I’ve been thinking a lot about plotting lately (as my works-in-progress have been at that stage), and it occurred to me that it’s kind of like a game, played between reader and writer. In some ways, it reminds me of the game of rummy, where the goal is to collect a certain group of cards–so many duplicates and so many in a run (2-3-4, 5-6-7, etc.).
Of course, it’s a cooperative game, where the writer is trying to feed the reader certain cards in a certain order so the game will last a certain length. Too many right “cards” too fast, and the story will be over and resolved in the first few chapters. Too few, and the pacing will drag.
And it’s important to signal to the reader which cards to keep, so they have a clue of what the winning “cards” might be. Otherwise, if you emphasize the wrong cards (pieces of information), the reader will pick them up and hold onto them instead, retaining random tidbits that don’t really pertain to the story. And, like in rummy, the readers have a finite number of cards they can retain. If you need them to remember that the main character can fly airplanes, don’t bog them down with how he or she can also read Chinese, weave baskets, and collects stamps.
So here are some of the “cards” involved in the plotting game:
- Backstory. The characters’ histories are definitely part of a winning hand, as readers need to know why certain things matter and who these people are.
- Description. Knowing what people look like and where they are is important to set the stage, but like everything else, it must be balanced. Only so much description goes into the “winning hand.”
- Revelations. This can be a character’s finally understanding themselves, a secret about their world, or discovering something about another character, but almost every story involves revelation of some kind as part of the story arc (and it’s the staple of the mystery genre).
- Dialogue. People talk–to each other, to their pets, and even to themselves–but guiding what they talk about, when, can make a big difference in how the story unfolds.
- Action. These are the events that occur in the story. Whether it’s a bank robbery or an invasion or just the characters’ first date together, the moments of action have their place and strongly dictate pacing, determining what sort of winning hand the reader is supposed to have in the end.
- Foreshadowing. This one is usually woven into the one of the other types of categories, revealing itself in dialogue, description, backstory or action, but it matters because it signals to the discerning reader what to hold onto and what to discard. It’s the authors way of signaling across the table, and should be used accordingly. The wrong signals cause the reader to have a whole bunch of useless cards in their hand at the end of the game, which leads to frustrated readers.
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As writers, we have all the cards, so you’d think giving the reader the winning combination to have the experience we want to share with them would be easy, but it takes a lot of planning and consideration. Even if you are a pantser and explore your way through the story, at some point, you’ll have to sit back and contemplate what you’ve written from a readers’ point of view. Do certain events happen too quickly? Should they be closer to the climax? Should certain conversations happen later, or be closer to the beginning? Which cards you pass along, when, determines how the reader navigates what you send him or her.
In the game of rummy, if you sent them a 6 and then a 4, they’d know to be on the look out for a 5, but if you sent them a 5 and 6, they might be looking for a 7. Both would complete the run and make for a winning hand, but only one is the kind of hand you want, the sort of story you’re writing, and if you set up readers to hope for something different, they’ll end up disappointed. (Of course, you can’t please everyone. Some readers will go into every story, hoping it has a 7 in it somewhere, and all the proper plotting in the world can’t alter that desire.)
A lot of it comes down to emphasis. If you keep having romantic moments, you shouldn’t be surprised when readers feel your story is a romance, and if you’ve signaled something else, through your cover, blurb, or marketing, you’re going to generate frustrations you could’ve avoided. The romance might be fun. It might be natural, but if it doesn’t fit the tone and focus of the story, it needs to be cut back. Otherwise, it’s like your sending the reader a pair of queens and then, while they’re holding onto those, they get two kings. They’re faced with a dilemma of whether to put the queens down (the action-adventure-mystery-whatever-other-genre-your-story-is-supposed-to-be data) and start collecting kings (the new romance thread) or hold onto their original assessment of what the winning hand might be. It gets confusing and when readers get confused, they stop reading.
Ultimately, you want the game to go smoothly. For there to be some suspense (“when will I finally get that last card to complete my hand?”) but also some certainty that they’re on the right track. After all, readers bought the book to have a certain kind of experience, expecting to collect a certain kind of hand. If you play tricks with them instead of helping them, they wont’ trust you, and they might decide not to play with you again.
This guest post was contributed by Andrea Lundgren. When she isn’t helping authors bring their stories to life as a book and blurb writing coach, Andrea enjoys writing book reviews and exploring life from a writer’s point of view at her blog.