Plot Flares

Hello, readers —

I’ve gotten SO many e-mails from stressed-out contest entrants, responding to my weekend posts about formatting, that I’m not going to write about anything contest-related today. I suspect everyone could use the rest, after (or in the midst of) getting that entry postmarked on time. So today, I’m going back to mega-problems, a little number I like to call the Plot Flare phenomenon, something I can tackle in a fun and nonstress-inducing manner.

Before I move on to nice, soothing manuscript mega-problems again, though, I do want to apologize to everyone who had already entered by the time I mentioned a title page for the entry. Let me be clear: the contest rules do NOT require a title page; a judge will not maul your entry if you did not include one with your entry. Relieved? In this instance, the title page was a cosmetic measure, designed to make your entry look more professional.

However, I do have to say, the reason that I did not mention it until this weekend’s posts was that it actually wouldn’t occurred to me NOT to include a title page in ANY packet that included a manuscript of mine or a portion thereof. All of my elementary short stories had title pages, even. Now, admittedly, I grew up around so many professional writers that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that home sweet home was insulated primarily by paper, but in retrospect, I had to wonder: whence the title page impulse?

When in doubt about the source of my literary prejudices (which, as you may have gathered, are legion), I did what I always do: ask my friends who’ve had success hunting down agents and selling books. Without exception, they were all nonplused by the notion of sending out a piece without a title page, too, unless it was a commissioned article for a magazine, but none of us could recall where we’d picked up that useful little habit. But every writer we know does it. Perhaps this indicative of creeping egomania, but even in a contest entry, where the author is not allowed to display her name, all of us felt that the “Ta da!” of the title page was still advisable, and even necessary.

Which leads me to a corollary question, one that had not occurred to me before: have you all been sending title pages with your requested material submissions to agents and editors? I can’t remember ANY instance where an agent’s submission guidelines actually specified its inclusion, but it does most definitely make your work look more professional, if it’s in standard format. (See last week’s posting on the subject, if you’re in doubt.) And, as in a contest entry, anything you can do to your submission to make it resemble what the pros do gets your work taken more seriously.

Okay, on to Plot Flares, an early screaming indication that something specific is going to happen later in the plot. From the author’s POV, these hints are generally subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t AWFULLY subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it. And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

Once again, this is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. There are, of course, the classics: if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless. Pathos, pathos. And if you don’t believe me that these clichés transcend genre or even writing quality, that last example was the backstory for the Sidney Poitier character in”>GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more than the other players) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Ice-T, and/or Christopher Walken — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re SUPPOSED to think did it, so the twist can be that someone else did.

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry continue to think that we’re all surprised by plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a forgettable thriller where one of the actors, unfortunately, had shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the eventual plot twist. When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, me), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a road sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.'”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack. However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges tend not to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

Keep your foreshadowing, when you use it, SUBTLE — which means, of course, that unless you’re writing comedy, you might want to avoid having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.: For a hilarious peek at the kind of plot flare to avoid, take a gander at the cult favorite TV series STRANGERS WITH CANDY, a parody of those heavy-handed 1970s Afterschool Specials where a wee Helen Hunt would try drugs once, freak out, and plunge to her death from a second-story window, all to teach us, children, that Drugs are Bad. In STRANGERS, if a pet is going to get killed in order for the protagonist, Jerri Blank, to learn an Important Life Lesson, the script will have Jerri say to her pet, “I would just DIE if anything ever happened to you,” reinforcing it just before the inevitable denouement with “I would like to reiterate that I would just DIE if anything ever happened to you.”

Yes, this is bald-faced, but it’s a fine reminder that good writers let the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point. Because, ultimately, that’s the motivation for plot flares, I think: the author doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp ALOUD. If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance.

Keep it subtle, my friends. If there’s a cat in that bag, keep it there until it’s startling for it to pop out. There’s no need to have it meowing all the time first.

And coming off that rather distasteful little metaphor, I bid all of you stressed-out contest entrants au revoir. Get some well-earned sleep, and keep up the good work.

– Anne Mini

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