Story shouldn’t be obvious or predictable. Nobody enjoys being told about things that just happen in a nice convenient fashion, no matter how realistic and lifelike it might be. Don’t write on-the-nose.
On the other hand, story shouldn’t be vague or obtuse. Nobody enjoys being confused or bored, no matter how brilliantly the baffling events of Chapter One are explained in Chapter Sixteen. Don’t write wishy-washy.
Don’t be obvious. Don’t be vague. So what does that leave?
One of the best ways to get a reader involved in a story, to have them understand exactly what’s going on, and still surprise them, is this: learn how to lie.
What’s happening in a lie is very clear. It’s convincing. It makes good sense. It just isn’t true.
I’m going to use a very corny example to illustrate my point. It’s the structure and method I want to highlight, so don’t worry too much about the actual events. It could be any story.
Johnny doesn’t want to go to school. The reason is because he is being bullied. Johnny decides to pretend to be sick, get his mother to call the school, he gets to stay home and play video games, and avoid a beating.
But how would you write this? Have Johnny fret and worry about going to school and then come up with a plan to fake illness. That would be very clunky and drawn out.
Here’s how I would do it. Mom finds Johnny still in bed, burning up, he’s got a fever. But he wants to go to school, today’s the day of the Science Fair he’s been looking forward to all year. Mom says no way.
The point is I would make it as clear as I could that Johnny really is ill. The point of contention is mom wants him to stay at home but he wants to go to school. I say, if you’re going to lie, make it a good one.
Then, once mom leaves, I reveal he isn’t really ill and how he faked it. But I still don’t reveal why.
As the writer, I know his real problem. I know that he will think up a way to get out of going. I know the place to start is with how he tricks his mother. She’s no fool, so he’ll have to come up with something clever.
The reader sees a boy who is ill who wants to go to school because he is such a geek. That makes sense and also provides conflict (with Mom). It isn’t vague or confusing, but it is a lie. The MC (Johnny) is misleading a secondary character (Mom). And I’m also choosing to pass that untruth onto the reader (although I don’t have to).
Or I could also create a scenario where the MC is the one being misled by another character (maybe a secondary, or the antagonist).
Or I could just mislead the reader directly (usually by using red herrings).
Whatever the method, the point is the scene makes perfect sense and has conflict and purpose. Everyone has a reason for doing what they’re doing. And when it’s revealed that it’s a lie, those reasons still make sense.
When I reveal he isn’t ill, you understand the concept of lying to get out of school, but the effort he went to indicates there must have been a reason. The reason behind a lie is always something people want to know.
Of course, I could have just started the story with his interior monologue just telling the reader how much he hates going to school. Or I could show him arriving at school and getting dragged into the boys’ toilets and having his head flushed. And those very direct methods tend to be the most commonly used by aspiring writers. Because they’re the easiest to figure out.
Johnny’s being bullied, how do I get that across?
"Hello, my name is Johnny, and school is hell for me. Because of the bullies.”
Anybody could write that. Which is a good reason why the direct route should be avoided.
So, how do you not be vague and not be obvious? You lie. You make the lie convincing. You choose the victim of your lie and you fool them but good. Then you show that you’re lying. Then you justify the lie with the truth (something worth lying for).
Okay, so now the problem is many of you can see what I’m saying about this rather obvous and clichéd example, but how it would apply to any other scenario? Probably wouldn't work for that story you’re writing, right? What if your characters aren’t the lying type?
The reason I use lying is because it clearly shows the way to write a scene where you don’t want to reveal everything up front. You have to be convincing in the lie. You have to make the scene real. You have to come up with ways to allay any suspicions. And as with any good lie, you don’t over-explain. And most importantly: Even though you are holding information back, you have to make it appear that you aren't.
Here’s another set up. Jenny works in an office. Let’s say there’s a document missing from the Jenkins account, their biggest client. People are worried about losing their jobs, about the whole company going under. The last person to have the file was our Jenny. She’s summoned to the boss’s office.
She’s accused of losing the document. Jenny’s a hard worker, first to arrive and last to leave. She realises she’s going to be the scapegoat, but if she’s going to get fired, she’s going to tell the boss a few home truths. She tells him what’s wrong with the company, who the people are that he should be firing, and exactly what she thinks of him personally.
Angry and feeling wronged, she takes her box of stuff to her car. She drives erratically, almost has an accident and vows she’ll get her revenge, even though she knows she won’t. When she gets home, she takes out her box of stuff and finds the missing document stuck to the underside.
Here, the lie isn’t anyone’s fault, it’s a misunderstanding caused by me. But it now puts me in a position where a honest person has just become a liar. And then what if her boss calls her and tells her he likes her no-bullshit style and offers her a promotion? Will she live the lie?
A scene where it isn’t clear what people are doing or why they are doing it, where it eventually turns out they’re up to something interesting, is boring in the set up.
A scene where interesting people are doing interesting thing, where it turns out they were doing exactly what it looked like they were doing, is boring in the pay off.
A scene where interesting people are doing interesting thing, where it turns out they were actually doing something completely different to what it looked like they were doing, is all good.
After all, when you come down to it, lying is just another word for fiction.
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Monday's post will be on how to stay interested in your story after the umpteenth draft. Hope to see you back for that.