When talking about books, or writing book reviews, the spoiler is a definite no-no. Revealing plot twists or a book’s ending to those who haven’t read it spoils the experience to the point they may decide not to bother.
Plot-driven fiction is way more susceptible to spoilers than so-called “literary” fiction, which depends less on revelations than on artful use of language. It’s the difference between rushing to a destination and stopping to view the scenery along the way.
As a book’s author, I have a special relationship with the book. In a way, for me, it’s already spoiled, unless I were totally “pantsing” it — writing by feel, without any outline or plan at all. And even that applies only to the first draft. Once I start revising or rewriting, I know how it all works out.
When you think about this, it’s amazing any book at all has a tension-filled plot or a surprise ending. Knowing how the story will end makes it hard to create an atmosphere of peril for the characters. It’s too easy to slip into a relaxed tone and pace, like going to a familiar place down a well-worn path.
How does the writer create tension and suspense for the reader? By calling on the brute force of imagination, dancing around the scenes being plotted, seeing them from all sides at once. Then skewing the view, applying disguises, drawing scrims over crucial details.
Writers have to read their works like readers do, be aware of the expectations they are creating, and either fulfill them or jerk them away and deliver something totally unexpected. Even though they already know the ending.
No wonder writing — the initial act of creation — is so hard!
This is why I personally don’t favour strict outlining or detailed planning. I need to have a specific ending in mind, but I don’t really know how I’m going to get there. When I sit down to write another chapter, I have a list called Things That Must Happen, but quite often, some of them don’t, and unexpected ones do.
Having wiggle room in the plot gives my characters chances to do the opposite of what I thought they might, to try and fail before they arrive at the destinations I have in mind for them, and for me to experience a surprise or two, just like I hope my readers will.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.
Plotting and structure are the necessary evils of writing, but I’ve learned two things during the writing process of my series. 1 – don’t plot the series! 2 – Don’t change unexpected plot twists, they’re always better than contrivances.
I think there’s a line not to be crossed that straddles structuring and contrivance. I used to plan meticulously and writing became an incredible bore. Now, so long as I know where a chapter is going to end up, I prefer a light touch approach and allow the odd detour to remain so long as it carries the theme forward.
Writing in that respect is a bit like gardening. You can plan a layout, but the odd weed coming up here and there can add to the composition, as long as it’s not giant hogweed.
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Very true, and I love the comparison to gardening. In my experience it’s even harder to stick to a plan when working with plants than with words. No giant hogweed here yet, but lots of other weeds.
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I see characters are the key. When the outcome is known at the beginning, the plot is really about the pov character’s struggles and overcoming obstacles to solve the crime, uncover some nefarious plot or overcoming some personal challenge or threat. I like to create characters and put them in challenging or compromising situations, and let the writing flow. Their solutions are often quite surprising.
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You’re right, John. In some genres, the outcome is known — the mystery will be solved, the couple will find romance, the quest will be achieved. The only question is how, and if the characters are vividly rendered and interesting, the reader gets more out of finding how those endings are achieved.
The moments I live for are when a character surprises me and does something I didn’t expect, pushes the plot in a different direction, does something unexpectedly cruel or selfless. The writer’s spoiler. In the book I’m shopping now, I had to add two chapters when, much to my surprise, the protagonist’s gruff but inspiring mentor revealed that the whole dang convoluted spiel–plots within plots–was his creation. Imagine that Dumbledore put Voldemort up to it, or if Ben Kenobi tricked Darth into all that bad juju. I literally pushed the keyboard away and shouted, “No fucking way!” (sorry) and yes, I realized it was just an idea that surfaced in my mind, but it came from the development of that character, the organic plot, and god I hope that it shocks readers like it did me. And I hope it happens again. I wrote a story years ago where the hero kills someone–an ally who does something bad–right in the middle, making a simple adventure into a dark coming of age/loss of innocence story. That was pretty cool, too. Adding a layer of guilt to the story. I imagine this happens to good writers all the time.
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Those are some great examples of the reason we write. The act of creation isn’t entirely under the writer’s control. That’s what makes it a thrill and a bit of a struggle too. Thanks for your insightful comment, Chuck!
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