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.
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.
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 Hell. His 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.
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.
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.