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Readers and writers despair that there are no “new” plots. This makes me laugh because there hasn’t been an original plot since Greece (and I’m not speaking of the musical.) Ronald Tobias explains why this is in 20 Master Plots; he says that stories are written about the human experience. If you have found a plot outside of the “ordinary”, you’re probably writing outside of human experience—and that’s not likely to find you a readership. (That’s roughly paraphrased; sorry, Mr. Tobias.)
The point is: we read stories so we can connect with Everyman; so we don’t feel like the only person who has had their heart broken or scared by the unknown that goes bump in the night or held back by our insecurities. I believe all stories can be boiled down to two elements: love and conflict. We seek tales that have conflict and heroes who overcome the Big Obstacle and prevail, and we appreciate this type of story if it also features love. We have to love the character—we want to identify with the character (and that’s easier if we like/love him). We want to be liked, accepted, and loved—that is the whole point of the Human Experience. We read books that have this theme to learn how to do it in our own lives. We spend our whole lives trying to figure out how to do this, to explain it, to refine it, to ignore it, to pretend it doesn’t matter, to learn in the end that it IS the only thing that matters. We all learn the hard way, and that too is part of the Human Experience.
So how do you give your readers what they want: love, conflict, and the human experience without falling into “this plot is so stale pigeons wouldn’t touch it”? Good question.
The answer is: it depends. Are you a magician or an audience member?
Yeah, I know, this blog went in a totally different direction than you were thinking, right? Ha. Keep up.
In magic tricks (if you watch the same movies as me), you know that there are three parts, three acts to a magic trick.
Act one is The Pledge. It’s where the magician-type writer introduces his characters and makes everything look ordinary—though it’s not. You make use of the misdirection you reveal here. In act one of most storylines, you have the inciting incident that forces the hero to make the first step to Adventure. The inciting incident is something that cannot be avoided by the hero; he must go; but he goes not truly realizing he will be changed by everything he does from here on out. In act one, the hero might meet the quirky next door neighbor and realize they have competing, diametrically opposed goals, but he does not realize he’s going to fall in love with her. She’s too crazy. As a writer, in act one, you’ve made a “pledge” to your audience that the hero will somehow be changed from his/her adventure, and if you’re like me, will find true love and live happily ever after.
Act two is The Turn. The performance of the trick—the action between Cute-Meet and Happily Ever After, complete with conflict, misdirection, misunderstanding, obstacles, and Black Moments. This is the time where you, as the magician, make the ordinary extraordinary. This is where you make your audience bounce on pins and needles wondering how you’re going to make the impossible possible. “He can’t possibly fall in love with her! They have nothing in common! They fight all the time! And besides, she overheard him saying she wasn’t anything special—ha! And when he did propose, it was against his will. Pigs will fly before those two get together!”
Your goal as the writer is to make the audience just as convinced as the hero and heroine that there is no possible way that everything could work out. If you can make your characters believe there is no way on earth, you’ll fool your audience too. Characters are people, remember.
Make the trick big. Cutting a woman in half is always more interesting than making a coin come out of someone's ear. The bigger you make your story: the bigger the characters, the conflict, the obstacles, the black moments—the more hooked, the more fooled your audience will be when you present The Prestige.
Yes, the HEA. Act three, The Prestige, is where you deliver the Illusion, what the audience is expecting, our Happy Ending. How are you going to give us the Happy Ending we’re waiting for and watch us be amazed at how magical it seems? The better you’re able to make The Turn, the more magical the kiss will be at the end when we know those two lovebirds are going to work out after all.
There have been some books I’ve read that I didn’t think there was any way on God’s green earth that a Happy Ending could be wrought, and yet the author did a slight of hand, and all was well.
So back to the “it depends”: what are you, the magician or the audience? Maybe you’re the kind of writer who writes from the audience’s POV—you want to discover the Illusion along with everyone else, or i.e. a pantser. Or maybe you’re the kind of writer who writes from the POV of the magician, pleased to fool everyone so well, or i.e. a plotter. Or maybe you’re Michael Caine, a plotser who knows the trick and technique; but in the end you’re totally wigged when you realize what the outcome is, when you thought it was something else all along.
Anyone else see The Prestige? If you had to spend 7 minutes in Heaven with Christian Bale or Hugh Jackman, who would you pick? And are you a magician or an audience member—or Michael Caine? What sort of plot devices do you gravitate towards in reading/writing (Beauty & the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty…)?