What happens when a writer completely disregards established genre tropes?
How to use amnesia as a plot device
Recently I was slogging through an ARC (and I do mean slogging) trying to figure out why I can’t get into the story. It’s a great idea. Something I’ve never read before. Time travel kid, alternate timelines, and a unique idea of using time as a web, which allows those with the ‘power’ to pull objects from alternate timelines into the character’s present. It should be awesome, but something was off.
The main character kept “remembering” plot-changing information, and then life went on as if nothing happened. In other words, the reader was never prepared for anything.
Preparation keeps plots from feeling contrived
Lack of preparation in fantasy is a disaster waiting to happen. Particularly one that categorized as magical realism. If you have a scruffy wizard grinding things with his mortar and pestle and something behind him explodes without explanation, the reader will forgive it. At Merlin’s table we expect magical things to happen. If the same thing happens at John Smith’s kitchen table, your reader is going to say, “Wait, what?”
In this particular book, the main character (MC) would inexplicably “remember” things when it was convenient for the plot.
During monster attack
MC: “But I’ve never touched a sword in my life.”
Sidekick: “Here hold mine.”
Never before mentioned memories of being Zorro flood back into the MC.
All enemies are dead.
MC shows no surprise at remembering being Zorro.
While this is a stripped down example, it is an accurate outline of something I had noticed throughout the book.
No, no, no, just no.
What to do instead
There are plenty of movies where an MC rediscovers lost memories. The Bourne Identity is a great example. In the movie, Jason Bourne doesn’t suddenly remember all his skills. In first fight scene he initially doesn’t fight back until the policeman touches him. The sensation triggers a sensory memory, which is a separate memory from the repressed cognitive one. Jason realizes the sensation of being attacked is familiar, and he follows the tactile memory. We see Matt Damon portray this internal dialogue through facial expressions, first surprise, hesitation, and then finally curiosity as he explores the memory. The entire sequence feels believable, despite the reality that a smaller Jason Bourne could not really wire-jitsu two much bigger men who were also trained in hand-to-hand fighting.
What to do instead
1. Plant a seed in a previous chapter.
Rather than have the master swordsman memory come out of nowhere, the author should have alluded to the skill earlier. Since the MC is a kid (Never mind that the Zorro memory in question occurred when he was 10 years old.) He could have easily been swinging a stick around in the woods and had a flash of familiarity. Find some realistic way of alluding to a hidden skill. In the Long Kiss Goodnight, ex-assassin Gena Davis is chopping vegetables in the kitchen and rediscovers her forgotten knife skills. She makes the wrong conclusion, (that she used to be a chef) but the hint is there: she’s really good with a knife.
2. The discovery
Take the reader through the process of rediscovering a forgotten or innate skill.
Internal dialogue: “This feels familiar” (recovered memory) or “What just happened?” (innate skill)
Internal dialogue: “Why do I know this?” (memory) or “How did I do that?” (innate skill)
- Test the waters
If your MC suddenly remembers he was Zorro in a past life, he is still going to be tentative the first time he uses his skills. He can gain confidence quickly, but the first few strokes will be restrained. Similarly, if your MC discovers his telekinesis, let him test it by moving a glass on a table, not by stopping a train.
- Build the new skill
Character has a small success (or let her fail a few times, even better.)
- Then move on to bigger things
3. Take time to process
Discovering a new incredible gift will affect your main character. I hate it when the MC suddenly has a strange power and is “taking it so well.” Cat Winters does a great job with this in “A Cure for Dreaming. (Affiliate, but I really liked the book.)” Olivia’s sudden magical ability affects her interactions with everyone in the story, and as a result, her relationships with those around her change. Winters also explores the Olivia’s fears that the ability will be permanent and how it will affect the rest of her life. These are thoughts a person would really have. The main character needed time to adjust emotionally to her new abilities. Even a helpful skill would take time to adjust to. If your MC is no different after attaining a skill than she was before, it will not feel authentic.
I’m only a third of the way through this book, and I’m hoping that these issues will work themselves out since I love the concept. But if I were at the bookstore, this one would have gone back on the shelf. As a reader I enjoy being surprised, but I hate being confused. Avoid this pitfall by preparing your readers properly. Then the magic will feel real.
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A few final things
First: Announcing my book
Based on my “Beginner’s Guide to NaNoWriMo” blog posts, this book breaks down contemporary plot structure into daily writing goals in order to guide the novice writer through the entire month. I’m currently looking for ARC reviewers, Bloggers, and/or Podcasters for the publicity campaign for the August release. If you’d like to participate send me an email michelekellerauthor(at)gmail Thanks!
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Making your opening scene work is more than just starting with an explosion. The opening action sets the tone for your entire story. Make sure yours doesn’t fall into one of these traps.
Opening Action: getting it right
This week I had two similar manuscripts on my desk. Both were Jeanne Frost-style contemporary fantasy: Sexy young woman kicking ass in stilettos with a super-hot monster love interest on the side. Both writers had great mechanics, and both had opening scenes that began with conflict. But only one of them drew me in. The problem wasn’t subjective. One manuscript had a definable issue that could have easily been avoided.
Start with action
Start with action is a commonly spouted piece of writing advice, but not all action is created equal.
Manuscript 1 opened with the main character right before she has to fight for her life. In this example, the author constructed the fight to continually add to the tension. Every small question/conflict raised was answered with another, building a continuous chain that perpetually increased the stakes.
Manuscript 2 opened with the main character searching her environment for a defensible position and winning it after a minor brawl. Then, the chapter continued with chitchat that introduced another, unrelated problem.
Both these manuscripts started with action, but there is a critical difference: the opening action in manuscript 2 did not start the story.
Starting with the real action
Knowing where to start the story is one of the biggest problems new writers have with plotting. New writers want to recount all the events that occur from the moment a character wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep, but that is not a plot. Plot is a sequence of events that take your character through his/her journey. That means only the events that are related to that journey should be included.
Did we hear about Red Riding Hood searching for her basket that morning? Cinderella making her bed before the ball? Rapunzel getting her period? No. While these things certainly happened, they are not part of the plot. Why?
Those events didn’t change anything for the character.
Every point in your plot should change something for the POV character. When you are looking for your story’s true beginning, look for the first event that changed your character’s path.
Finding the Story’s True Beginning
One of my CP’s and I are going back and forth on this issue with her current WIP. She wants to include the scene where a friend convinces the main character to go to a party. Her reason: this is the event that sets the Main Character on her path.
My advice is to start at the party. Why? The Main Character’s decision to go to the party wasn’t what set her on her path. The Main Character could have gone to the party and, if the bad guys hadn’t shown up, nothing would have changed. The decision to go to the party was a low stakes decision. She’d been to plenty of parties in the past, so there was nothing special about this party at the time the decision was made. As a result, the initial conflict raised in the opening chapter: Main Character must decide whether to attend a party, is completely resolved without raising another conflict. Essentially, that plotline is over.
This was the same problem that surfaced in manuscript 2: the original conflict was resolved without effectively raising another.
What to do
- Identify your inciting incident- the point of no return for your character (Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games)
- Trace the plot chain backward until you find the decision that made the inciting incident inevitable. That means that every decision made between those two points must connect in an unbreakable chain.
But wait? Doesn’t that mean that the decision to go to the party should be included?
Plot chains must be linked by cause and effect
The main character’s decision to go to the party did not cause the bad guys to show up. However, the bad guys’ behavior caused the main character to act, and the effects of her actions caused the next problem, etc.
Now lets look at the plot chain from Manuscript 1
It begins In Media Res, (which is great but not necessary.) The MC has been caught stealing and the antagonist is getting ready to make her fight for her life.
cause: (Antagonist) releases the monster for her to fight
effect: MC gets knocked around a bit and realizes she can’t beat it
cause: MC knows she can’t defeat the monster
effect: MC looks around for another way and spots magical mind control cuff on monster’s ankle
cause: MC destroys cuff
effect: monster joins forces with MC and turns attention to captors
cause: MC starts smashing up the place
effect: (Antagonist) turns into something even more gruesome than the original monster.
End first chapter
In this simplified outline, the cause and effect relationship between all the events in the plot becomes clear. This is what a plot chain should look like. The most basic plot structure is cause and effect.
Notice how each link in the chain changes something for the MC.
Link 1 change: monster can’t be defeated
LInk 2 change: Another possibility emerges
Link 3 change: Monster changes sides
Link 4 change: Antagonist gets stronger
But wait? Wasn’t the MC’s decision to steal the beginning of the plot chain, and therefore should be included because “show, don’t tell?”
The author’s decision not to include these scenes was the correct one for two reasons:
- Seeing these scenes would not have added anything to the story.
- Once the MC had been caught, she lost agency (the ability to effect change) in her story. When characters lose agency, their plot chains are broken. Finding a thief in his toy chest caused the antagonist to arrest her and sentence her to death. The main character had no part in that decision. This break in agency shifted the theft/arrest scenes into the MC’s backstory. She regained her agency when the fight started, marking the beginning of the new plot chain.
Plot chaining isn’t only important for action genres, all stories should have a defined sequence of cause and effect. And if you find agency in your plot chain spread across multiple characters, then you should use multiple POV’s to tell it. Identifying the character with agency will tell you which POV to use. It will also prevent important events from happening off screen and keep the action “on page” where you want it.
Start with action sounds like simple advice, but making it work takes careful consideration and planning. By using the plot chaining technique, you will make sure your opening action truly starts the hero’s story. Don’t let your opening fall flat or wander aimlessly, use plot chaining to get your story off to a great start.
The Climactic Scene is the Final Confrontation
The climactic scene is the hero’s last confrontation with the villain, the antagonistic forces, and her personal lie. This is the moment she will either emerge victorious or everything will burn around her.
The climax is the moment the hero shows her new colors.
- Emmet become the teacher to Lord Business (The Lego Movie)
- Batman tells the Joker “You complete me.” (Lego Batman Movie)
- Sadness takes control of the panel (Inside Out)
The climax is the last moment before we get the answer to the question raised in the second half of the final battle
- Will President Business believe he is also the special? (The Lego Movie)
- Will Batman and Joker save Gotham? (Lego Batman Movie)
- Can Sadness get Riley to come home? (Inside Out)
The climax ends when we get the answer to this question.
Tips for getting the most out of the climactic scene
- Make sure the climax has the strongest tension.
This must be the highest stakes and the most difficult problem. If you have a previous conflict/scene that overshadows your climax, your story will feel off balance.
- If you are tying up multiple subplots, don’t let them distract from the main plot
Subplots help to fill out your character’s world, but it’s easy to get too involved in them. If you run into trouble, make a diagram of your subplots showing how they relate to the main plot. Then, reframe the hero’s problem to relate to his character arc. Keeping the plot centered on the character arc will ensure your story’s stakes are personal rather than generic. This will help your story feel original.
- If you have a theme, try to tie the climax to it
Not using the theme in the climax is like not adding herbs to the soup. Sure, you can do it, but you’ll end up with a pot of mushy boiled vegetables.
- No 11th-hour twists. The solution must already be in play
Finding a random solution will leave your readers reeling. Everything must already exist in the character’s world.
- No easy outs
Yes, I know about the Sonic Screwdriver but this is the exception, not the rule.
- The hero must solve her problem
Nothing is more anti-climactic than having the hero’s problem solved for them by some outside force.
- Superman didn’t fly in to put Gotham back together
- Riley’s parents didn’t show up at the bus station to take her home.
- The hero must solve her own problems. You can send in the cavalry after the conflict has been resolved.
This is final moment. Now, your character can truly become a hero
The hero has conquered her lie. Now, she will conquer her struggles. Keep her focused on the outcome and your hero will have the ending she deserves.
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