Surprise your readers. Whatever they expect, do something else.
The example the author gave in the article had to do with characterization: If Joe, the young truck-driver lifts weights in the living room while his wife, Sarah embroiders cross stitch, then no one is surprised. But if you give the weights to Sarah, and the cross-stitch project to Joe, things get a bit more interesting.
I love books that surprise me, and in my writing, I'm proudest when I have created a recognizable character - I'm thinking of Finis, the overbearing preacher in To Dance In the Desert - and turned his stereotype inside out so you see the real person inside.
It works with plot, too. Ever read a book that lead you to believe things would pan out one way, but then something happened and the story went a different direction altogether? The new course has to make sense, certainly, but when it does, to my mind, it's story magic.
Much as I love books about the craft of writing, sometimes a good rule-of-thumb is worth 300 pages of literary theory.
Since this is Friday, let's play a game. Nothing too heavy. We're going to grab three random numbers, and write a quick plot the easy, predictable way, and then mess with the elements a bit, to make it more interesting.
To prepare, pull up the random number generator: http://www.random.org/
Generate a number between 1 and 7. Write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 1, generate a second number between 1 and 39, and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 2, generate a second number between 1 and 38 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 3, generate a second number between 1 and 26 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 4, generate a second number between 1 and 33 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 5, generate a second number between 1 and 27 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 6, generate a second number between 1 and 40 and write it down.
- If the first number you generated is 7, generate a second number between 1 and 9 and write it down.
Generate a number between 1 and 36, and write it down.
Now you're ready to play.
HOW TO USE THE FIRST NUMBER:
There are seven portfolios featured on her site, and for the purposes of this exercise, you're to navigate to one of them. The first number you generated, between 1 and 7, will tell you which one:
- If you generated number 1, go to "New York 1."
- If you generated number 2, go to "New York 2."
- If you generated number 3, go to "Chicago."
- If you generated number 4, go to "Travels."
- If you generated number 5, go to "Unknown."
- If you generated number 6, go to "Self Portraits."
- If you generated number 7, go to "Color."
HOW TO USE THE SECOND NUMBER:
HOW TO USE THE THIRD NUMBER:
Here you will find a list of Georges Polti's 36 Dramatic Situations. Choose the one that corresponds to the third number you chose. If you like, click on the situation to read a brief discussion of the parameters.
Now, dear reader, you are ready write the outline of a new story, using the photo and situation you just chose. First write what seems most obvious to you, and then change things so it still fits the picture, but in a more surprising way.
Here's what I did with mine:
My generated numbers were: 6, 18, and 35.
That gives me this image:
My dramatic situation is number 35, Recovery of a lost one. (How ironic: the theme of both my novels.)
My first take on the story:
Ten-year-old Gracie's brother Steven, aged five, was last seen two months ago, getting into a navy blue, 1947 Packard no one had ever seen in her small town.
Now, on the way home from school, she has just spotted the same Packard pulling up a dirt drive to a house all but hidden behind trees and tall bushes.
The sign near the sidewalk says, "No Trespassing." She stands wringing her hands, mustering courage to tiptoe through the brush and look through the windows for her brother.
That was too easy.
And boring, and predictable.
What if Gracie isn't a little girl, but an elderly woman who has just failed the eye test for her driver's license? And what if she isn't your stereotypical old lady, but is was riding that bike to the local college, to finish her Bachelor's degree in... let's see... Marriage and Family Counseling, to help a family - her family - whose dysfunctions trace directly back to the stranglehold she's kept on her children and younger siblings all their lives.
And what if the missing person is the brother who has managed to avoid her completely in the three months since he announced his engagement to the twice widowed woman who runs the local food bank? And she has met her sister-in-law to be, and has identified in her the clear traits of a sociopath.
But now she has seen her brother pull up the dirt drive of this hidden house. And the sign out front says, "No Trespassing. Especially Not If You're Gracie."
Now it's your turn.
Generate your three numbers and use them to come up with a predictable plot in just a few words. Then change out the predictable bits with less-predictable ones, and let us know what you have.
Oh, and include the link to your photograph.
We love to read what you have to say.