Scam: a fraudulent or deceptive act. See also sham; hoax; swindle; run a con; cheat.
All very good things for a writer to do.
No, you still have to have a satisfying resolution to the conflict, actions still must be believably motivated, and you still need a happy-ever-after if it’s a traditional romance. But everything else is fair game for scamming.
In fact, a sagging middle or a plot that putters to a slow, dead stop is a sure signal you haven’t been running a good con.
The Ginormous Plot Hoax
A number of years ago (I’ll never tell how many), I went to a conference workshop from a bestselling writer of suspense. Her advice, which applies to plotting even a cozy domestic character study, was brilliant: When you’re trying to figure out what should happen next, write down seven possibilities. Then throw them all out and use the eighth one.
The reasoning behind this is simple and insightful. The first seven things that come to your mind will probably be the same seven things that will occur to your reader. And where’s the fun in that? Do you want to read a book where you can predict what’s going to happen at every turn of the page? Of course not.
Every craft course for writers tells you to identify your character’s main goal and then throw roadblocks up for conflict. But consider this: a highway closure is a roadblock by definition, but sitting in traffic at that roadblock is about as exciting as watching a Texas Liveoak grow. Inch by invisible inch. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to be forced into a detour to Bangkok on the way to a surprise anniversary celebration at Olive Garden?
Well, consider plot resolution to be a destination you absolutely don’t want your reader to arrive at before you do. If you take someone straight down the highway to the Mall and then turn into the parking lot beside the restaurant with big grape leaves on the logo, what else is he going to think?
True story that’s actually an allegory: A writer friend of mine wanted to surprise another writer with a big birthday bash. Both are intelligent ladies. The first friend knew that if the second one saw a whole bunch of familiar cars in the restaurant parking lot, the ambush would be blown. So another friend was enlisted to drive the guest of honor and to park on a side street, thereby misleading the guest into thinking this was just another ordinary day in her life. Surprise.
What you really want in a plot is something that makes your characters say, Whew! Didn’t see that one coming! Because that’s what your reader will say, too, and hastily turn the page to see what comes next.
I’m calling this a Plot Hoax because the goal is to fool the reader into thinking your plot is taking her down one path, while you’re slyly herding her down a different one. You can apply this same strategy to every single development in the story, not just the major turning points.
The guest of honor at that birthday bash happens to be a master at foiling reader expectations. Consider this: Chapter One opens when our heroine wakes up in bed with a naked, strange man beside her. Think you know where this is going? Well, our heroine is attentive to details and right away notices the man is all of eight inches… tall. Gotcha.
An early chapter in her award-winning draft manuscript included the following scene:
A kiss never felt more real, or more exciting. Susan pressed her body against the pirate captain, felt his hands on her back, his lips on hers, his tongue exploring.
Electric shocks ran up her legs, through her arms, converging on her center. Hot wind swept over her as Flynn’s mouth moved to her neck, tickling the sensitive spot beneath her jewel-laden earlobe.
“Cap’n Flynn,” a sailor cried, “look below! Fire!”
Not the heat of passion at all, then.
Flames ate at the sails, ran across the deck, raced toward the foot of the stairway. Susan froze, but Flynn swung her off her feet and into his arms, and ran up the steps.
The flames never reached them on the quarterdeck. The explosion did.
In one brief capsule of time, the author (a great talent named Kay Hudson) managed to switch the reader’s gears twice. I promise, this works for comedy, suspense, character development, paranormal twists—In fact for every type of genre and every style of writing.
You Do It All the Time, Anyway
Every time you end a chapter with twist, or start a book with a hook, you’re giving the reader something unexpected. Weave that kind of shattered expectation into the fabric of your plot so subtly and yet so insistently that when you arrive at your big resolution, the reader will say Wow! Of course! Why didn’t I see that coming?
And you can say, Gotcha!