by Lillian Csernica on April 24, 2013
A long time ago when Tangent still published a print edition, I wrote a column reviewing short . My number one complaint? Predictable plotlines. That’s a major weakness in any story regardless of genre. Editors and publishers (and reviewers!) want to see fresh, new, unpredictable storytelling.
How do you learn the art of writing unpredictable plot twists? Reading widely in your field certainly helps. Knowing what the competition has already done will help you stretch beyond that. Look at Jim Butcher‘s Dresden Files. In book after book, Butcher just keeps raising the stakes. You have no idea how Harry Dresden is going to cope with the latest set or impossible odds and grueling emotional stakes. Jim Butcher delivers every time.
PLOT: Brainstorm all the possible ways your protagonist could try to solve the problem situation. No matter how obvious, how logical, how predictable. Dump all of that out of your head onto paper. With that list in front of you, you’ll begin to get ideas for more creative and unpredictable solutions.
CHARACTER: Many writers start with a character in mind. Here are two ways to proceed.
- Give that character some kind of physical or mental trait that is unpredictable. Be careful with this one. Check your chosen “symptoms” against known medical conditions. You might create a character that seems unique when in fact you’ve reproduced the traits associated with autism, especially Asperger’s Syndrome. (Every Aspie is unique, but that might not be what’s best for your story!)
- Take something away. During bad weather an airplane pilot goes deaf and can’t hear the instructions from the . A master chef suffers some trauma that takes away his senses of taste and smell. A professional photographer gets hit in the back of the head in just the right spot to make him or her “face blind.” What do these people do now?
SETTING: Put that character into a situation so foreign to his or her native environment, educational background, moral paradigm, etc. that solving the problem situation is going to take a whole lot of luck and adaptation on the run. S.M. Sterling does a brilliant job of this in Island in the Sea of Time, the first book of the Nantucket Series. When a strange storm blows up off Nantucket, things go so wrong that when the weather clears, both the island and a Coast Guard windjammer are stranded in the Bronze Age.
You also have the option of combining two or even all three of these story elements. Just don’t go overboard. There’s a fine line between the Unpredictable and the.