There's no end
to the things you might know, depending how far beyond Zebra you go! {Dr. Seuss}

Friday, April 9, 2010

Unpredictability for my WIP

Yesterday I was listening to my iPod while revising a story and suddenly a Christmas song started playing. It was completely unexpected because 1) I didn’t put any Christmas songs in the playlist, and 2) It’s been nearly 90 degrees all week and Christmas is the farthest holiday from my mind. 
I didn’t think too much about how the Christmas song got in my playlist until I glanced back over my revision. And it hit me. The universe was trying to tell me something: My story is too predictable. It’s bland. It’s kind of boring. Nothing unexpected happens, no random Christmas songs in April. There aren’t any surprises. I don’t mean surprises like the main character is the son of his arch-nemesis or is dead or schizophrenic. I don’t mean a shocking O. Henry ending, either. But this story needs something unexpected: a technique, a phrase, an action that makes you grip the book tighter or forget to blink, breathe for a moment. Something that keeps you sitting there and thinking about it even after you’re finished reading. 
I didn’t know where to start. I’m a very predictable person. I like plans and routine. Everyone says I’m the easiest person to buy gifts for because I’ve liked many of the same things since I was a child. How can I write something unexpected if I’m the definition of predictability? 

I did what I always do when I fall in a writing trap: eat a piece of chocolate and read. I piled several short story collections beside me and skimmed through stories that have been most memorable. How did the author make the story exciting and unpredictable? Why do I remember a story I read only once years ago?
These are some techniques I found to try making my story unpredictable:
Change the POV. Most stories are told in first or third person singular. It’s most familiar to readers- and writers. Maybe writing in second person or in third person plural is the spice needed for that unexpected flavor. Examples: “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore and “Camp of Low Angels” by Silas Dent Zobal.

Withhold Information. Readers shouldn’t be underestimated. Is my story is telling too much and not leaving anything open for interpretation? Ambiguous dialogue, as long as actions give clues, keeps the ending open for a reader’s own conclusion. Example: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway.
Challenge Convention. Controversy gets readers thinking, and flipping a traditionally conservative event, theme, or symbol upside down and inside out might be what my story needs to keep readers interested. Example: “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter.

Background Check the Characters. My characters need shaking up. They need to step out of their comfort zone and do something crazy. I need to figure out why they’re acting like they are or why they want to act a certain way. What’s their story before this one starts? Example: “Through the Tunnel” by Doris Lessing.
Break the Rules. You know the quote about learning the rules properly so you know how to break them? Maybe it’s time to break the rules. Do something completely different. Forget proper grammar. Write in stream of consciousness. Or incomplete sentences. It might be all wrong, but it could also provide another direction to make the story more compelling. Example: Dream Lives of Butterflies by Jamie Wriston Colbert (It’s a short story collection. The author does not use quotation marks or italics to set off the dialogue.)

Last night I tried breaking the rules and challenging a conventional idea. It was so fun experimenting and taking a break from my usual revision strategies! Those two didn’t work for this story, but I’m playing around with the other three today. I’m thinking changing the point of view is probably what my story needs, so I’m trying that last.
I hope no one else is struggling with their revisions. If you are, I’m here if you want to commiserate. Happy writing and revising! :o)
"Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."  ~E. L. Doctorow
"Read, read, read. Read everything- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!  You'll absorb it. Then write."  ~William Faulkner
Share with me!
What do you do to add unpredictability to your WIP? Do you have any favorite short stories or novels you re-read to help you out of a writing trap?


T. Anne said...

I agree with Faulkner's advice! Who knows, you mind find a Christmas song write smack dab in you story! ;) Something I like to do is throw in extra problems for my MC. I can't let her get too comfortable. Ever.

Lola Sharp said...

Oh, I'm in revision hell.

But I agree with your commenter above, throw more problems at your MC.

Happy Weekend,

(p.s.- my contest is up)

Lola Sharp said...

Oh, I meant to mention: that is completely freaky that a Christmas song popped up, if you've never put one on. That's some crazy, up in there!
But I love that you took it as a message went with it. That's full of awesome.

B. Miller said...

Great post!! Lots of things to keep in mind, different techniques that might help me out as I forge along in my WIP! Thanks for posting all these!

Have a great weekend. :)

Laura Marcella said...

T. Anne- Oh, yes, throwing problems at the MC is a definite must to shake things up! Thanks for the comment!

Lola- I saw your blog post today and totally understand your revision hell. Thanks for commenting- twice! I feel so special!!!

B. Miller- I'm glad you found this helpful! Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Talli Roland said...

I like how you deal with writing traps: chocolate and reading! What a great combo.

When I'm not sure how to break out of the predictability mode, I usually think of a convention, then flip it on its head to make it completely different (or try to, anyway).

Good luck! :)

Laura Marcella said...

Talli- It's a combo that definitely produces results! Thanks for commenting. :)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I'd say that Christmas song was perfect timing for you then!
Now that's I've finished my series, I'm casting about for ideas on how I can shake up my predictability. I did pretty well with the last book, but I want my next fiction attempt to really deviate from my style.

India Drummond said...

A writing teacher told me once: no surprise for the writer means no surprise for the reader.

I've tried to remember that as I let my characters do weird and wonderful things!

Laura Marcella said...

L. Diane- It sure was surreal hearing White Christmas in 80 degree weather, haha. Good luck with your series and thanks for commenting!

India- I LOVE that tip; definitely something to remember. Thanks for sharing it with me!

T.J. Carson said...

I love breaking the rules :) I think that is my favorite. I just type from pure continuous imagination and worry about proper spelling, grammar and sentence structure later. I get the best plot twists and character developers by doing that. You should try it with a new work instead of trying to incorporate it into a current work.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great ideas here!

I usually throw in some more conflict. I'm a mystery writer, so my favorite technique is to have a second murder in my book...I frequently kill off the most likely suspect. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Laura Marcella said...

T.J.- Great idea breaking the rules with a new story. Thanks for the comment and for following!

Elizabeth- Conflict is always a great way to shake things up (especially with a murder)! Didn't Raymond Chandler say something like when he gets stuck he introduces a character with a gun? Mystery writers SO have an advantage, haha! Thanks for commenting!

Falen said...

oooh, i like to throw in bodies. If a body shows up out of nowhere, well, your characters are going to have to do something about it.

Laura Marcella said...

Falen- Haha, I sure hope your characters do something about random dead bodies! Thanks for commenting and following!

Alyson said...

I love when a story has more than one point of view. I like seeing the story develop through more than one pair of eyes.

I'm working on the withholding information technique. Readers are smart. They can figure it out. I mean, we're readers and we're smart! ;o)

Talking about withholding information...I have something for you on my blog...

AchingHope said...

I had this same problem with one of my stories (I've ended up abandoning it for awhile). I've decided to make her go a little crazy to spice things up a little.

Hm. I guess that is my answer if my characters are too flat. I add a little bit a' crazy, make them lose a bit a' their mind. Huh. Weird.

Very nice post :)

Laura Marcella said...

Alyson- I like those kinds of stories, too! So many of the story's angles are revealed that way. You're right, readers (we) ARE smart. Sometimes I underestimate myself, which carries over to the reader. And that's not good!

Thank you so much for the Prolific Blogger Award!!! Happiness!

Laura Marcella said...

Aching Hope- Adding a lil' bit 'o crazy always works! (In real life, too, haha!) Thanks for commenting and following!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Oh, excellent checklist for making something unpredictable! Sp many pitfalls in writing, it's good to have these sorts of tips, which I think help with more than just making it less predictable, truly. Nicely said.

I have a BA in English and Creative writing, as well. You're degree may not have helped you in the way you thought it would, but think of the kind of exposure you go to literature that I bet helps you as a writer. BTW, now a follower!

Laura Marcella said...

Carolina- I do know a lot of literature trivia, which seems useless, but I do quite well when my hubby and I watch Jeopardy, haha! Thanks for your kind comments and for following! I'm heading on over to your blog now! :)