Monday, September 26, 2022

An Unpredictable (and Fun) Trick to Keep Your Plots Unpredictable

keeping your plots unpredictable, writing twists, plotting
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

To write unpredictable scenes, try being unpredictable.

Plotting a novel can be a lot of fun, but it can also get a little tedious at times—trying to figure out the next step of a puzzle, crafting the perfect response to every choice your characters make, deciding when, where, and if you need a plot twist. When the muse is on your side the story flows quickly, but when she's not?

For those days, try treating your scenes like a game of chance to kick start the muse and keep readers guessing.

All you need is a single die or a random number generator, and the courage to think outside the box. This exercise is fun, but it can also send your scene in a direction you never anticipated—and might not want to go. And that's okay. You don't have to go where the Muse of Chance sends you, but at least try to think about how that direction might affect the story.

Step One: Pick a Scene

It doesn't matter what stage it's at—one already written, one you plan to write, or one you're having trouble with. As long as the scene has a character making a decision about what to do in it.

This trick is particularly useful for a non-turning point scene in need of a little spicing up. You know the ones. Those in-between major plot point scenes that feel a little predictable because the story is heading full tilt into the next big moment.

(Here's more with A Quick Tip for Getting to Know Your Characters--And Your Plot)

Step Two: Pick an Outcome

Use the six outcomes below and randomly choose the outcome of that scene. Roll a six-sided dice, use a random number generator, or just write them on paper and drop them into a hat.

1. Best outcome possible

2. Worst outcome possible

3. Outcome that looks good, but is actually bad

4. Outcome that looks bad, but is actually good

5. Outcome that goes against something the character believes in

6. Outcome that enables a character flaw to flourish

If you're working on an existing scene, and you happen to roll the current outcome, just roll again.  

Step Three: Brainstorm Using the Random Outcome

Take that random outcome and rainstorm the scene to that end, even if it seems like the worst possible way to handle the scene. Sometimes an idea that causes a knee-jerk "no way" reaction can lead you to a solution or twist you never would have thought of otherwise. Give yourself permission to think outside the story box and see where it leads you.

(Here's more with Surprise! Being Unpredictable, Even When You Don’t Know Where it’s Going)

You don't have to keep the scene, but at least give it a fair chance.

You'd be surprised how often looking at a scene from a completely different angle brings a fresh perspective to a story. If the scene doesn't improve or you just aren't happy with the new direction, roll again or try a different scene. 

Remember, this is just to give your muse a nudge, not something you have to do.

Let's look a little closer at the possible results and how you might make the most of them:

1. Best outcome possible

There's a victory of some type. Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, she does it. While this is usually an outcome we reserve for the ending, an unexpected victory could create false confidence in the protagonist, or a false sense of security that could be problematic later.

2. Worst outcome possible

There's a defeat of some type. Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, she fails. Sometimes failing builds character or makes someone try harder. If your protagonist fails at something simple, she might take the hard stuff more seriously later on.

3. Outcome that looks good, but is actually bad

The protagonist thinks she's won, but she has no idea that what happened here will actually come back and cause trouble later (naturally, this will require figuring out where and how later in the story). This outcome can be tons of fun, as something innocuous could trigger effects like an evil literary Rube Goldberg machine.

It's also a good outcome for any scene where the character needs to make a bad decision based on their flaw, or scenes with examples of how the flaw is hurting the character. 

(Here's more with Are You Making This Character Flaw Mistake?)

4. Outcome that looks bad, but is actually good

The protagonist thinks she's lost and this was a terrible setback, but what she doesn't know is that it opens up something that will allow her to be victorious later in the story (requires figuring out where that will happen later in the story). 

The old "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" outcome, allowing you to pile on the bad for entertainment purposes, knowing that it'll all turn out okay in the end. It'll be worth the character's pain, really.

5. Outcome that goes against something the character believes in

Whatever the protagonist is facing, the way to deal with it requires an emotional sacrifice that will go against a belief or truth that is dear to her heart. Her belief system is tested by this, and it shakes her to the core.  

This is a great way to slip in some character arc moments and weave them in with the plot. It's also a good outcome for scenes leading up to the Dark Night of the Soul moment.

6. Outcome that enables a character flaw to flourish

Whatever the protagonist is facing reinforces her flaw, and makes it harder for her to grow or even succeed later in the story. So if she's always making snap judgements without thinking through the consequences, this outcome means she'll have to make a decision about something or someone and she doesn't think it through. 

This is another good way to set up your protagonist for that long, hard fall she'll have to take that makes the entire journey worthwhile.

How this all works:

Say you're writing a scene where the protagonist meets the love interest for the first time. He's dashing, sparks fly, and she knows there's something to this guy. But you don't want this to end up like every other meet cute scene—you want it to be a little different and unpredictable.
  1. Roll the die (I'm also choosing randomly for this example, so I have no idea what I'll roll).
  2. Get a number (mine is five).
  3. Number five is: Outcome that goes against something the character believes in.
Now brainstorm the scene in a way that has her meet this guy, feel that spark, yet there's something there that also go against her character and belief system. Whatever you end up with, keep plotting or brainstorming from there and see what it does for your story.

The obvious cliché is "she sleeps with him" but that's been done, and we want fun, new ideas, right? Think outside the box. "Goes against something she believes in" could be something that relates specifically to that scene as well as deep personal beliefs. You can adapt those outcomes however you want—they're inspiration, not rules.

Since this is a romance, how does this outcome affect her romantic beliefs? 

What does the protagonist consider deal breakers in her romantic life? 
  • Never date a short guy? Then make this hot new guy short. 
  • She's a rabid environmentalist? Let him work for the PR department at BP. 
  • She's Jewish with strict religious parents? Make him Catholic.  
Give him whatever "deal breaker" trait she'd normally say "no way, not a chance" to, and then make her go out with him anyway. Or make her refuse to go out with him, and then regret it, and spend time trying to find a way to make it work.

Use your own best judgment with these outcomes. "Worst possible outcome" in a scene that involves saving the life of the protagonist's best friend doesn't have to mean "let her die." Maybe the "worst outcome" is the character thinking for one brief moment that she could let her die, or would like to let her die. You might also consider what would happen if you did kill her off. 

Or maybe think conceptually. What does "failure to save the best friend" mean on other levels? Does she save her life, but the friend gets hurts in a way that she considers worse than death? Can the protagonist think she failed but the friend survives and is found later? Go wild.

(Here's more with Unpredictable...That's What You Are: Keeping Plots Fresh)

This little trick can force you to think about outcomes you never even considered, and send the story is ways readers didn't see coming—because it was all random!

Of course, the real trick is to be random and still maintain your story's integrity, but that's part of the fun. You don't want to send the story in a crazy new direction if it fundamentally changes what you're trying to write. This is for jump-starting your muse, not hijacking your story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Pick a scene and try this trick. See if your random idea improves the scene or not. If you know you have a weak scene or a too-predictable scene, use that one.

What do you think? Would this add a little fun to your plotting sessions or drive you crazy? What potential outcomes would you add?

*Originally published August 2014. Last update September 2022.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I've never thought about playing this kind of game before, but it seems like a good idea for when I get stuck! However, I think the most important part of what you've said above is actually implied. You should always have the scene end with some kind of change, whether big or small, for the hero. This game is more or less determining what that change is.

    Thanks for the tip! :)

    1. Absolutely. I did an whole other article on that a few months ago :)

  2. I do NOT like plotting, so this is very helpful! I especially appreciate the Six Outcomes. I am going to use this to help me "unstuck" my characters. The entire family is sitting on the side of the road, and I don't know where they should go next. LOL

    1. Great! Hope it clicks for you and you get those poor folks off the side of the road and into some trouble. Bwahaha.

  3. I have a feeling this could drive me a little crazy! (Mostly because I could see myself using it as an excuse to procrastinate. Again. lol)

    Having said that, I was mentally rolling the dice on a scene or two even while reading the post. Some unexpected possibilities popped up.

    I think it's easy as I writer to become fenced in by your own knowledge of your story, so anything that bumps you out of your mental rut when it comes to plot or character arcs has to be a good thing. Who knows, I might even go and buy a special pair of dice just for this :) Great post - good tip!

    1. That is certainly a risk (grin). Good line: bumps you out of your mental rut. That's exactly what this is for. I also imagine different writers will use it in different ways. Some might incorporate it into their drafting process, others for revisions, others might use it only when stuck, and some might run screaming from any room it walks into, lol.

      Totally buy the dice. You can get very pretty ones at your nearest comic book/gaming store. (is my inner geek showing?)

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Wonderful column, Janice. I'm deep into Joseph Campbell theory to build a narrative based on the hero's journey, but your die-casting advice is an awesome away to avoid formula. More importantly, it gives me permission to visit a comic book store and buy some dice. This is something I haven't done since I was 12 years old and into really into Dungeons & Dragons (nerd alert).

  6. What a wonderful, and fun idea, Janice. I'll definitely be trying it.

    1. Thanks! It often leads to fun scenes and unexpected ideas.

  7. Janice, whenever your latest post arrives in my inbox, I know it'll be like a bottomless pit ... i.e. I can't resist clicking on the other links that take me deeper, into other articles you've written. Actually, the 'bottomless pit' is more a treasure cave I'm very happy to be in. The downside is I'm supposed to be completing the last quarter of my wip! :)

    1. Thanks, though I'm sorry I stole time away from your WIP (grin). Hopefully one of those links led to something that will help you with that last quarter!

  8. This is fabulous, Janice! I'm pinning for future reference!