Friday, April 1, 2016

Planting Twists in Your Story to Keep Readers on Their Toes

You know that old saw about "nothing is certain except death and taxes?"  We expect unexpected twists and turns in our real lives.  Stories should be that way too. 

In life, we may dread the unexpected.  In story, we anticipate and delight in it.  It keeps us on our toes, as readers.  We're engaged, turning pages, wondering what's going to happen next.   Funny thing, though:  Writers who are living high drama in real time often avoid it on the page.  So their writing feels safe, predictable, an easy ride--everything we want our lives to be. 

Everything that writing shouldn't be.

How do you overcome the tendency to keep your characters safe, to tone down your plot, to avoid changing things up? 



Your weekly writing exercise is actually four this week--pick one or all to try. 

Exercise #1:  Create More White Space in Your Life
It helps to have what novelist Dorothy Allison called "necessary boredom."  We write dramatic scenes because we've had a chance to live them in our creative minds, rather than in our adrenals and nervous system.  If you're constantly stimulated and stressed, you may not come out with the dramatic writing you're looking for. 

Take up something to give yourself that white space in your life--running, long walks with the dog, gardening, painting.  Wear out your running shoes while thinking up scenes, as one writer does.  I like painting: I let my mind daydream while my hands work, and I often come away with new ideas for my novel. 

Exercise #2:  Ask "What If?"
One of my favorite twist-provoking exercises is to ask, What if?  Make a list of five things your character (or real-life narrator) would never do.  Then imagine them doing it.  You may not actually use the scene in your story, but it'll help you stop protecting this person on the page.

Exercise #3:  Work Backwards
If your story feels stuck and predictable, work backwards from the end.  Take the final chapter or scene and imagine the feeling you'd like the readers to take away.  What's resolved?  What's learned?  What's changed? 

Then create a reverse timeline, listing ideas on how you might get there, but write them in reverse order.  If you start at the end, imagine the scene right before it.  What would have to happen, to earn that ending?  Then proceed to the scene right before that.  Ask the same question.

Don't discard any ideas that come.  Just note them, let them simmer, see if they might help.

Exercise #4:  Ask for Wacky Feedback
Share your timeline (outline, chapter summary, or storyboard) with two other writers.  Ask them to give you five wacky ideas, unexpected ones that might shake up your story but still fit your book idea.  Ask, What are you noticing that I'm not? 

Again, take note without automatically discarding anything.  Let it sit and then revisit.  You might try one!  What do you have to lose?

Just predictability, boredom, and stuckness, right?