In our very first “craft” post of the year, please welcome Melissa James with some advice on twisting an old hook into a new idea!
Twisting an Old Plot into a Fresh Idea
Anna Jacobs, author of 45 published novels so far, wrote something in her handbook called Plotting and Editing that made a great deal of sense to me. On page 19, under the heading, What Makes Your Book special?, she writes:
“All the time you’re writing, whichever method you use, you should bear in mind that there has to be something that makes your story special, different, exciting—both to an editor who reads dozens of manuscripts and proposals each month, as well as to readers after publication. You also need to remember that merely ‘good’ isn’t enough to sell a manuscript to a publisher—or to fascinate readers. Your story will have to be ‘sparkling’, especially if you are unknown as a writer.”
Okay, that’s wonderful, sage advice from a lady who knows what she’s talking about. But here’s the crunch for most of us: how do we do it? How do we find a true definition of those two dreaded words, emotional punch, and put it in our work?
That’s what this workshop is for: to take existing plots and make them special, so special your characters will flow from it, and be so real they’ll leap up yelling at an editor, “buy me!” I can’t give you any magic formulas to write it to publishing standard; all I can do is pass on the details of my personal journey on plot discovery, and find ways to make something sparkling from basic plots.
It’s said there are 8 basic plots for a romance novel. As some of you know, with help from the RWNZ email list, I got them down pat recently. They are:
* Beauty and the Beast
* King and beggar maid/ princess and pauper
* Reunion after painful past
* Secret Baby* Cinderella
* Marriage of convenience
* Forced Marriage/blackmail
* Bad girl/Good boy and vice versa
Now we all know the basic twist of combining two or more of these elements, such as reunion/secret baby, or marriage of convenience/Cinderella. Adding such things as ‘woman in danger’ usually stems from these basic plots, and can be innovative and effective; but the plot twists I’m talking about are different.
I’m going to start with a working example. The last thing I want (or probably you) is for me to bore you with the story of my books. But five minutes should make the point, and we can move on together. Her Galahad, which was released by Silhouette Intimate Moments in October 2002, combines a few basic plots:
* Princess and pauper
* Reunion after painful past
* Secret Baby
* Forced Marriage/blackmail
* Good girl/Bad boy
Then I took each theme and twisted them.
1. Princess and pauper? How could I twist that? By turning it around. They had been, in their painful past, princess and pauper, rich white upper-class girl and Aboriginal carpenter. Now she’s a poorly paid teacher on the run from her obsessive, abusive, bigamous ‘husband’, and he’s a rich artist. He wants seven kids; she knows she can’t have any more. So she’s on the back foot right from the start.
2. Now the Secret baby plot? It sounds plain and straightforward, doesn’t it? So how to twist that? By making the baby so secret the heroine thinks she died. And the hero hates the heroine because he thinks she adopted their baby out. And he also has a baby, a son from another relationship with a woman who died. There’s always ways and means to twist something new from a plot!
3. I twisted the good girl/bad boy plot by giving the good girl martial arts skills and turning on her family, willing to imprison them if she has to, on a quest to find her child they adopted out and told her had died. The bad boy becomes a good hero by being a bad boy not of his own choice, but imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit—by the man the heroine marries five weeks after the hero’s arrest, and the heroine’s brother and father. And this bad boy’s been declared dead twice—once legally, with a death certificate to prove it. The heroine has a matching certificate, dated three years before his. And if the cops find him, he’ll be imprisoned again just for being alive (by the way, this came from truth: in my university course I discovered the Australian government issued fake death certificates to Aboriginal kids taken from their families to stop them finding their heritage and make them ‘blend’ into white society. I thought, if they can do it, it can be done!)
4. The forced marriage/blackmail plot? I twisted that by giving the hero and heroine a secret marriage of one day, and the heroine, a forced marriage to a man who blackmailed her into becoming an unwitting bigamist, knowing she thought her true husband was dead.
From all these unusual plot twists, I suddenly found a wealth of creative emotion coming straight from the heart. I felt for this suffering hero and heroine. I wanted them to have a happy ending because, hell, they deserved it! I didn’t just want to write the book by the time I’d finished – I was compelled to. The characters were so real to me I couldn’t leave them hanging in the air. I finally understood why actors talked about their character in a movie as if that person was real: because, to them, they were. They had to be real to the people involved, or the characters will feel wooden, and the movie won’t work for the actors or the theatre goers. That was what happened to me with Her Galahad, and the way I continued with the Nighthawks series, and now in writing for the Harlequin Romance line. I do it every time: the basic plots with the twist in the tail!
Emma Darcy says in her how-to book that empathizing with a hero or heroine is important—but it’s not always just ‘writing from the heart’ that does it. You can make a heroine cry, she says, but will it make the reader cry?
Not if they haven’t gone on the journey with the heroine first, to feel what she’s feeling before she cries. So how do we do this? We, the author, have to be on our heroine’s journey, not merely thinking what she thinks, but *feeling* what she feels.
It’s true what Valerie Parv says in her How-to book: You have to torture your characters! You have to make them orphans, throw them in boiling oil, drop them out of trees and throw them off cliffs, shoot them, stab them, and then, right when it can’t get worse—make it worse! Why? Empathy! Because readers love to go on the journey. They want to feel what the characters are feeling, to cheer them on, to find reasons for these people to deserve their happy ending. Without this vital element, a book loses its interest. If an author writes more than one book where I don’t feel for the characters I won’t buy that author again. I’m afraid I’m not loyal to authors: I read what entertains me.
How about you? What is it you look for in a book? What drags you in? What books are your all-time favorites? Do you know why you love those books? Then take those well-loved books and research them like university readers. Analyze every line, every part of the book you love, and ask why?
Do you know the basic plot of that book you love? Now think about the twists on these plots the author used to hook you in. These points show exactly what I meant in the beginning: these authors have twisted the basic, well-loved plot to make it extraordinary, stand-out, unforgettable — the emotions have come right from the author’s heart. It’s not rocket science, this is doable for any writer. Find what your plot is, and find how to twist it so that something unique happens!
When you have several plot twists, it prevents the dreaded sagging middle – especially if you pace them out, use one plot twist per “turning point” in the novel. Create it in a revelation of some sort, an epiphany if you will, that changes the other character’s preconceived notions on something important. Remember you can’t bombard the reader with too much information at once, but to add another twist just as the story slows, or becomes close to resolution—fabulous! Something to make the reader gasp, be they judge, editor, agent or someone who picked it up in a bookshop. Isn’t that what you love in a book — something to keep that hero and heroine apart just a little longer?
Get those plot twists going. Get them spinning like juggler’s balls in the air and catch them, one by one! Or let them fall with a crash! Either way, your story keeps going without a sagging middle, and should keep the reader hooked.