“That book is a real page
“I couldn’t wait
to find out what happened next.”
For many authors, little praise is higher than such words, and
certainly readers who want to turn pages are readers who come back for
more. And, readers who want to find out what happens next are readers
who are interested in the plot. But how do you make a plot good? What
criteria must it fulfill?
A plot should be exciting for the reader, so that the reader
wants to know what happens next. A plot should be full of surprises
for the reader, so that the reader does not know what is going to happen
next. And finally, by the end, everything needs to look logical, or at
least internally consistent to the reader, so that at the end your
reader is satisfied, instead of let-down and irritated.
Here are some ways to generate tension and unexpected events to keep
your story moving through its paces and your readers glued to the pages:
Eliminate the obvious possibilities
Your story starts with an action or event. Your hero must then react
to that event. What do you have him do that will spur the attention of
the reader? You should reject the first two possibilities which occur to
you, because these possibilities will occur to your readers as well.
Instead, you should take the third or the fourth. Can’t think of more
than two? Sure, you can – after all, you’re a writer, whose brain teems
with fantasy, right? Imagine that Jane is driving home, her toddler
belted securely in the back, and then she gets a flat tire. What should
she do? Normally you would expect her to get out her cell phone and call
for help. That is too easy a way out for her, so we have to make her
either forget her cell phone or drain its battery through some prior
set-up. So we have eliminated option number one. Option number two is to
walk to the nearest house or gas station – much more difficult with her
toddler, so we have eliminated that. Option number three is that some
stranger stops to help her ... what sort of stranger? Is he dangerous? A
love interest? Or simply the unexpected, such as a pair of Jehovah’s
witnesses? How about if a woman stops by, a psychic who says she knew
that Jane was going to have a flat tire and that she and her baby should
come home with her because she has something very, very important to
Have something absurd happen
Presumably your character is not living in a vacuum, so something
from the rest of the world could interrupt him. Imagine that John is
finally settling down to do something he has been putting off for too
long: his taxes. And then a stripper shows up at his apartment,
determined to dance for him, even though John insists that this all must
be a mistake.
Have something alarming happen
Emergencies are a good source of surprise, especially when something
else is going on. Imagine that Joan is waiting for a phone call from her
estranged husband, and trying to decide whether she should call him
herself, and if so, what she should say. She decides to put off the
decision with a visit to the refrigerator, a side-trip she has made all
too often lately. As she opens the door to the fridge, she smells smoke.
She looks up and out the window: the neighbor’s house is on fire!
Have the worst possible thing happen
What is the thing your character fears most? Perhaps Jean has stolen
her aunt’s diamond bracelet. She regrets her deed, and decides to return
it – but when she goes to her aunt’s house to do so, the police are
already there. Jean can’t get to the jewelry box, so she decides to slip
the diamond bracelet unnoticed in between the cushions of the couch.
Unknown to her, the police have already searched the couch. So when she
pulls the bracelet out from the cushions triumphantly, Jean’s aunt
disowns her and the police arrest her.
Characters should have different agendas
Each of your characters should want something, and what they want
should not be the same thing. For example: John, our fellow filling out
tax forms, wants to get his taxes taken care of so that he can get a
refund in time for a vacation, and the stripper plans to case his
apartment so that her gang can rob it later. Because of the conflict in
the agendas, conflict in the story arises too.
Change scenes and leave your readers dangling
Another way of heightening the suspense is to get your characters to
a very difficult and dangerous moment and then, instead of following
immediately with a continuation in the next scene or the next chapter,
switch to another character that you’re following in your novel. This is
a little artificial but can be very effective. Besides, it is justified
when two important scenes are happening practically simultaneously,
although in different places. I use this technique in my current
project, Pelops and Amphion, when Pelops’ father Tantalus comes at him
with a knife. The knife falls; the scene and the chapter end; but
instead of letting the reader learn if our hero Pelops survives the
attack, I transport the reader to a cottage near Thebes, where Pelops’
future rival and brother-in-law, Amphion struggles with a wayward young
bull as he herds the cattle home for the winter.
There are also a few recommendations on what you should not do if you
want to keep those pages turning.
Don’t be illogical
Don’t make your characters do something simply because it is
convenient for the plot, particularly if the deed contradicts what the
character would normally do. Or, if you have to do this for the sake of
the plot, then justify it somehow. If Joe hates spinach on page twenty
then Joe should not eat spinach on page one hundred and twenty, unless
you give a reason for this spinach-eating in the interim. Perhaps Joe
still believes that spinach is a very good source of iron. (Spinach for
many years was considered a wonderful source of iron, but this legend
was due to a mistyped decimal point. In truth spinach has about as much
iron as other leafy-green vegetables.)
Don’t dwell on the dull moments
You don’t have to tell the reader everything. If nothing happens
when driving from the house to the post office, then instead of telling
us about the drive, give your readers enough information to make the
transition and then skip the rest. You can do this with hours, days,
weeks, months, even years if necessary.
Don’t let your characters be too happy
for too long
Happiness is great in real life, but it is bad for your plot. Your
characters can be happy at the end of the book, when there is no more
plot coming. Occasionally they should be happy during your book, so
that things can come crashing down again in the next page. But in
general, bad things are more fun to read about.
Hopefully these ideas will help you put more twists and turns in your
plot. Your writing will flow much more easily if you know what is going
to happen next. And if the words flow well for you, the chances are
greater that the pages will turn quickly for your readers.
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