Monday, August 04, 2014

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

plotting, unpredictable, twists
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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.

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. This could be especially helpful for those non-turning point scenes, where things often feel a little predictable because the story is heading full tilt into the next major plot point.

(Here's another fun trick 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

Step Three: Brainstorm Using the Random Outcome

Whatever you get, brainstorm 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 on being unpredictable in your stories)

If the fresh thinking leads to a great scene, then write it. If nothing good comes of the session, 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

A victory. 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

A defeat. 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 what happened here will actually come back and cause trouble later (requires figuring out where that will happen later in the story). Tons of fun, as something innocuous could trigger effects like an evil literary Rube Goldberg machine.

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 it 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 authors to heap on the bad for entertainment purposes, knowing that it'll all turn out okay in the end. It'll worth the 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 by going against a belief or truth very dear to her heart. Her belief system is tested by this. A great way to slip in some character arc moments and weave them in with the plot.

6. Outcome that enables a character flaw to flourish

Whatever the protagonist is facing reinforces something that is a flaw in her character and makes it that much harder for her to grow as a person, or even succeed later in the story. An equally good way to set up your protagonist for that long, hard fall she'll have to take that makes this whole journey worthwhile.

How this 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.

Roll the dice (yes, I'm choosing randomly for this example).

Get a five.

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 also go against something fundamental to her character and belief system. Whatever you end up with, keep plotting 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 on a smaller scale 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 your protagonist consider deal breakers in her romantic life? Never ever 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. Give him whatever deal breaker trait she'd normally say "no way, not a chance" and then make her go out with him anyway.

(Here are four ways to jump start a stalled story)

Use your own best judgment with these outcomes, as "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." (Though maybe you might consider what would happen if you did, just for funsies) 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 friends survives and is found later? Go wild.

(Here's more on 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 here is to do this 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.

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

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My 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. 

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 her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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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?)

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  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).