As writers, we read. A lot.
But, I’d warrant, we don’t do it like the average reader. We nitpick grammar and sentence structure, we over-analyze plot twists, and we dissect character arcs. We also tend to read across genres, have jam-packed keeper shelves, and massive to-be-read piles. More importantly, writers read more than the average reader.
Well, I can’t speak for all writers, but as for me, I read more than the average booklover. Now granted, I don’t have a typical day job, but still, I read between four and six full-length novels per week. At my most gluttonous, I’ve devoured as many as ten titles in a week. So, yeah, I’m not a typical reader, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand that “take me away from it all” sense of freedom a good book brings an avid reader.
In essence, a good book can be a mini-vacation.
So, as writers, we need to endeavor to write books that deliver that escape from the everyday we all seek in a good vacation.
This got me to thinking about the similarities between plotting a book and planning a vacation. In both, you know where you’re going to start (home/cute meet) and you know where you’re going (Disney World/Happily Ever After). What makes each trip, and each book, different is all the stuff in the middle.
Let’s play with the Disney World example. Fly or drive? Resort hotel or Motel 6? Are you the kid or the parent? Roller coaster mania or character musicals? Fair weather or foul? These are all typical questions, and if you plan with typical answers, you’re going to have a good vacation, but are you going to have a spectacular vacation? One you want to take again and again?
If I think back onto my most memorable vacation moments, they all involve unexpected, unforeseen moments. A tent camping trip got rained out and we packed up and paid my Granddaddy a surprise visit. While driving a mountain road, we noticed a large crowd pulled over at a wide spot, so we ditched our agenda and got out to investigate and witnessed a slew of salmon swimming upstream. A spur-of-the-moment pit stop led to an evening watching stock car races followed by a fabulous fireworks display.
The same way these surprising turns of events have left me with memories I’d love to recreate, unpredictable twists in your plot will create a story readers long to read more than once. (Not only do they hang on to those memorable stories, they also recommend them to other readers!)
The lesson here is that you can certainly tell a good story by linking all your plot elements by the easiest, shortest route, but to tell a great story, you need to stray from the direct path. Surprise your readers. Shock them. Make them uncomfortable. Make them cry. Make them laugh out loud. How?
Simple. Torture your characters. Decimate their well-laid plans. Give ‘em two flat tires and a dead battery. Have them transpose two digits in their GPS and end up in Banjo-country rather than wine-country.
I once attended a Donald Maas workshop, and he offered a brilliant tidbit: Imagine what comes next and scrap the first ten things to pop into your mind. (Obviously, I paraphrased that!) The point is, don’t do the expected. In order to really suck your reader in, to earn your place on the keeper shelf, you need to plot outside the box.
A word of warning: don’t go so far outside the box that you lose credibility. Unexpected, unpredicted, hell, even undesirable, is good; unbelievable is not.
So let’s get out there and take our placid, well-planned trip from Chapter One to The End and turn it on its ear. No more taking the easy path. From here on out, we take our plots down rutty dirt roads, in a torrential downpour, with a broken windshield wiper, the check engine light lit, static on the radio and an axe-wielding psycho hot on our tails.
Keeper shelves, here we come!
Back when her twin sons were young enough for daily naps, Dawn Temple took advantage of those quiet moments to pursue her dream of becoming a published romance writer. Sneaking in an hour here and there paid off in 2005 when she sold her first book, To Have And To Hold, to Silhouette Special Edition. She managed to secret away enough time to write and sell the second book in her Land’s Cross series, Moonlight And Mistletoe, but alas, her boys outgrew naps and Dawn let go of those stolen moments with her laptop to enjoy life with her two little guys and her big guy, hubby of 21 years.
But now, as an officially retired stay-at-home mom, Dawn has once again found the time and the creative drive to return to writing, and this time around, she’s set her sights on independent publishing. Her first self-published book, Peace of Heart, is scheduled for release in 2017.