November 2nd, 2012

The Plot Fixer #8 – Is Your Plot Too Predictible?

Writers In The Storm welcomes back double RITA finalist, Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo.  Don’t miss Kara’s writing tips the first Friday of every month.

Here are the links for Parts 1-7:

Part 1 – Your Premise Isn’t Compelling
Part 2 – How To Fix a Weak Opening
Part 3 – A Lack of Goals
Part 4 – Is Your Conflict Strong Enough?
Part 5 – Raising The Stakes
Part 6 – 5 Tips To Help Improve Your Story’s Pacing

Part 7 – Pick up the Pace

by Kara Lennox

Sometimes, I read a manuscript and think, I’ve read this before.

I can almost predict the next line of dialogue. There is nothing on the page to surprise and delight me.

This a tricky situation, because editors say they want new, fresh voices, but they tend to buy familiar stories. The trick is, to tell a familiar story (Cinderella, for example) in a fresh way, giving it some fresh twists. Otherwise it comes off as stale and predictable. Editors want to be able to put something “marketable” on the cover, but they don’t want readers bored into a coma.

Here is one of my favorite exercises to thwart predictability. As you are working out the plot for your book (or, for you pantsers, as you are trying to figure out what happens next,) make a list of all the things that could happen next.

If your heroine has to make a decision, make a list of at least ten (or twenty) decisions she could make. You’ll get four or five easily; the next five might be more difficult. When you absolutely cannot think of one more decision, look over your list. Toss out the first five, for sure. Sometimes it is number 10, 11, or 12 that you should use.

You don’t want your heroine to act out of character, so be careful of that. But this exercise can help cure the plot doldrums. This exercise, by the way, was suggested by literary agent Donald Maass, but I’ve heard it for years, from a variety of sources. This is another good time to think, “What is the worst that can possibly happen?”

I have a writer friend who loves her characters so much, she can’t bear to make them suffer. Her first drafts often have a very “ordinary” feel to them, because she doesn’t fling enough bad stuff at her characters. Her critique group (me, among others) have to remind her to torture her characters in new and different ways.

Remember — seeing a character suffer undeserved misfortunes is one way the reader connects with them. Think of poor Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon. He’s skinny, weak, and he has a horrible name. He is an embarrassment to his father. He is thwarted at every turn. The girl of his dreams ridicules him (I just watched this movie tonight, and it’s a perfect example.)

Another handy exercise is to think about your character, decide what is the very last thing he/she would ever do, then find a way to make them do that very thing. An oft-cited example is Indiana Jones, who will face caves full of giant spiders and poison darts without flinching, but he hates snakes. So later in the movie, he gets dumped into an underground chamber full of snakes and has to brave them to save himself and Marian.

When you force your characters out of their comfort zone, you show character growth, and that’s a good thing. Would the Cowardly Lion ever scale the Wicked Witch’s castle walls to save someone? Not when we first meet him.

Most editors will tell you to err on the side of “too much” rather than “too little,” so don’t be afraid to make a daring choice, try something that’s never been done. An editor can pull you back if you’ve gone too far over the top, but they can’t fix a bland scene.

I recall judging a contest entry once that was so hilarious, I fell in love with it and I knew, without a doubt, the author would one day be published. She sold that book shortly afterward, but the final version that was in print was substantially toned down from the original (so it was more in keeping with the tone of the category romance line that published it.) The author’s daring plot decisions won over the editor, and it didn’t matter that it had to be strenuously edited. This worked in my favor once, when I was unpublished.

One of my favorite authors, Jane Graves, once wrote a love scene between two people who were inside a rickety shed with a hungry tiger on the roof. It was fresh and different, and was the highlight of a memorable book.

Look at your various plot points. Are some of them too predictable, too familiar, or too ordinary? Choose one and make a list of at least five alternative things that could happen. Do any of them jump out at you as brilliant, funny, unexpected? Can you make your hero do the one thing he swore he’d never do?

So tell us – have you ever tried this technique? What did you do to your poor undeserving character to make things worse?

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