"You think this story's over, but it's ready to begin"

On Writing

The title for this blog post is a quote from the Beastie Boys rap song Paul Revere. (Hey, I'm a child of the '80s. What can I tell ya?) In the rap, the narrator wraps up a scene, but then uses this line to essentially say—yes, that chapter is over, but here's where the story gets really exciting. 

Photo by Imgorthand/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Imgorthand/iStock / Getty Images

Misdirection. Red herrings. Chapter-ending cliffhangers. Characters acting out of character.

As a mentor in a writing program last year, I had the privilege of advising authors who were looking to establish themselves, and help them sort out some of the feedback they received from agents. Based on that experience, I decided to write today's blog post about creating characters and stories that are fluid and unpredictable. This can be one way to keep a reader's (and an agent's) attention. 

I love to incorporate the unexpected in my writing, because those are the type of story twists I love to read. It's as simple as that.

When a character I thought was a goodie suddenly breaks bad, or a baddie slowly begins to redeem himself, my heart races. I prefer characters that are written in shades of grey—not all good, or all bad. This is why, in the Harry Potter series, Snape will always be many times more interesting to me than Voldemort. 

When a novel is moving toward what seems like a foregone conclusion, but then the plot moves off in a completely different direction, I'm intrigued. Sometimes an author is carrying me along from Point A to Point B, but then just when I'm getting comfortable, she throws in an unexpected detour to Point C. That grabs my attention! 

For example...? 

Well, let's say we are reading about an ambulance that's racing to the hospital because our protagonist is suffering from a heart attack. I worry for the protagonist. Will she live? Will she make it to the hospital in time? But what if... at a red light, the ambulance is car-jacked by a teenager with a gun who wants to go for a joy ride? Now we've got a new problem, one that makes the situation exponentially more precarious.

For a time, I used to post stories online, and from that experience I learned a few essential elements that have improved my writing. For example, if you're posting one chapter a week, you'd better end on a cliffhanger or at least have some pressing unanswered questions in the story, or what's there to compel a reader to come back in a week's time to read the next chapter?

Of course, I fell into a few bad habits from my online writing, too. Sometimes I ended a chapter so abruptly that I didn't really wrap it up. I had to re-learn that each chapter needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

Another outcome of scheduled online writing is that you're forced to come up with an exciting new chapter every week, whether you're in the mood to write or not. So I would try to make it entertaining, both for myself and for the readers I was trying to please and retain from week to week.

Since I'm a pantser and not a plotter, I often naturally end up going off in unexpected directions—wherever the characters want to go. And if the forward movement of my story starts to slow, I can sense it. That's where the teenager with the gun suddenly appears, to hijack that ambulance and throw everyone off their game. 

Could your story benefit from a few red herrings, startling plot twists, or unanticipated character development?


On WritingSandi Ward