filed under How To Write A Book.

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.

How to Sharpen Your Plot By Doing The Unexpected

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!

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12 Responses to “How To Sharpen Your Plot Structure So Readers Can’t Put Your Book Down”

  1. elimy293

    The most obvious example that springs to my mind is Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The reader is so convinced that something bad has happened to Rosemary’s twin sister Fern, that they don’t question the fact of Fern’s existence at all.

    • Natasha Lester

      I agree, Jodi. It is hard to do but I also think, that by just having it in my mind as I write, I’m more aware of it. By being more aware, I think it works in the background of my mind to help my subconscious deal with plot ideas and have more scope to imagine other possibilities for the story, rather than just jumping on the first idea that presents itself.

  2. Glen Hunting

    It’s just my opinion, but I actually think a lot of books nowadays are overly plotted, as though the authors and/or publishers are worried that the reader will lose focus and the book will lose sales if there aren’t cliff-hangers all over the place. I particularly feel that delaying the revelation of the inciting incident until the last few pages is quite artificial in a realist text. Of course there needs to be a delay of some duration, but I think leaving it right to the end is usually too long. I do think you’re right, however, about illogical plot twists having a role to play, particularly w.r.t. realistic portrayal of (or even providing commentary) on the arbitrary nature of certain events. An illogical or unintuitive outcome is great, as long as it’s still convincing.

    For me, the plot usually ends up being the least memorable thing about a book, and I don’t think that’s because the plots are necessarily weak or predictable. I tend to remember how a book made me feel, and that usually comes out of what the inner experiences of the characters revealed to me (or confirmed for me) about Life. But that’s probably a minority taste with a limited market appeal, so I offer these comments as my preferences only, not as a manifesto on ‘how it should be’.

    • Natasha Lester

      Hi Glen, I think you’re absolutely right, that plot is a much bigger focus these days than it used to be. That’s not always a bad thing, but you’re right, there is nothing quite like a book with exquisitely realised characters.

      But, to help some of those who are writing for the market of today, I offer these tips as I think they might be useful.

      And feel free to ‘manifesto’ away! It’s always good to have a range of ideas and opinions offered here.

  3. Annabel Smith (@AnnabelSmithAUS)

    I recently read a fantastic article on plot twists. Essentially, it argued that the most thrilling plot twist is not the one that the reader doesn’t see coming, u the one that the character doesn’t see coming. I thought this was a really interesting distinction. It was Laurie Steed who first told me about the ‘third option’ – I try to use it but I also use my intuition a lot in my writing – one choice or action sometimes just intuitively feels like the right one, and I follow my gut instinct on that for the most part.

    • Glen Hunting

      Mr Steed was telling me likewise in the workshop he gave on Friday (good, isn’t he?) Interesting point about character expectations versus reader expectations. Have you a link to that article you read about it in?


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