Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Plots Unboxed

Recently I read about a fellow writer's troubles on a list I'm on. She was lamenting that her plot had been replicated by another writer, though these two had never met or communicated in any way. She outlined the plot, and I couldn't help thinking the plot wasn't unique; there was but a single twist in an ordinary tale of two people hooking up. How many people are in the world? How many people might, if pressed to come up with a single twist in such a story, come up with exactly the same one? We're all human--hard-wired similarly and exposed to the same society and media. I'd bet that most of us even had similar childhood experiences. So is it such a stretch to believe that two people on opposite sides of the country might settle on the same twist in a not-so-original tale?

I can't tell you how many articles I've written on heart disease and diabetes and incontinence. It gets mind-numbingly difficult to come up with a fresh lead every time for these recycled topics, especially if there isn't any new, groundbreaking research to point to. I've found, though, that if I think on it long enough, a spin will come to me that I haven't thought of before (grateful nod to the Spin Fairy). This is another example of why writing nonfiction can help a fiction writer: experience crafting the twist.

Of course it's more complex with fiction--or at least it should be. For nonfiction, a single twist can be enough; for fiction, it shouldn't be. Twist too little and you're still in the box; you're just looking up at the sky from within it instead of staring at the walls. To truly unbox, you must twist, twist, twist your story concept until there is no way anyone else could have thought it up. Yeah, yeah, but a monkey will craft Shakespeare if given a million years and a typewriter, I know, but it's still unlikely anyone would replicate a well-twisted concept.

Alrighty then. Let's see how one favorite brilliant twistmeister did it...

You know we love Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife, because we've talked about this book (too?) many times. But it's sooo good, and I'm going to illustrate one big reason why.

Basic idea: time travel story

Twist: the hero, Henry, has no control over when he time travels

Twist: he can't bring anything with him when he travels--not a person, not even the clothes on his back

Twist: he often lands--naked--in dangerous, life-threatening situations

Twist: he has had to learn to steal, cheat and beat the living hell out of others just to survive on his trips; his traveling has brought out the darkest fibers of his being--almost another self


And she took the spin in other directions as well:

Idea: Time travel story

Twist: Henry's time traveling is a genetic disorder

Twist: Appearing suddenly naked in front of a geneticist helps win this doc's belief in Henry's disorder

Twist: the geneticist tries to help Henry by building time-traveling rats (after id'ing the faulty gene and mapping out the DNA code), hoping to unravel a cure

Twist: ...before Henry's wife becomes pregnant

Twist: ...which becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous, as the fetuses spontaneously disappear


One last time :)

Idea: time travel story

Twist: hero meets wife when he's in his 20s

Twist: hero's wife meets him long before that--because hero time traveled back to her childhood and visited her countless times as she was growing up

Twist: prior knowledge is no benefit whatsoever to the characters;
they can change nothing


Bottom line: Think on plot deeply and your ideas will become richer, more complex and more original. Don't settle for spin #1. Throw your story into agitation mode, and soon you'll find yourself spun out of la box and into virgin territory: twisted-writer territory. And that's a cool place to be, in this writer's opinion.

I'm off to conference, but I'll be back Monday. Take it away, Kath, and write on, all!


Blogger redchurch said...

Great post!

Yes, re-interpretation and re-invention of the familiar is where the creative rubber hits the road.

On a similar note I did a post in October of last year on 99 Ideas -- rejecting the first.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kathleen Bolton said...

This is why I love Random Reading. It's like getting synopses of what's already out there. It totally helps when trying to unbox a stale plot device.

9:14 AM  

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