Friday, September 07, 2018

The Three Cackle Test

I've been reading a lot of requested fulls lately. Most requested fulls have pretty good writing. The most common problem is pacing; the second is the lack of twists/turns or surprises in the plot.

A good plot will have at least three twists or turns or places that surprise the reader.  As I read, when I come to one of those points, I often stop reading to enjoy the moment. "I didn't see that coming!" and "Yowza! Yikes! Zounds!" are what you'd hear if you were in the room. Cackling with delight, really.

Absent those kinds of twists and turns a manuscript can be perfectly fine, publishable even. But it won't be that super special book that gets people talking. "Oh my god, you have to read this!" kind of accolade.

Those three cackle books are what I'm looking for, diligently!

So, how do you get twists and turns in your book?

I don't think there's one best answer.
I do know that the very best authors do it, and reading them to see how and when is a good idea.

One place to start: Sacred by Dennis Lehane (*SPOILERS HERE*) 

The "Mormon" crowd on the green don't try to proselytize Kenzie and Manny. Instead, they're afraid of Manny.

Lehane gets Manny on to the street in a nifty twist too: Kenzie walks in to "the wrong office", but of course it's not the wrong office at all, it's the one Kenzie intends to burgle later (but the reader does not know that when the scene unfolds.)

And then, on page 204, Lehane turns the book around completely.

**end spoilers**

But twists don't have to and should not all be big ones. Twists and surprises need to be in smaller moments as well, the moments that keep readers engaged and not wanting to skip ahead. If the twists just keep getting bigger, you'll end up with a crazypants soap opera (oh my god, Erica Kane hasn't just been married 100 times, she's a VAMPIRE and a MAN!)

Other suggestions:
Sunburn by Laura Lippman;
The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz;
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley;
The Breach series by Patrick Lee (which surprises me EVERY time...even now.)

Read those with your writer notebook at hand. Write down the scenes with twists (and page numbers so you can go back and find them later--something I'm frequently kicking myself for failing to do.) Study how the writer subtly steers you and your expectations.  In the hands of a master craftsman, thinking "oh I see what's coming" is often the first sign you do NOT know what's coming!


Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I'm reading Sunburn this week so something to look forward too. I've read the others and yes I loved that first scene in the Breach when the guy finds you know what. Very cool!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

If by pacing you mean tension, then taking the entire summer to insert tension into my novel (which was supposed to be finished by Labor Day) has not been a waste.

I've got all the other stuff, and now, it's gone from idling at a light to heading up the on-ramp to the interstate. Speed limit, over the posted.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I need more bookshelves.

I am doing a similar exercise on my blog this month, reviewing books that had profound influences on me from the opening line. Books & Beginnings. Those 1st pages seem critical.

That great beginning seems to be key 2 to getting that requested full. Key 1 is that damn query. I will have to workshop that baby. So key 3 is the 3 cackles? Good to know.

Timothy Lowe said...

I found out in my last manuscript that the best way for me to do this was to try to surprise myself while I was writing. Every time I thought, "I know exactly what's coming next," I pulled an audible and made something else happen instead. The first draft ended up messy, with (as Janet astutely pointed out) a set of unbelievable one-up twists at the end, but in subsequent rewrites, I'm finding ways to remove some of those more ludicrous plot points and still maintain the quirky nature of the narrative.

I saw a great quote the other day: "try to use a surprising adjective on every page" - I'm not sure I did that, but I did try to find surprises wherever I could. It sure does make for fun writing.

NLiu said...

Who doesn't love a good plot twist?

Just wondering what place "clues" to the twist(s) have. Are they essential? Necessary? Annoying and better left out? My WIP has quite a few twists/surprises but I am trying to leave a trail of breadcrumbs a reader could go back and munch on if they felt the urge. What does anyone else think of this?

Kitty said...

I'm midway through a series. They're murder mysteries, but I don't much care who murdered whom because the regular characters are like old friends, and the locale is one of my favorites. The pacing is good, but there are few twists and turns, which doesn't bother me at all. I just like being with my friends.

Sherry Howard said...

I love when QOTKU shares wisdoms like this! WITH SPECIFIC EXAMPLES THAT WORK! So much writer advice is generic: pick up the tension. HOW?? I already use Sunburn at JR’s recommendation as a mentor text. Now I know some others to add for a specific feature.

Colin Smith said...

NLiu: I think plot twists are always better when you can look back and see how they were inevitable--or at least a possibility given what we knew. A great example is in the 7th Harry Potter book. When [SPOILER] Harry confronts Voldemort at the end, who expected Harry to get zapped? Seemingly killed? But if you follow the clues and observe what happened, it makes sense within the plot even if it was a shock at first (at least to me).[/SPOILER]

If aliens are going to come out of nowhere and destroy your MC's kale garden (a tragedy of cosmic proportions) I would like to see either some foreshadowing that something like that could happen, or some narrative afterward that makes sense of the event within the plot. Otherwise it's just a twist for the sake of a twist.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

This is a terrific post, great advice.

I recently managed a little get away with a group of seven girlfriends. Everyone was sort of doing what they wanted, either together or alone. One afternoon I tucked myself into our host's breakfast nook to read a book I'd started at home. A shocking and unexpected plot twist made me gasp so hard I nearly swallowed my tongue. Several friends even came rushing in from other parts of the house to ask what was wrong. With my mouth still agape, I held up the book, muttered an apology and went back to reading. Good stuff and good lessons on writing.

Julie Weathers said...

I agree completely.

A friend and I were discussing one of Diana Gabaldon's books one time. One of the characters has made a deadly swim to an island to fetch some gems they need from a treasure. Just then, a ship shows up, nabs the treasure and the boy.

I thought it stretched the bounds of imagination to believe a ship would show up, looking for water probably and happen upon the boy and the treasure chest before he could rebury it. Well, of course, the ship had been sent there by the person the treasure belonged to.

I should have known better than to have doubted. There's always a reason for things.

I've recovered the hard drive. Yay me. Rain Crow is now up to 185,000 words. Not so yay. it will be over 190,000 when I finish. This, of course, means the revision will take more than tightening up and removing filler words. I'm going to have to pull out scenes, characters, and arcs. Every scene here has repercussions there. They're there for a reason. It's going to be interesting to unravel the weaving and weave it back.

CynthiaMc said...

I think I picked Sunburn as my free book. Looking forward to reading it.

Timothy Lowe said...

Popping in a second time to recommend a great book which made me cackle three times just this morning. RAZOR GIRL, by Carl Hiassen. If you write crime fiction, you've got to put it on your list.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

NLiu ... I am in favor of clues. In mysteries, the clues ought to be such that readers feel "it was under my nose all along!" In psychological thrillers, clues ought to be such that after the person does the shocking thing, the more we think about it the more we realize we could have seen it coming if we'd been looking in the right direction.

But of course, clues should also be ambiguous enough that they point in at least two directions, so that they cannot be unraveled at the time. So, there has been foreshadowing of something bad coming, but it comes from a person we didn't expect.

I think it's perfectly fine to go back afterward and add, or hone, clues.

I don't know about your process, but in my case, the first draft is a discovery draft. *I* am finding out what happens. That's where my twists come from ... my characters surprise me. I have a general idea of what I'm going to throw at them, but how they react to it is all their own. And sometimes they add their very own subplots that I wasn't looking for. Then I, the author, do the gasp and go around shaking my head. THAT's fun.

Karen McCoy said...

Again, the wisdom of this blog always finds me exactly where I need--figuring out the plot twists in my own middle grade story. I'm still in a discovery phase, like Jennifer said--but the plot is slowly revealing itself. (Now to fold the new developments back in to the rest of the story to ensure the plot twists are cohesive.)

And great examples, Colin--my husband's late anniversary/early birthday present to me was tickets to the re-showing of all 8 Harry Potter movies--and it has helped me re-examine what works in the plot of the series, and why it's so successful.

Sam Mills said...

I don't start working on a book until I know the ending. On the one hand: great, I know where I'm headed! On the other hand, oh no, I'm too focused on where I'm headed. I then have to backfill the plot in such a way that I don't just go A > B > C > The End, and that means figuring out a place to *start* that seems like it's going in a different direction.

I'm, uh, still learning how to make this work.

Craig F said...

I am going to pitch my tent in Elise's camp today. Great twists have to start with the proper kick-off to the book.

I also think that clues are a good thing. The hard part is in clues that are obvious with hindsight but you pass over, noting, without seeing them as clues. Something so damn obvious that no one really sees it.

I also like books where I can get in touch with someone, anyone, even a villain. The GONE GIRL and GIRL ON A TRAIN things, where there is not one character you like, are not for me. I tried to read the Train thing five times and it spit me out each time. I have heard some talk the SUNBURN is a clone of those, so I'll pass.

I will recommend the BREACH series.

Y'all have a wonderful weekend. I am going to tile my planting table. It has some wonderful old black iron legs on it that I have built six or eight tops for and that need some attention.

Mora Green said...

MY favorite way to do a plot twist is to leave clues - and mislead the reader into thinking they mean something else. That way it's a surprise, but in retrospect, you can see it coming.

I have issues with Connie Willis but I love Passage. The foreshadowing with the ER was so thick, I was getting annoyed, thinking I could see it from a mile away. And she went a tricked me.

AJ Blythe said...

Craig, I felt the same about Girl On A Train (although I made myself read until the end), I have Gone Girl sitting there to read (have picked it up and put it down a few times). Had been thinking about getting Sunburn on our Queen's rec, but now I've read your comment I think I'll pass as well.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


I feel I need to represent Team Sunburn.

Sunburn, IMHO, is a vastly superior work than either GG or GoaT. Do not be dissuaded, my gentle-hearted fellow Reider. Sunburn will not disappoint.

Writer of Wrongs said...

I had what I thought was a nice little twist (among several others). A Famous Published Author gave me a critique at a conference and said I should make that info clear up front, instead of letting the reader discover it in the twist. But my beta readers had loved the discovery. What to do?!

Craig F said...

Micki, I thought you were a famous published author. You had a book that was number 1 in three of Amazon's categories not long ago.

My thought is to trust your beta readers at this point. You editor will have the final say anyway.

Personally I like to start books with an inciting incident that makes the reader think it is going one way and change the whole damn thing. Of course I am not published but this is among friends.

Back to the other thing. I have no doubt that Ms. Lippman is a much superior writer than the other two I mentioned. I don't need to remember their names because those two books made a big enough splash that every book they ever publish will let you know they wrote them.

I just don't like books where I dislike every single person in it. I have heard that SUNBURN is in that mold.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I actually didn't mind Gone Girl.

I didn't think Nick was as unlikable as everyone else seems to. Given that all the abusive stuff written about him in Amy's "diary" turned out not to be true. He was weak and immature, but that was the result of having an extremely harsh father. He had the virtue of not wanting to be like his dad, but the disadvantage of not having any strong alternative models. He was sort of a lost boy. I guess what really won me over was his instinctive fondness for women who were "hard on the eyes," like his mother and Boney.

Dena Pawling said...

I read Patrick Lee's Runner that I checked out of the library. OMG there were so many twists in that plot that I got dizzy and landed on my butt a few times. Excellent book! And a likable protagonist. So if you didn't like Gone Girl but want your head to spin, try this book but be sure when you read it that you are (1) sitting down, and (2) not driving.

BrendaLynn said...

‘Sunburn’ was amazing, as was ‘The Woman in the Window’ and ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. However, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine’ reigns supreme for 2018.

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks, Cecilia. I'll give it a shot...

NLiu said...

Colin Smith, Jennifer Mugrage, Mora Green: Thanks so much for the advice! This was my first post on here and it was incredibly heartwarming (and useful) to get such thoughtful replies. You rawk!

CynthiaMc said...

I liked both the Girl books. I resisted them at first but when they got so huge I wanted to see what made them so popular.

I caught Gone Girl on FX and then got the audiobook as my commute book. Girl on a Train was a commute book as well.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is a lot like those. That one I didn't finish.

Right now my commute book is John Grisham's Gray Mountain. So far so good.

Richelle Elberg said...

Love this discussion. Plot and twists have been my biggest focus for my next novel. I think Jeffrey Deaver is great at twists. I reread Edge recently. There must be five times when I changed my mind about the reason for the bad guy's actions. I'm also a fan of Gone Girl, as much for the snarky tone and Amy's voice as the twists.

John Davis Frain said...

Thank you so much for this! I can't afford to leave for weekends anymore--too much catching up to do all over life.