Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2008

How to Write Twisty Plots

If there is one thing I do well, it is a twisty plot. I don't like surprises in real life. I go to the same old restaurants on a rotating basis and I order my same old favorite dinners. On the rare occasions I don't, I often wish I did. I tend to buy the same pair of running shoes year after year and get annoyed if they have changed so much as the color. I buy several pair of pants if I find ones that I like, and stack them in my drawers for next year, for when this pair wears out. I'm not telling you this because you need to know to write a twisty plot. I'm telling you this because I want to make sure that you don't think your excuse for writing a boring plot is that you are a boring person. I am an extremely boring person in real life. Ask my kids. But in my imagination, I love to be surprised. I love armchair adventures, betrayals, and deep motivations. I love hidden histories, the revealed super power, the turn of fate, and on and on. But how do you write them--and how do you make them believable? This is my attempt at a crash course in plotting in half an hour. Hold onto your seats and we'll see how it goes.

First of all, never outline in advance. I think it is Stephen King who said in his excellent book ON WRITING, that outlining is for graduate students working on a master thesis. It's not for fiction writers. And he believes that you can tell an outlined novel from one that isn't outlined. I don't know if I'd bet the farm on this, but I suspect sometimes that this is true for me. If a novel feels a bit too pat, a bit too predictable, if the threads are tied up too nicely, if nothing happens in the story that doesn't have a reason to happen, I suspect outline-itis. There are some novels where the writing is so good that I don't mind this. There are others that I think truly suffer. And I will not claim that not writing an outline protects you from a boring plot. It doesn't. I have read plenty of novels (some of Stephen King's among them) that are clearly not outlined and meander here and there and never found out where they were going. I won't say they needed an outline, but they needed something.

But for me (and again, I'm only talking to people who write like I do--the rest of you will have to find someone else to give advice), starting with an outline is deadly. I write for the same reason that I read. I want to find out what happens next. I get an idea in my head and I want to see where it leads. Or a character rides in and I have to find out if that character is going to survive, and how she is going to change, and where she came from. I want to be surprised myself. I want to live through the twists and turns on my own.

Yes, I know that you can outline these things in advance, at least theoretically speaking "you" can. I can't. I've tried a number of times because I keep wishing that writing were a little easier and I didn't have this horrible fear that this novel is going to be the one that beats me, that this will be the one I regret ever starting, ever wasting time on, or worse--that I'll read it right after it gets published and see then what a horrible mistake it was. Every writer wants to be saved from these sorts of fears, or at least all the ones I know do. Yes, even the ones that outline. But it must be done. There are many writers who outline well, and they know when to throw the outline out and to be guided by the needs of the story. Writing an outline is sometimes an inevitable evil of being a successful writer, because in order to get an advance to be able to write the book, you have to write an outline so your agent can sell it to your publisher. But that doesn't mean you have to stick to it.

I urge that if you have written an outline for your book, set it aside. It has been a useful exercise. Now it is time to do the work of writing. It will take all of your courage to do this, but courage is what it takes to write a book full of surprises. If you buy a surprise gift for someone you love, you must know that the bigger the risk you take, the bigger the reward you may gain. But if you are too afraid of the possibility of failure, you will be better off taking no risk to begin with.

Now, you have an idea for a book. Let us say that it is to be about the mirror from the Snow White fairy tale. It's going to be written from her point of view. A very clever device, to be sure. No one has done that pov before. But how will you make it different? A device is not enough on its own. You must have a story that is just as original. The first thing you must do is throw out the predictable. When I was writing MIRA, MIRROR, I decided to throw out the Snow White fairy tale. Everyone knows the fairy tale. I could have rewritten it in a more traditional manner, showing everything from the mirror's point of view and depended on that twist alone and my own innate good writing skills (Ha!) to carry it off. But I didn't want to. That wasn't enough of a challenge for me.

So the whole Snow White fairy tale, everything that the reader expects, is background. I assume the reader knows what happens there, and write the "rest" of the story, the beginning and the after of the Snow White fairy tale. When I wrote my first draft of this book, all I knew was that the mirror was still hanging on that wall after the evil queen had died, and she was trying to figure out a way to get off the wall. A good start for a book because the main characters has a powerful motivation and that alone will drive a story, possibly for the whole novel if the main character is determined enough. Think of Scarlett O'Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, for example. She isn't a particularly deep character, but she is determined and she is interesting. She makes things happen around her because she is strong. And she does develop, to some extent.

All right, so I have a beginning. I wrote a whole draft of the novel where the mirror gets picked up by a witch who wants to use her and it's a battle of the two powers. The mirror is just a mirror in this first version and she has spent her life learning how to be human from a very bad teacher, the evil queen from the Snow White fairy tale. The story is about her conflicts with the witch who wants to make her into a pawn and the mirror's desire to shape her own destiny. It is a decent story, and it was enough to land me a good agent, along with a manuscript sold to a small publishing house with a decent reputation. He negotiated the contract on my first book, but it was MIRROR, MIRROR, as it was then titled, that he wanted to see completed.

His one recommendation for the book was that the mirror needed to be more human. It would be hard for readers to relate to her if she remained merely an inanimate object throughout. He suggested that she had been human before, enchanted into a mirror, and that she wanted to be human again. He said it was up to me to decide if she actually succeeded in her quest or not, but he thought I needed to have a backstory explaining how she came to be the twisted, dark character that she was, and then there could be a way for her to find some kind of redemption. That is the way I recall it, anyway. I suppose I might also call this column "HOW TO REVISE A DOZEN TIMES TO SELL A SINGLE MANUSCRIPT." Because that is what I did. I won't take you through every incarnation of the story, but I will say that every version got me closer to the twisted version that now stands.

I didn't like my agent's suggestions when I first heard them. I didn't act on them immediately. It was probably four or five months before I decided that I would take another look at the manuscript. My first impulse was to try to find some other way to make the mirror more human. And it's always a good idea when you're trying to make your plot less linear, less predictable, to try out different possibilities. Yes, this will take a lot of time. Yes, some people do this in their heads without writing it down. I am not convinced that it saves them time, but it might. And I'm doing this all on the computer, so no one can say that I'm wasting paper and killing trees. I'm thinking with my fingers and some letters on a keyboard. I like to think that way. It feels more like I am reading and I am a very good reader.

However, in the end, after I had tried a few chapters using my agent's advice, I decided that he was right. (This does not always happen. I once wrote a YA novel from the point of view of an autistic boy and my agent urged me to follow the suggestion of an editor who had seen it to try to rewrite it from the viewpoint of the autistic boy's brother, who would be easier for the audience to relate to. It was a miserable failure and the book never sold. So the point of this story is not that you need to change your novel in a particular way, say to make an unlikeable character more likeable at the beginning. That might or might not work. The point is that you have to try different versions of the story to figure out what the best one will be.)

I wrote the new, more human version of MIRROR, MIRROR and this time, the mirror was the sister of the evil queen. I wrote the prologue of the book pretty much as it now stands in its published form. But the rest of the book changed dramatically. In this version, the mirror meets up with Ivana and Talia, but Talia ends up marrying the man she loves, Blenin, and Ivana marries the Duke, and the mirror gives up her life in a battle with the evil witch of the first version, who in this version, appears only in the last few chapters of the book.

This book was getting better. It was good enough that when I sent it to an editor I had met at a conference, she called me and gave me a list of problems she still saw with it. One of the problems was that, apart from the prologue, there was no other mention of the backstory of the mirror with the evil queen. The editor thought the reader needed a better picture of that relationship in order to understand what the mirror was looking for throughout the rest of the book.

It was as I was working on adding in scenes from the past that I realized that the ending would be more satisfying if it tied into the beginning more. I don't want to ruin the book for readers, but I had to have the evil queen reappear. And that meant that she couldn't be dead. She had to be assumed dead. And I had to have a reason for her to be assumed dead. Like, she couldn't remember who she was or what had happened to her. But she couldn't stay ignorant forever, or there would be no reconciliation at the end. So she had to remember at some point everything that had gone on before. A tricky thing. You can see how the plot twists at each new revision.

The final revisions focused on the characters of Talia and Ivana and the plot that worked around them. The romance between Talia and Blenin just didn't seem to be working, and it occurred to me that rather than fix the romance it might be more interesting to have a failed romance in a book. So, one of the endings of the book is the reconciliation between two sisters. Another ending to the book is the happily-ever-after ending of the Beauty-and-the-Beast relationship between Ivana and the Duke. The third ending to the book is the failed romance between Talia and Blenin and Talia's decision that she will take over her father's business as a merchant and shock everyone in good society by choosing not to marry.

Patterns are something that are frequently used in fiction, but if you use the pattern without variation, it gets boring. Think of a beautiful quilt. I think a quilt is more interesting if it doesn't have the perfect outline where every square is the same color. I think quilts are more interesting in the Amish style, where there is a mistake purposely made somewhere. Or I like quilts that show how a quilter in the days when quilts were made from scraps rather than from fabric bought at the store for the purpose of making a quilt of this exact size. In the old days of quilting, if you ran out of a particular fabric, you had to make do with what you had on hand. You improvised. And with a good eye, a lot of those quilts turned out better than the ones people make today. There is an artistic quality about setting up squares with a similar but not exact pattern in opposition to each other. If you are into quilts, this may make sense to you. If not, go look at a book of old quilts and you'll start to see what I mean. It's in the choices you as an artist make in the face of imperfection that show so much more about you than in the choices where there is no restraint.

I've taken you through the revision in one novel to show how I twisted the plot this way and that. But how do you do this sort of thing in your own novel without having an agent or editor there to tell you where it needs to be tweaked to start with? I will say again that I think most authors have an uneasy sense of where their manuscripts are weak. They are not always right and that is why editors are great. But I would recommend that you take your own advice if it conflicts with a writing group's any day of the week. And this is the thing: you have to be willing to go backward if going forward anymore is not going to work. You have to take the risk of making a wrong move to make a perfectly right one.

Case in point: at one point when I was working on MIRA, MIRROR (it took that title when Gregory Maguire published a book about six months ahead of mine with the title MIRROR, MIRROR--a lucky misfortune since I think the new title is more distinct than the original), my editor called and told me that she thought the ending fell a little flat. I had a brilliant idea on the phone at that moment. I told her that I thought the way to fix the ending was to make the mirror turn human again, and have her fall in love with the Duke. He is a beast and she is a beast. It would make a perfect match, I thought. Both of them are such misanthropes, they would go well together, and then that would leave both Talia and Ivana free to live their own lives. My editor said that was interesting, and told me she would think about it. Well, over the weekend, I reread the manuscript (one of the best ways to figure out what is going on with it). And I realized that my idea to my editor was a horrible mistake. The mirror's story wasn't about romance. It never had been. It had always been about sisters. And the way to fix the ending was to remember the focus on sisters. I needed to bring the mirror's sister back and to build on the theme of sisterhood with Talia and Ivana.

I had to call on Monday and explain to my editor my mistake. It was embarrassing and nerve-racking. But I did it. Not all of the leaps that you make are going to be the right ones. But if you don't make leaps, you won't ever be an acrobatic writer. There are beautifully written books that don't care about plot very much at all. I suppose I might have chosen to work more on making my writing beautiful, but I didn't. Because the books I love the most, the ones I reread and buy multiple copies of to hand out to special friends, are books with twisty plots and twistier characters. So that is what I write.

The way I do things now?

Whenever I am writing and get to a point of decision, a point where the book is like a tree and can branch out in any direction, I open a new document and I write down a list of ten things that could happen next. At least ten, though I sometimes have to do this multiple times for the same juncture in the same chapter before I get the right answer. The problem is that my mind, like yours, goes for the easy answers, the predictable ones first. It goes for the things that you have seen a hundred times before, handled well in another book. But that's not the way that you will find out a unique answer, or one that surprises. Typically, the first three possibilities I throw out immediately. I write them down just to get them out of the way, so I can stare at them and remember what I am not choosing. Then I get to some more interesting answers. Some are outrageous and impossible. I write them down, too, because sometimes it turns out outrageous and impossible are exactly right. Sometimes horribly wrong. You don't know now. You'll only know after you've tried it out and written ten or fifty or a hundred pages more. Then you go back and start over again and get it right the next time. Or just better. The important point here is that you should never go for the obvious.

The second part of this is that twisty plots must have twisty characters to go with them. And any time you come up with an unusual answer for the question of: What happens next? You must have an explanation for why that would happen, and it usually depends on a character's movitation. For example, in MIRA, MIRROR, when Talia is transformed by magic to look like Ivana, the expectation by the reader and by the mirror and Ivana, is that she will wake up shrieking and insisting that she is really Talia. The mirror has the response for this all planned out. The real Ivana (who looks like Talia) will have Talia thrown out as a crazed lunatic and she will take over Talia's life and her father and be comfortable. When Talia does not react as expected, and in fact, takes the transformation rather calmly, there must be a very good reason for this. The mirror, and the reader, then spend several chapters trying to figure out that reason. Eventually, it turns out that Talia is engaged to a man she does not love and her father would never let her marry the man she does love. You can have characters do things that seem to make no sense on the surface, so long as they make sense in the end. People have simple motivations, truly. Love, fear, loss, anger, hunger--these things motivate people. But motivations are not immediately visible and it is often the motivations which twist the plot even more that actual events.

If you think about MIRA, MIRROR, there is the magic itself which has rules that remain the same throughout the book, but which I set up in the beginning with a simple sentence: magic comes from death. Other than that, the only fantastical thing that happens is at the end, when the mirror is made human again. The rest of the story is about people and their motivations. Why did Talia come to the mirror's ruined castle in the forest? She has been abused and is running from her father. Why does the Duke refuse magic to fix his face? Magic is what ruined it in the first place. Why does the mirror forgive her sister? There was love between them, at the base of everything, though greed got in the way. Love, in my story, is the most powerful emotion. It conquers in the end. A simple story, twisted this way and that. All the variations on the kinds of love, even a father's love for his daughter Talia wins in the end. And Talia's love for Blenin turns out not to be love at all, but pure lust, which is a fairly simple motivation, as well. And that's how you twist it.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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