Tag Archives: Sixth Sense

No Plot, No Problem?

Given that there are “plot-driven” novels and “character-driven” novels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that if your characters are strong enough, you don’t need a decent plot and vice versa, but is that really the case?

Murder mysteries, for example, are highly plot-driven. They are all about who killed whom and how and why, and the reader can easily become sufficiently hooked on a good mystery that the characters are allowed to be fairly two-dimensional and uninteresting. But if we consider all the famous mystery stories, they have something in common – a fascinating, flawed, quirky sleuth. Certainly, there isn’t much character development in these stories: Hercule Poirot never acquires modesty and Columbo never cleans up his act; but if the plot is what drives us through that episode, it is the character who brings us back to the next.

The problem I seem to have is more the opposite. After lots of practice here at Elmowrites and elsewhere, I’ve honed my skills at writing short stories, but when it comes to a novel, I find the whole question of plot daunting.

It’s easy enough to tell a story: “this happened, then this, then that”, but to write a decent novel, you need PLOT. You need progression, development, cause and effect. There must be sub-plots, each of which needs all of that too, and the subplots must be nicely tied in with the main plot to create a cohesive whole.

Many story ideas boil down to “what if” questions: what if a child psychologist who had recently been shot treated a boy who could see dead people? What if an asteroid were about to hit earth? What if a crazy German dude took over a building that just happened to house a rebellious NYPD detective’s wife? What if I watched too many Bruce Willis movies?! (I haven’t seen the latest yet, looks like I may have to wait for the DVD now)

But a PLOT is about more than that initial question. A PLOT needs the author to add tension and excitement and near-misses; a PLOT requires us to build our hopes for the characters from a carefully-crafted sequence of successes and failures.

I’m beginning to understand why writers need to study novels as well as movies. In plot terms, most movies are short stories, novellas at best. (This is probably why some of the best movies of all time are based on short stories: Stand By Me, Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain… the list is long and distinguished). When great (and not-so-great) novels are turned into movies, fans generally grumble about all the stuff that’s been missed out, and this is why. You just can’t fit 80,000 words into 2 hours of screen time.

A short story still needs a plot. Even Bruce has to fail a few times before he finally succeeds. Especially when someone’s provided enough budget to fly a fighter jet into a freeway. But it doesn’t need to have quite so many complexities as a novel, and this richness is what a good plot provides.

So, if you’re telling your better half what you did today, no plot is no problem, but if you’re trying to land a publishing contract, better hunt one down!

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Twists and Turns

I’m a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I love a good plot twist, and his skill is not just in creating them, but in the delivery. In an article I read today from Writer’s Digest, a good plot twist was described as:

  • Unexpected
  • Inevitable (in retrospect, the only possible ending to that scene, act or story)
  • An escalation of what preceded it
  • A revelation that adds meaning to what already occurred.

1. Unexpected

Once you’ve made a name for yourself as a master of the twist, this can be a hard one to pull off. Canny viewers start hunting out the twists, and trying to spot them before the “reveal”. This has the negative side-effect that they are no longer really enjoying the story, because they are busy looking at the mechanics. It’s a bit like a theatre technician going to see a play – they end up ignoring what’s happening onstage because they are too busy looking at the lighting rig or trying to work out how a particular effect is produced.

Even so, the best plot twists are unexpected, either because the audience didn’t see a twist coming at all, or because they didn’t realise it would be this particular twist.

2. Inevitable

This is the beauty of the best plot twists. In retrospect, you see all the clues and signs which told you that this was the only possible answer. It makes you want to re-read the book or re-watch the movie. It makes you see things you had subconsciously already seen.

3. An escalation

Twists don’t work if they are anti-climaxes. It’s why the “it was all a dream” ending is so hard to pull off. You’ve built up a lot of tension and excitement for your readers; they don’t want a let-down at the end, they want resolution.

4. A revelation that adds meaning

I’m less persuaded about this  – in many ways it’s a corollary to 2 and 3. The twist must add more, and must explain what went before. But it should also be in keeping with theme and direction of the rest of the story. It must satisfy the questions raised consciously or subconsciously in the reader’s head.


I love to write twists, but they certainly aren’t easy. Combining that sense of inevitability with the need for unpredictability is the key problem. You have to leave a trail of clues, but different readers will view them differently. Some readers will jump straight in with the first couple of clues and say that the ending was obvious; others will trip over the clues, be upset by them, but assume that they are just bad writing and be annoyed; others still will miss them altogether. When it comes to the reveal, those same three categories of people are likely to think that the reveal is (respectively) unnecessary, uninteresting and a shock.

It’s impossible as the writer to really critique one’s own balance on this question – you already know the ending, so all clues stand out to you as a big red flashing arrow. You can’t please everyone all the time, and I’m tempted to feel that if a random group of readers has a smattering of each of the above, with the rest of the group liking the twist, you’ve probably got it about right. But I’m not sure, and I’m still practising.

Maybe I should go and watch The Sixth Sense again, and pretend it’s research!


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