A Mystery/Thriller trend I wish would die.

So I had a rough day today and did a crit for Unicorn Bell, and this was the result. I’m posting it here too, since it dovetails nicely into a topic I’m currently enjoying a lot: Genre Trends I Wish Would Die.

However, I would love if you were epically awesome and here instead. And please feel free to look around while you’re at it. It really is a worthwhile blog to visit for info on both indie and trade publishing and writing.

Okay. To the post….

Well that didn’t work out to plan. See the point here is for someone to send me something to critique, and if there was an interesting thing to point out, I focus on that, especially if I had to crit a chapter, since chapters plus my crit would probably run too long.

However, I just finished reading a short story someone sent me to critique and… well… there wasn’t much wrong. I had one suggestion to improve the big reveal (it’s a locked-room mystery), but then, even as it is now, the reveal has a surprising (although it makes perfect sense) twist that makes the reveal worth-while, even if it could have been a bit more of a surprise.

Would you like to read the chapter? Sure you do. Here’s the link.

Ooh. I actually do have an interesting point to raise coming from this crit. Plot twists and how they work. (Sorry if this is rambly. I had a 13 hour day thanks to a wedding where I have to arrange flowers. But I’ll try to remain lucid enough to get the point across.)

Right. So everyone loves plot twists. They make readers scream, squee, cry, laugh with glee…. They take readers from one emotional extreme to another, making the reading experience feel like a roller coaster the reader wants to take again.

The thing is, plot twists have been exploited so many times that they do lose some of their effect. Especially the “It’s a twist because you didn’t get to see the main character doing something incredibly important to the plot. Get it?”

No… No I don’t.

Mmm… I’m probably saying this because exhaustion lowers my inhibitions, but hey, it’s my opinion, so here it is:

Those aren’t plot twists. They’re cop-outs.

And they kept being used again and again. Oh sure, they do take the reader’s from extreme to extreme. But instead of: “OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ah AWESOME!!!!!” or even better: “OMG. OMG! OMG!! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH SHIT!!!!!”

These “twists” are more of an: “OMG!!!………………. Oh.”

Horrid, horrid use of exclamations, I know. Guess they’re all escaping while my inner editor sleeps. Point is, taking readers to high stakes and massive tension and then dropping them on their asses is just lame. Really.

Sadly a lot of your run-of-the-mill bestselling thriller writers employ this tactic. I think people get dazed and dazzled by the adrenaline high followed by the crash after. Maybe it’s like eating candy. After a sugar crash you crave more sugar, don’t you?

Plot twists done correctly elevate stories to other realms entirely. It’s like 80% dark chocolate compared to a cheapy milk chocolate (I.E. fake twists).

Sadder than the fact that these fake twists get abused is the fact that with a tiny bit more effort, a much more effective twist could be achieved.

All it takes is leaving breadcrumbs of information, leading readers right where they think they’re headed, except you as the writer would be leading them somewhere else entirely.

Simply put, people are used to all sorts of information creeping into a story. So if  you put all the building blocks to your big twist out for them to see, in a way that makes them seem unrelated or unimportant, the reader will only see the whole picture when you reveal the twist, which basically acts as a way to put all the pieces together. And if that twist has mind-blowing effects on the characters/story/stakes… even better.

And truly brilliant writers can do this without hiding anything from the reader. A plot twist should be a moment of clarity when the reader sees everything they missed before, and is shocked because 1) s/he missed the clues and 2) at the MASSIVE repercussions those clues actually have.

So yes, PJ, if you’re reading this: I called you a brilliant writer.

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A to Z Challenge: Raising Stakes

On N-day, I mentioned that raising the stakes make a huge difference to the middle of a book, but that I’d do another post about it. Well, today is that day.

Stakes make a difference, because stakes keep the tension in a story as tight as you want it to be.

Credit

Think of it as a poker game. The more you put into the pot, the greater your stake will be in winning the game. It becomes more important to you. If you put $500 into the pot,  the game will be really tense, but not as tense as putting $50000 in. And DEFINITELY not as tense as putting in the last $50000 that you own. The first is pretty big situation, the second bigger. The last is life changing.

Ideally speaking, you want the story to start as the poker players (your characters) are about to start playing. And then, with every game, they increase their bets, increasing their stakes in each game (chapter). If you really want to get things tense, you can lock each player in and let someone else (the bad character, perhaps?) increase the bets for them.

The reason why I say this is ideal is because the reader gets to know the character before all hell breaks loose. So they know who the character is. Then as the stakes increase, we get to know them better. We learn to care about them and how they react to challenges. And then just as the reader gets to the middle and thinks the character can’t take more, that final $50000 game starts. The life changer. The one that will ultimately change that character – for better or worse – forever. That’s good reading.

Sometimes, though, the poker game is longer than others. For example in a series, there might be a few big rounds towards the end of each book. Rounds so big that the reader thinks that it’s the life changer. But the real life changer will occur in the last book. Otherwise, why would the reader bother sitting through the stories after that?

So, if your middle is sagging, odds are that it’s because none of your characters are making any bets. There’s nothing happening to make the reader worry about what the character stands to lose. And that’s a huge problem when your story is about to go towards the climax. After all, the climax is about where the character wins or loses the most.

Make sure that the reader can sense what’s at stake. You don’t need to spell it out. Just make it big enough to spot. Hint at the possible results of failure. And of success. And above all, give them a feeling of the odds.

And then for maximum tension: In the life changing round of the poker game that is your character’s story, force them to go for the royal flush.

Look Out for These:

1) Middle sagging because you either put the stakes too high too early, or didn’t raise the stakes.

2) Undefined stakes.

3) CPs and betas doubting why they should be caring.

What’s your approach to stakes in a story?

Key-Word Cavalry: Plot twists that everyone loves.

Due to a variety of reasons (and probably because the google gremlins like me), my blog usually shows up very high in most writing-related searches. Some others too, but that’s not the point.

Most of the blogging related key-words do have some answers somewhere in the bowls of this blog, but a few of them slip through the cracks. Or they don’t get their due attention from me.

Because of that, I’m getting into the habit of checking the key-words every week and see if I can answer the implied questions every Wednesday except for the first one of every month. I might even invite others to join my war on writing ignorance soon, but for today, I’ll fight alone.

So!


It’s harder when writing.

Plot twists that everyone loves. Now the idea that I get from the phrase is that whoever did this search wants a list that he/she can throw into his/her story at random to get an exciting and lovable manuscript.

Uhm… sadly, my deluded lost one, I have to say that there is no such list. Even if it did, do you really want to chuck in all sorts of popular (and most likely hackneyed) twist into your story?

Don’t say yes.

In order to have plot twists that everyone loves, you need to create them in a way that everyone will love.

How are you supposed to do that?

Firstly, by constructing your story well enough to carry the twist without stressing the reader’s suspension of disbelief too far. The secret to this is in lying the foundation early on. NOTHING annoys a reader as much as Deus ex Machina (the appearence of a plot solution out of thin air) in any story, so make sure that every twist you write in has its origins in some point earlier on.

Long lost uncles and aunts no longer cut it. Nor does a twist born out of existent roots but insufficient detail. I’m looking at you, Master Crime Writer Who Annoys the Crap Out of Me.

Yes, your main characters are allowed to be super smart or almost invincible (although, where’s the fun in that?), but panning away from the character’s view point in order to maximize suspense and then have him/her save the day without us being there to see it happen, is a cop-out. 

And no one likes a cop-out. Look out for variations of these words in your manuscript: “It happened like this…” “It was as simple as…”, “The villain thought this, but in reality…”

If you really want a plot twist that everyone loves, make sure that there are ample subtle hints that the twist is possible throughout the story (no, I can’t stress this enough). Then distract the reader from it so that they don’t think about it until it happens. When it comes to a plot twist, the reader reaction you should always strive for is as follows:

1) What?!
2) How?!
3) Oh! I should have seen this coming.

Less than this is acceptable, but mediocre. Less than this will have readers liking/tolerating your twist, but not loving it.

What say you, writing friends? How does one create plot twists that everyone loves?