So, you’ve made it this far, huh? You’ve taken all the basics of story building (The Tri-Core Substructure, the Five Act Structure, Genre, Genotype, Character Development), you’ve carefully designed your story (Five Stage Plot, The Hero’s Journey, Micro Stories, Episodic Reduction), but that’s not enough for you. You want some tricks and tools to make your story unique…to make it stand out. Most importantly, you don’t really want your reader to figure out what you’re up to. You want to grab the reader by the nose, lead them through your complex, masterful, story weaving, and deliver a climax that will leave them breathless. You want your story to be unforgettable.
Welcome to the club.
Here are a few common tricks and tools you can use to twist your story exactly the way you want. You’ve probably thought of a few of these things, but for the best effect you should make sure they are implemented properly. Each item has some peculiarities you should remember, otherwise your efforts may fall flat or go unnoticed by the reader.
Plant and Payoff
Think ahead and plant things that may be insignificant to the reader early in the story, but don’t forget them. Bring them back, make them significant to the story. This helps to tie the whole thing together with a common thread. For example, in The Lovely Bones, there was early discussion concerning a certain sink-hole in the ground. That sink-hole became significant later on. Plant and payoff is not necessarily about tricking the reader. Go to the next item for that.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Much like plant and payoff, hiding things in plain site involves planting significant items early in the story. But rather than these items being incidental, they are MAJOR. For example, it is generally standard fare to introduce all the major characters of a story within the first few chapters, even if the reader does not know they are major characters. Introduce your villain, the love interest, the betrayer, all very early. It’ll be all the more sweeter to whack the reader over the head with the truth later on than to spring some new character on them. Is your character looking for something? Hide it in plain sight. Your characters don’t know, your reader doesn’t know, but you do. And when everyone finally finds the answer, you get to enjoy the collective face-palm that follows. But you may need the next two items to pull it off.
Bait and Switch
This trick is exactly what it says on the label. You bait the reader with one thing, and then switch it for something else. It is the simplest form of red herring, that involves toying with the reader’s decision making. Use bait and switch in small situations and small story developments. For example, present two possible love interests. Write as if you’re leaning toward one, but then switch to the other at the last moment.
The Red Herring
Bait and switch is when you offer the reader one thing and when they reach for it you swap it for something else. A red herring is when you cause your reader to wholesale run after the wrong thing. Bait and switch toys with the reader’s decision about an item…a red herring causes them to make up their mind in the wrong direction.
A simple red herring is generally pretty transparent to a reader. Readers have come to expect a red herring, so they don’t fall for it. It becomes simple bait and switch to them. A clever writer would build a two layer red herring. But then again, a clever reader still may not be fooled.
I recommend what I call The Inception Method. Ever see the movie Inception? If not, go watch it. It’s a master’s class on building red herrings. Build your red herring three levels deep. Most readers won’t think to go that far. What are you trying to hide? Put a red herring on top of it. This becomes your story surrogate for your hidden item. Now build a second red herring, the one you are going to try and “sell” to the reader as a red herring, and point it to your first red herring. Finally, build a third obvious red herring, the “bone” you’re going to throw to the reader on top of that one, pointing it to the second red herring. Here’s what happens: The reader sees that third red herring and says, “How obvious. Lol. It must be so and so,” and they point to the second red herring. But as the story progresses, the clever reader begins to recognize that you’re a clever writer and so they say, “Wait a second. This is another red herring…That’s the person!” But the person they’ve identified is the person you wanted them to identify the entire time…the first red herring. Most readers will stop here, because they think they’ve beaten the clever writer at their own game. But really you’ve just lead them by the nose until you’re ready to reveal the truth…the truth that’s been right in front of them the whole time. In order for this to work, you’ve got to have the truth hidden in plain sight, as I explained above. So that instead of the reader crying foul at you for tricking them so completely or for the truth coming out of “left field,” the reader does a massive face palm because they know how obvious the answer really was.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? It is.
This is bait and switch on the large scale…as in, with your entire plot. It is used most often in disaster type scenarios. To do this, the writer sets up their exposition as normal, setting, characters, ect…but introduces a false plot. Everything in the exposition is pointing to this false plot with no consideration given to what the real plot is going to be. Then suddenly there’s a “what the!” moment and everything changes. Lives are put on hold, insignificant ambitions are thrown out the window, that little “strawman plot” that the characters were expecting to participate in…all these things get chunked out the window in favor of the far more serious situation at hand.
is the dad going to reconcile with his rebellious son? How are the parents going to heal their marriage? The daughter is planning to run away with her boyfriend, how is that going to wreck the family? AND the grandparents are coming for the holidays! Suddenly…WHAT THE! We interrupt our regularly scheduled family drama to bring you an ALIEN INVASION! Please insert your real plot now.
Time to go down the rabbit hole, Neo. Fix your life along the way.
The Ticking Time-bomb
This is almost the exact opposite of red herrings and strawman plots. This is something the author plants near the beginning of the story and sets it to ticking. Maybe the characters know about it, maybe they don’t. But the reader knows. The reader is waiting, watching, anticipating, scooting to the edge of their seat, white-knuckle clenching the book, for the ticking time-bomb to explode. (No, it does not have to be a literal bomb.) This works really well in suspense and thriller genres, and train-wreck genotypes (that is everything that can go wrong, does go wrong, ie. Meet the Parents). To use this, setup one of the major disasters, maybe the climax disaster, near the beginning of the book and slowly build to that one event. Even though it’s obvious, it will create a fast-paced suspense filled page-turner that will leave your reader breathless.
Do Something New
Finally, now that you’ve gone through this series and you have a good understanding of the natural flow and the general principles of building stories do something new. Change things. Mix things. Add things. Subtract things. Rearrange the hero’s journey, or mix genres and genotypes in your episodic reduction. Make your whole story a red herring to a surprise ending. Determine what sort of ending might be expected of your story and do the opposite. In other words, now that you know the rules it’s time to break them. Have fun. Be creative. Live outside the box. And be unique.
Happy story building!
For more tips on becoming a master of story building, click HERE.