battles."

  7. I'll try to keep this in mind while I'm plotting out my current WIP. I want to keep people wondering what will happen so when I get to my midway shock, it'll have the best impact.

  8. Love your play on words too! I've tried doing what you are explaining to make regular scenes a little more exciting. Though I do have to becareful the red herrings don't leave too much of a fishy smell at the end.

    Great post again!

  9. Good points! I had a similar situation just yesterday. I started my scene, thinking I knew exactly what needed to happen... and then realized that was far too predictable. I thought about all my options. One minor change in the events changed *everything*, and turned what could have been a dry scene into something quite juicy.

  10. This is great advice- especially for mysteries where misdirection is so important (and so hard to pull off sometimes.)

  11. Good post, and something I've been paying more attention to lately. I did catch one spot early on in my book, where the Love Interest is missing, but he has a friend deliver a message telling her he's okay and hiding out.

    Completely undermined the tension! Now she doesn't know any earlier than we do that he's fine.

  12. Love this post - and the "rethinking the scene without the end in mind" is a very interesting way to look at it.

    Bookmarked this, indeed.

  13. Jo: That's a great example! It doesn't take a lot to make this work, and it can really add fun twists. I bet the writer first planned to h ave the match work and then realized what else they could do :)

    Natalie: Most welcome!

    Juliette: Oh definitely, you have to be careful about overdoing it. It's all a matter of balance.

    Elizabeth: Subtle shifts in my thinking have done more to improve my stories (and my writing) than some of the hard studying. It's kinda cool, actually.

    Angie: Most welcome!

    MK: It really does make a difference in how you think about it. It sounds silly, but it works. I think it leaves you open to spontaneity.

    Joe: Thanks!

    Jaleh: Always a great plan :) You can also go back and lay more groundwork after you write your midpoint. I did that recently with my WIP.

    JA: Avoid the fish for sure :) But a little goes a long way. And you'd look for places where it fits naturally.

    Lydia: That's awesome! I love when that happens. You feel jazzed the rest of the day.

    Chicory: Oh totally. One of my crit partners writes mysteries, and I've learned so much about that from her over the years. A good example of how reading other genres can help with your own work :)

    Angelica: Good catch! You can almost always finds way to up the tension a little in every scene.

    Cameron: Thanks! Sometimes you need a way to let the brain freestyle when you're writing.

  14. Great post and full of interesting information.
    May I post this link onto my blog?

  15. Mandy, thanks, and sure! Link away.

  16. Good points. In my recent manuscript I've worried that certain plot points are too obvious. I like the examples you have here, and I'll be keeping this in mind.

  17. Sbibb, I worry about that all the time, too. There's such a fine line between subtle and obvious, and some readers pick up on things a lot faster. Beta readers are great for testing those clues, especially non-writer beta readers.

  18. Excellent points, Janice. I'll have to go back over my manuscript and read it like a reader who doesn't know what's going to happen instead of a writer who does.

    1. Thanks! It helps a lot to let some time pass between reads.

  19. Misdirection is my favorite tool as a writer!