Keeping it Fresh Part 4: Fantasy Plot

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July 1, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue

Welcome to part four of our series on how to keep your Urban Fantasy and Supernatural Fiction from getting dry and crusty. In the last few days we’ve covered Setting, Systems of Magic, and Supernatural Beings and today we’re going to hit a critical element: Plot.

boring book catThere’s nothing worse than a predictable plot.

What makes preventing a predictable plot so challenging is that readers are savvy. We’re familiar with the common tropes of our chosen genres, we’re familiar with the concept of the hero’s journey, we expect the HEA (happily ever after) for the romance components, and we expect the good guys to win. When it comes to the resolution of your overall story arc, it’s going to be damned hard to surprise a reader.

There are only so many basic plots. Depending on who you ask, they may tell you four, seven, or twenty. Now, I haven’t been able to find exact figures on the number of fiction novels published each year, but even if only half of the novels published in the US in 2012 were fiction, that would still mean that 150,000 of them were all still some variation on a handful of different basic plots.

So, let’s just all agree right now that no matter what we write that your plot is not going to be unique. Readers have seen it all before. They are going to have a general idea of where you are going no matter what you do.

Vroom Vroom! Source; Google Images

So, are we doomed? Hell no. We may not be able to prevent readers from figuring out where the plot will eventually take our characters, but we don’t have to take the straightest route to get there. We need to take our readers on a wild ride and leave them constantly guessing what will com next.

Take a step to the side.

This was how Kevin Smith described his writing process for Red State in his TV special Burn in HellHis goal as a writer was to twist the path of his characters every time they seemed to have things on a steady, straightforward path. And I think this is generally good advice for writers. Forget following well-marked paths and roads, in fact, avoid them at all costs and you are going to keep your readers in suspense over what will happen next.

Misdirect.

If you’ve got any sort of mystery element in your story, you need plenty of red herrings to keep your readers from learning the truth too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a false lead. You can let your readers guess the truth of one piece of the story to keep them from guessing at larger truths.

Let Nothing Be Sacred.

Source: dorkly.com

In so many books, the main characters have too much success. They fight constant battles and overwhelming odds, but always still come out on top, because they’re sacred to the story and it’s expected. Which is exactly why we should not follow this convention. You know why people are fascinated with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series? Because we never know what that sneaky McSneakerson is going to do next. Nothing and no one is sacred in his stories. Absolutely every character is at risk. We cannot even begin to guess where he’ll take us next.

Incidentally, I think Brent Weeks does this very well in both The Night Angel Trilogy and the Lightbringer Trilogy. Both Weeks and Martin have the potential for real loss, real grief, real hardship in their books. They never go the route you expect. They don’t give their characters easy or clean wins. In fact, their characters usually lose a ton of battles before they win the war.

So, what could you do with your story when you’re writing a scene to keep your reader from anticipating the outcome and boring them? Look at the planned outcome and take a step to the side. Try to think of ways that resolve the conflict that look like losses but will lead to an eventual victory. Add nasty consequences to a victory that none of your characters anticipated. Kill or maim a character. If it’s painful for you, it’s going to be painful for your readers as well. These are real stakes and that’s what makes a story really interesting.

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14 thoughts on “Keeping it Fresh Part 4: Fantasy Plot

  1. Christopher says:

    It’s all so true. I do also think that if you’re careful, you can sometimes keep the reader from figuring out EXACTLY which story arc they’re reading. It doesn’t mean that they COULDN’T figure it out, just that they didn’t.
    Say you set everything up for a perfect redemption story. Like, it’s the only way it could end and still feel good. Then make the end a failure. The fall. or cause that success to come at such a price that we begin to doubt the cost or the character’s true motivations.
    I think the interesting parts of the story are what make you continue to turn the pages. In a mystery that’s so you can find out ‘whodunnit’. In some stories, like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ it can end up being to see what terrible thing could possibly happen to this person next. There are so many things that make me want to turn that page.
    Sometimes I get a vibe for where things are going, and where I want them to go. Sometimes I still want it to turn out different than either one of those just so it’s unexpected.

    • Hmmm, my gut instinct is to say, “That sounds like a bad idea.” My reasoning is that it seems like to basic plot arc is almost a contract with the reader. A romance arc is the most obvious example. I want my HEA in a romance. If I get absolute tragedy in the story instead, I’m going to feel cheated.

      Other genres and plot arcs are probably more flexible, though. And in theory, I’d like to believe that any rule can be broken if you go about it the right way. I can only think of one example of a series where a writer flagrantly violated the convention of a major plot arc, but it still worked because over the course of the series she gradually changed the reader’s expectation of what constituted victory. Unfortunately, I’d hate to even mention which author because of possible spoilery. That makes it difficult to discuss this topic in general. Hurm.

      • Christopher says:

        You’re right. I definitely wasn’t thinking of the romance portion when I replied, so don’t apply it there.
        I suppose part of what makes it so delicious to read those twists is knowing deep down that it’s possible, but thinking ‘S/He wouldn’t dare!’ So you do have to have a trail leading to that possible outcome somewhere, even if it’s disguised.
        My thought did come off as a big ‘screw you’ to the reader and I was meaning a more ‘You had to know this could happen, right?’

      • Yes! That’s a better explanation than my tale of caution. Present possible horrific outcomes to the reader and then whammy them with one when they were just certain you’d never do it.

      • Christopher says:

        There it is! We’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.

  2. Wanderer says:

    I’ve enjoyed every one of these posts and they’ve given me so much to think about. After reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve definitely taken a look at my own writing and realized how cookie-cutter it was in the past. I’m working on throwing several wrenches in the works.
    Again, really liking this blog series, keep up the good work!

    • I’m glad it’s helping! I’m just pouring out all the ideas on writing that have come to me in the past several months as I’ve been comparing my book to published works, and published works against themselves. When I find a book or character that really gets under my skin and demands attention, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes that book/character special.

      • Wanderer says:

        I’ve been noticing myself “reading as a writer” more often lately, but luckily it’s been with books that have a way of capturing my attention before I let the critical side run away with me. If you haven heard of them, I would check out Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. There’s some interesting and unique magic in there that is really well done. It’s not urban fantasy, but if you like..fantasy fantasy…then you might enjoy them!

  3. I’ll second Wanderer. This is a great series, Kira. I can’t read them fast enough, and I’m taking lots of notes. Thanks for the link, too.

  4. MishaBurnett says:

    One thing that I have seen done well is for the main plot to follow the predictable arc while the author confounds expectations within the subplots. A good example of this is John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble In Little China” (a surprisingly deep film under all its silliness). The main “quest” plot ends as we expect, with the heroes victorious, but there are also two parallel romantic subplots, and one ends with a HEA, and the other doesn’t.

  5. L. Marie says:

    I’m loving this series. Writers walk a tightrope to craft an ending that feels inevitable but isn’t boringly predictable. I struggled with that as I wrote my WiP. Halfway through the writing, I came up with a twist that I hope won’t turn readers off. But I knew going into the third section of the book that it was the right way to go. It allowed my main character to suffer greatly though–never an easy thing for me.

  6. James Ramsey says:

    Brilliant advice as usual! Keep ’em coming!

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