What makes us love a book? What draws us into the story so much that we can’t put the book down? There are a few things that a writer can do, and one of those is to sharpen your plot structure by doing the unexpected.
What does that mean? Well, often in a book, the main character comes to a place where they have to choose to act. How they act will have consequences. And usually, those consequences will result in your character winning or losing something.
What are the Consequences?
I want to focus on the consequences, rather than the action your character takes. It’s those consequences that are most critical to engaging your reader with the book you’re writing.
What if there were more than two possible outcomes? What if, instead of winning or losing, something happens that means your character wins a little and loses a little as well? A bittersweet outcome whereupon they have to compromise, and the reader knows that in compromising, things will go wrong for them later.
Don’t Always Be Logical
We often consider plot to be a series of events linked by causation: this happens in the story BECAUSE this happened, BECAUSE this happened etc. But thinking like this sometimes tends to narrow our vision. We become fixed on the fact that each event must cause the next event to happen, and so we follow the path of logic. We think, well, if this happens to my character, then the next most logical thing to happen would be this or this (a win or a loss).
But, without a doubt, the two logical outcomes are also the same outcomes that your reader considers most likely to occur. So if they occur, there might be some tension, but also a sense of expectation, thus diluting the reader’s engagement with the story.
What if something else happens? The not so logical but entirely plausible event that causes the reader to be taken by surprise, to think, I didn’t expect that. This is what drives the reader deeper into your story. Those moments where you catch their breath and make them sit up and pay attention. Usually, an unexpected action has unexpected consequences and the reader has to start re-guessing what will happen next. They won’t be able to put the book down.
Make the Reader Sit Up and Pay Attention
Consider Gone Girl. The two most likely options were that Nick either killed his wife or he didn’t, that someone else killed her. Of course, what really happened is neither of those things.
What about Atonement. The most likely option in that book was that Robbie and Celia would end up together, or they wouldn’t. But the third option that McEwan used was a totally unexpected amalgamation of those two possibilities.
Of course those books are extreme examples. I think it’s worth imagining how you can do this on a smaller scale when your character is faced with a decision. I recently read Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King as he’s on a panel I’m chairing at the upcoming Perth Writers’ Festival. He did this really well in his book; I was constantly surprised by what happened. I also think Dorothy Dunnett is a master at this.
What about you? Which author continually takes your breath away with plot surprises? Is this something you think you can work on in your book? Let me know what you think!