Relaxing for a bit, watching We’re the Millers on Netflix, enjoying a Diet Pepsi and Crown Royal because I’m out of wine (cracked open a small bottle hubby’s had for eight years, so he’s less than pleased, but oh well), and halfway the movie, the plot picks up a snag I did NOT see coming. A twist of irony. A complication that the protagonists are not going to see coming.
I love it.
This is the essence of good writing, for me: evil, unpredictable plot points that sneak up on the reader (the term works for movies, too), sending the characters off in unexpected directions. This is what I try to do in my own writing, because otherwise, the story just gets so boring . . . I mean, you want to stick to some kind of formula or pattern that is familiar to readers in order to avoid isolating them completely, but when finding the path of the novel or play or what-have-you, those moments of discovery when an otherwise unthought-of option reveals itself and adds meat to the plot — those are golden.
When I’m teaching writer’s craft, I like to describe it as an unanticipated slap in the face, like what’s done to Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) in How I Met Your Mother. All the challenges that happen to your protagonist(s) are basically metaphorical slaps in the face, of varying degrees of severity. It’s how your characters respond and move on or grow from those events that helps to inform the story.
See? Plot points (major and minor conflicts, confrontations, challenges) are like slaps! The slap bet is the condition or set-up of the plot point, because it establishes the situation in which the challenge has to happen. The character knows something is lurking around a corner, and you feel the suspense of wondering when and where and how hard the “slap” is going to be. But there’s no avoiding it. In order for balance to be restored (in Barney Stinson’s case, his debt owed to Marshall over guessing wrongly about Robin’s past), the slap has to be gotten through, rather like a testing. There’s a connection here to the Hero’s Journey, I can sense it . . .
And then the slap itself is the most entertaining, particularly for those of us with a sick sense of humour. Doesn’t have to be an actual, physical, facial slap, of course — I’m just using the term as a stand-in for whatever it is that knocks the protagonist down and forces him or her to reconsider things, seek a different path, build his/her resilience, etc. Before a hero can win, he/she has to fall.
Hey — does that mean every writer who puts his/her imaginary friends though this is really a maniacal super-villain?
I like that!
So plot evilly, writer friends! Don’t be afraid to sneak in those unexpected slaps, those moments of WTF and I-did-not-see-that-coming, because they will make your readers sit up and take notice. They will challenge your characters’ abilities and morals, their values and their journeys. And the more creative and dastardly your slaps are, the more I think your work will stand out in the crowd.
Damnit, I’m all out of Diet Pepsi . . .