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I was reading a book on the bus a few days ago, and by the time I got to work, I was in a bad mood. It was a good book, a really good book, but I still considered putting it down and never picking it up again. It wasn’t until that evening that I discovered the character I thought dead was still alive, and the traitor who had killed him was actually a part of the ruse. How many readers would have gotten that far and how many would have refused to read another word? It’s a risk many writers have to take.
Likely as not, readers won’t blame your characters for the jarring roller-coaster ride of emotion they’ve been on, they’ll blame you, the author. So why risk it? Because who wants to be on a roller-coaster with no twists and turns? There are countless reasons why readers might choose to hate an author, and many of them can be chalked up to poor writing and editing, unrealistic event and characters, too much or too little detail, etc. Here I will discuss the things that writers do on purpose, the plot devices that can make or break a novel.
The secret plan: This plot device has been used by most writers at one time or another. It occurs when a character gets an idea but does not reveal the details to the reader as they go about laying the groundwork for their plan. This has the benefit of creating suspense, mystery, and helps set up twists. However, if you extend the deception for too long, or use this technique too often, you run the risk of readers feeling like they’ve been left out. For some POVs, you run the risk of breaking the connection the reader has formed to your character’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations. The book I mentioned at the start of this post is another example, wherein terrible things happen to a character, and the reader might lose hope and abandon the book before the plan is revealed. Sometimes the plan is obvious and sometimes it’s impossible to guess. The balancing act here is to make it a simple and logical plan, but one that wouldn’t be guessed easily. The reader should immediately understand the plan when they see it unfold.
The dream: Dreams can help readers understand the inner thoughts and desires of characters. The real danger with this plot device is when it is used to fool the reader into thinking the dream is actually happening. Goblins really aren’t chasing him; he’s just lying in bed? Well I got worked up for nothing. Wait, so he really didn’t work up the courage to kiss his true love? What a let-down. Beginning a story with a dream is also risky. In the beginning, the reader is still trying to get their bearings, to understand who’s who and what’s what. Many readers are understandably upset when they realize that none of what they read actually happened.
The tragic ending: A cancer patient dying after finding their true love, or a hero sacrificing themselves to save a child, can invoke powerful emotions in the reader. To make sure that emotion isn’t anger, its best to follow the genre norms. People read romance, horror, mystery, thriller, etc, because they want to feel those emotions. Leaving them with an emotion other than what they came for is a sure way to get on their bad side. Know what your audience wants.
The time leap: There are many reasons why you might want to leap forward or back in time. You may want to age the character, skip over many years of schooling, or give the reader a glimpse of where it all began. You can also shuffle the order of events for dramatic effect; for example, you can show the scene of two star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time right after the scene of them getting married. This can be pulled off very effectively, but only with planning and a detailed outline. It is easy for a reader to become confused by the order of events or feel like they’ve missed several pivotal moments along the way. Moderation is the key. Many authors also make the mistake of starting the story too early and then leaping ahead to where the real action starts. In this situation the reader might become bored of the backstory or feel like they’ve missed out on all the details of the time that was skipped. Best not to give them that option.
The metanoia: A change of heart is an inspiring event for all of us, but there are certain exceptions. Your readers have likely grown to dislike your antagonist. This dislike might range from mild irritation to a hatred that will drive them to fist blows if they ever happened to meet the person in real life. Playing with these emotions is risky and can make the entire story feel implausible and confusing. An antagonist whose goals are noble, but who has poor execution, can make a heartwarming conversion when all seems lost. Sauron appearing on the ridge of Mount Doom to confess that he has been selfish and offer to throw in the ring himself, would set fire to the eyes of the most ardent J. R. R. Tolkien fan. It is important to have thorough character profiles in place before making this decision. The event that motivates this change of heart must be far stronger than the motivation that caused them to be enemies in the first place. For example, a common enemy might arise, or a catastrophic event could destroy the thing that makes the antagonist greedy, angry, or ambitious.
Cliffhanger: This common plot device works by ending the story with a critical revelation or dilemma. The reader is left to wonder what will happen next and that nagging question is a powerful incentive to purchase the next book in the series. Cliffhangers can also be used at the end of chapters, to keep the reader turning pages long after they intended to go to sleep. That said, using too many cliffhangers is a sure way to make your readers annoyed and your writing predictable. The true danger is that most readers want a resolution to a story, and cliffhangers can leave them feeling unsatisfied and cheated. Make sure not to end the story too early, before the major plot has resolved. In my experience, the best cliffhangers are the ones that spark a new conflict, one just as significant as the first.
Earlier today I accidentally purchased a bag of salt and vinegar chips. I like salt and vinegar chips, but I wasn’t expecting it when I took my first bite. The strong and acerbic taste was startling and unpleasant. Had the chips been a bag of brownie brittle, I imagine it would have been a pleasant surprise. How does this relate to all of these plot devices? Because they all work through deception. Deceiving your reader can improve or destroy their experience, so know your audience and aim to make your story full of pleasant surprises. It is a fine line to walk. Is killing that beloved character or putting them through a grueling and torturous trial worth the risk of losing a reader? I will leave that up to you.
Can you think of any more plot devices to add to this list? I’d like to hear from you?