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Destroying the comfort zone

If one of your readers ever gets back to home and chills down, feeling safe and relaxed, you MUST -metaphorically- burn his house to the ground!

Today I want to talk about a particular kind of plot twist. I love plot twists, and they are a magic I yearn to boil down to a science someday. This kind of plot twist is what I call the plot destruction twist.

The plot destruction twist, or PDT (it’s done, now it’s an acronym), is a kind of plot twist that I wasn’t very familiar with until one year ago. It is nothing new, so if you like to read even the slightiest, you have probably seen one. Nowadays it gained popularity because of some famous tv show that I will not name becau… Oh screw it, Game of Thrones.

Before going into the nitty-gritty, though, let me explain a couple of things about burning homes.

Home is where your heart mind is

A lot of animals make nests. Even animals as ancient as reptiles, produced nests in which to breed their hatchlings. These hatchlings were capable of finding again their nest, if they went away, long before you and I were even a taxonomical order. Even smaller animals, like insects, have capabilities of finding again their home. This means that the capabilities of finding home can be found in the “oldest” part of your brain, the basal ganglia.

So what is home? When we are children, home is the only place we feel safe, and our brain is designed to recognise it, keep its location, and make us tense unless we are there, because that is what evolutionally worked best. As we grow older, we feel safe in a broader area or spectrum of situations. More places look familiar to us, so they become, in our mind, kind-of home. The house in which you are living feels the most familiar, your school or workplace a little less, your neighbourhood a little lesser, and so on, and the new places and situations still stress you out because your brain thinks you don’t know the dangers they hide.

That is what we usually call “the comfort zone”. The comfort zone is nothing else that something to which our brain got used to, and now considers (maybe wrongly) out of danger. It can be a place, a person, a situation, or an idea. And what happens if we find that comfort zone change or disappear? We find ourselves lost, confused, looking frantically for a new place to establish.

Planning for the future

That’s what the PDT is about, destroying the reader’s comfort zone. Not pushing her out of it, but destroying it completely.

We plan for the future. We have imagination, and we tend to try and imagine the possible outcomes in order to be prepared, even when we read. While reading, we are imagining how a plotline will evolve, and that’s why we don’t like plots that we have seen a lot of times and we can totally predict (if you, like me, enjoy plot twists).

If there’s a bad guy that can’t be defeated, and a good guy that is trying to but can’t, how surprising will it be that, in the end, he succeeds? Not at all.

When we read, we are building the future plot in our heads, and so if the plot takes a turn differently from what we expected, we feel surprise (typical plot twist). But what if, simply, that plot never happens? What if the good guy that was to defeat the bad guy, simply dies? We discover that the plot we had thought of was not close, nor far, from the real plot, but actually a finishing plotline. We find out that it wasn’t the important plotline after all, we were giving it a lot more importance than we should have, and so we feel lost and confused.

If a story makes you imagine repeatedly how a plotline will evolve, this pictured future eventually becomes familiar to the reader, and becomes part of her comfort zone.

The PDT

The PDT happens when you cut one plotline before it even could get developed. A plotline the reader had expectations on, and asked herself how would it evolve. A plotline the development of which was part of the reader’s comfort zone.

GRRM is quite an expert on this one, and the most important plot twists in Game of Thrones happened not because some characters died, but because the plotline they were carrying died with them.

It’s basically the writer cheating the reader not on what would happen, but on what plotline should she had been focusing on. It’s the “I know you were expecting the good guy to keep trying to defeat the bad guy, but this story isn’t about this”.

Important to note here: The reader will feel confused, and deceived. She expected A to happen, she would have been ok with B happening as long as it was an unexpected alternative to A, but here there’s nothing, not A nor B nor C. That plotline dies before being developed, so this is a dangerous kind of plot twist. Many people feel so cheated for it that they abandon the story. You should use it with caution.

For people like me who enjoy being tricked by clever stories, though, this technique deserves some attention. While not something you should exploit, when used in a smart way in the right place, it can blow the reader’s mind. And that’s what I strive for.

Marc Wolvesheir

 
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Posted by on 29 June 2016 in Patterns, Write better

 

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The first sentence.

My first literature teacher once told me, in a novel, every single word has the purpose to move the plot forward. This is specially true in the first sentence, or paragraph, of a book, because it has an additional purpose. It has to sell it.

Back then, I was young and inexperienced, more than now I mean. We spent an hour and a half analyzing the first paragraph of a master book, Cold Skin, by Albert Sánchez Piñol. That paragraph had enough material to spend all that time talking about it. And though it deserved it, what my teacher was trying to show was a broader fact: Every single word is giving information. In the beginning of a book, where the reader has no information at all, and she has to decide whether to start reading it or not, every word counts.

An example of good first sentence

I won’t delve deep in Cold Skin’s first paragraph, but let me start the analysis as an example of what I mean:

We are never very far from those we hate.

At a first glance, it might seem the sentence is not telling much about the plot. Let’s prove it wrong.

The first word, “We”, is used here to tell the reader the book is written in first person. Holding this information is counterproductive, unclear POVs confuse the reader, so it is a good idea to solve this matter as soon as possible.

The sentence continues, and goes “We are never very far”. It is noteworthy that, in the original version, it was “infinitely far”. That is true in many levels and an interesting philosophic question. You can never be infinitely far from anything, because distance between two existing things is finite. But this is giving a lot of additional information. It tells us the narrator is trying to distance himself from something. It tells us he tried to go far, he probably went far, and probably then he realized that simple truth: No matter how far you go, it might never be enough. Why? Maybe because what he is trying to distance from lies within himself. Maybe because no matter how far, that thing will still stand there as a reason to run away farther from it.

Finally, the sentence concludes with “from those we hate”. This tells us there is someone the narrator hates. He can’t get far enough from him/her, but he would like to. Maybe, following the previous thoughts, who he hates is himself.

And there you go. You have a whole plot, or dozens of potential plots, out of a a priori simple sentence. This is important to note: This sentence is not giving us any certainty. Just makes us ask a lot of questions. What does this make you think of? Exactly, fishing. Well, maybe not, but it will.

How to fish

This is the shape and parts of a hook:

Fishhook

It works simply. You put a bait in the bend. The fish bites the bait, and the bite bites it back. Firstly, the bite’s spike pierces the fish’s skin. After the fish has been pierced, it tries to escape. Then, the barb (which I learned in spanish is appropriately called the death) stops the fish from escaping thanks to its shape, with that second spike coming from inside.

So, what in hell does this have to do with writing?

You probably have heard about hooks in writing. The initial plot point that hooks the reader, that gets her interested in going on. That is a powerful metaphor, because, just like real fishing hooks, it has two parts: The bite and the barb.

The bite

When most writers talk about the hook, they are usually referring the barb. The plot point at the end of the first chapter, scene, or so, that really gets you trapped into the story. It doesn’t have to explain what the story will be all about (that is what the First Plot Point is for), it just has to get the reader’s interest. It has to be the death of the reader’s chances to escape from falling into the book’s story.

But in order for this to happen, first the reader has to bite the bait, and that is what the first part of the hook is for. The bite is the first sentence. The one that hurts. The one that tears the skin, makes the reader bleed (metaphorically) and try to escape from this sudden uncertainty.

So how should the first sentence act to become a successful bite? It works just as any story, so please let me return to Brooks’ six forces:

  • Compelling premise: The first sentence has to be somehow related to the concept of the story, and tie it to the character. In our example above, that would be the idea that the main character is trying to get more distance, though he found it unsuccessful.
  • Dramatic tension: It also should, in some way, foreshadow or tell the conflict the character will be facing in the story. In the example, that the character has enemies he is trying to escape from.
  • Expositional pacing: In the beginning, there is no expositional pacing to use but one: Impact. You have just one sentence or short paragraph to get the job done. Go straight to the point, hit the strongest you can. Maybe with a philosophical question that could keep the reader thinking for hours, like in the example; maybe with an event so strange or strong that it will surprise anyone.
  • Hero empathy: The earlier you can bind the reader to the character, the better.
  • Vicarious experience: One of the most important things the first sentence must do is ellicit questions. Make the reader want to continue, to know more. You can also show the setting to convince the reader to follow you in a world she will like, but I’m not talking about exposition, I’m talking about a glimpse. In Cold Skin, the first sentence tells us the main character might have been far, and not many words ahead, one learns he is in the Antarctic Circle, which is quite far for most of us. More important here is to make the reader ask for more information about anything we have said. Why, how, what. The first sentence is no place for answers. Just questions.
  • Narrative strategy: The way how you present the (lack of) information. The beauty of the sentence. The order of presenting the questions, the words in which to hide the answers behind. The reason I didn’t like the change in the word “infinitely” from the original Cold Skin.

The less, the more

You can’t give all the information about the book in the first sentence, nor you should. What you have to give is foreshadowing to the information, and desires to find it out.

The conclusion is that all the points above is not what the first sentence should contain, but what should it make you think of. When you don’t have space to specify, you can abuse of preconceptions. After all, it doesn’t care what is explained here, the only important thing is to create the desire for those explanations.

Maybe an example will clarify it. This is what I consider a just ok first sentence:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

It is ok, it makes you wonder what in hell has allowed that bastard to live for so long, and in which sense the party would be special. Although it has nothing to do with what the book was about. This is a first sentence that I find acts as a better hook:

If Mr. Frodo had known how far his uncle’s eleventy-first birthday party would take him, he would have run away way before.

Though maybe these would not be the questions I would like to do myself when starting to read this book. They would be more like:

Mr. Frodo thought it is good to keep your demons with you all times, that you never know when they will prove themselves useful.

You can find alternatives that beat all of the above. Now, look at the first sentence you have for your book. Can you show it and be proud of it for what it is, without the rest of the book? If not, throw it away and forge a real first sentence.

Marc Wolvesheir

 
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Posted by on 7 March 2015 in Write better

 

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Where to begin

Engineers don’t want a fuzzy mash of advices and artful comments on how other writers write and get inspired. Well, I don’t, and I think others, engineers or not, might not as well. We’re not writers, we get nothing useful from “Raise the stakes”, or “Give the reader something to root for”. We want rules. There are no rules, but there are principles. Don’ts. Patterns. We’re not writers… Except that we are. Where can we begin, then?

If you haven’t had the chance yet to read Larry Brooks, I suggest him as a starting point. He has a blog, Storyfix, in which he teaches which are the principles that drive modern storytelling and how to use them. He has two books, Story Engineering and Story Phisics, of which I have read the second one, which are highly advisable.

Story Engineering talks about the six core competencies defined by Brooks, which you can find explained in his blog, which are the conceptual tools to be used when writing. Those are Concept, Character, Theme, Structure, Scene Execution and Writing Voice. In this blog, I’m going to use references to Brook’s vocabulary, so I recommend reading his blog’s posts about the core competencies (and especially those related to story structure) so that we can have a common vocabulary. You can find a nice diagram depicting Brooks’ story structure here.

Story Phisics talks about the [coincidentally] six forces that drive storytelling and allow analizing a story’s success likelihood. It tells you what they are and how to optimize them. Also, it tells you how to write and plan in a mission-driven way (each scene has a goal, each part has a goal too), a lesson I find very valuable.

I think this is a good starting point. I learned a lot.

Marc Wolvesheir

 
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Posted by on 27 November 2013 in Write better

 

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