Tips for Writing Clever Plots
Have you ever had to stop reading for a moment to sit in awe of the sheer cleverness of a story? How about re-reading a book only to discover a trail of clues that you never noticed the first time to an upcoming plot twist? As a reader, this realisation that you’re experiencing something rich and multi-layered is thrilling. As an author, it’s bittersweet.
After all, how can you possibly compete? Is there any point trying when you’re up against someone that you could never imagine being able to out-write? The answer is yes. You can, and should, continue writing. Here are three reasons why:
- Books are subjective so other readers might not be as impressed as you are by this “genius” plot.
- The clever plot is more likely to be a product of the editing process than a stroke of brilliance.
- Stopping just as you’ve found a story that can teach you how to improve makes no sense.
An inquisitive mind, devoid of ego, is the key to succeeding at writing. Adopting this wisdom is what separates those who get better from those who give up before they ever discover the tricks of the masters. Consider this: when you see success, do you feel bitterness towards the “lucky” recipient or get inspired to learn what they did to achieve it? Believe it or not, you can choose which way you think, and those who choose to be inspired stay motivated and learn more over the long term.
Odds suggest that your favourite clever author isn’t superhuman. They haven’t been bitten by a radioactive bookworm. In reality, they’ve simply formed a learnable system during their career that helps them to write twisty books full of depth and foreshadowing. Today’s blog post will discuss a number of common tactics you can practice to achieve a similar effect.
Some authors are pantsers. They write stories by the seat of their pants, without planning, and only know what will happen in a scene as they write it. Writing clever plots this way is possible, but it’s usually more difficult and labour intensive. That’s because writers who pants often have to free-write scenes to find out what they want to say. They discover their plot by rambling through chapters, so often have to edit out much of what they’ve written in later passes. Those who pants their books efficiently normally do so only because they actually plot in their head. These authors know at least some of the events that will crop up in their plot; they just don’t write an outline.
While many die-hard pantsers consider plotting an outline before writing the first draft less fun, it generally makes writing clever plots easier. Not only is an outline easier to hold in your head than a whole book, but tweaking it takes less time. If you pants a 100,000-word first draft, you then have to comprehend 100,000 words of unwieldy content and possibly re-write 30,000 words to address plot adjustments. Working on that scale, it’s easy to miss details and make less-than-ideal choices because better ones require too much work. By comparison, you can see the plot more clearly in a 1,000-word outline and may only have to re-write 300 words to optimise the story.
Hint with Character Names
You can also add depth to your plot by burying clues to your story in your characters’ names that hint towards their true intentions and narrative functions. Disney famously uses this tactic. Maleficent, for example, the name of the sorceress that bewitches Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, means “causing harm or destruction, especially by supernatural means.” As this million-dollar word isn’t one that children are likely to know, it doesn’t ruin the plot for them but creates an easter egg for educated adults.
You may not want to add hints that are so contrived, especially if you’re writing for adults and not working in the fantasy genre where unusual names are common. In his book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, for instance,Philip K. Dick named his protagonist Rick Deckard, which sounds ordinary in an urban sci-fi story. However, his surname resembles the philosopher Descartes (pronounced “Day-cart”) who said, “I think therefore I am.” As the character deals with the issue of whether artificial intelligence counts as life, his name aptly encapsulates his function. Alternatively, there’s also the approach JK Rowling used in Harry Potter when she invented Tom Marvolo Riddle, whose name only puzzlers would realise before the reveal is an anagram of Lord Voldemort.
Doublespeak was coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 to describe a practice in which dystopian journalists report news that can be reinterpreted whenever the government changes their political stance. Using it, they mislead and manipulate the public. In modern language, however, the word is commonly used in reference to dishonest individuals who tell half-truths in order to lie without technically lying. Politicians are said to be well-versed in doublespeak and lawyers have become accustomed to identifying it in court to access the truth or to argue cases to reinterpret legal language.
Using doublespeak in a book can help you to reveal plot hints without alerting readers. For instance, you could have a major character say, “I’ve never met my father.” While this is true, the dialogue implies that they don’t know their father’s identity. Yet you know that not only do they know it, they also know that he’s the villain. This example sets up a big future reveal that the heroes could have exposed themselves if only they asked the right questions. And you don’t have to confine doublespeak to side characters, either. Crime novels frequently star unreliable narrators. They gloss over details or describe scenes carefully, using doublespeak to avoid revealing the full extent of their actions until the detective publicly corners them.
The dictionary definition of foreshadowing is: “to warn or indicate of a future event.” Many good writers use it in their plots to drop hints without readers even noticing on their first pass. You can use foreshadowing in speech, action scenes or descriptions, so there’s plenty of room for creativity. For example, you could suggest that your hero has always thought of lawyers as “blood-suckers” during an early encounter with one in an urban fantasy book. Then you could later reveal that one of the biggest law firms in the city doubles as a breeding ground for vampires.
Similarly, the heroes of the comedy zombie movie Shaun of the Dead discuss a potential pub crawl in the first ten minutes of the movie. In doing so, they suggest the following course of events: “Bloody Mary first thing, bite at The King’s Head, couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here, back at the bar for shots.” What viewers don’t realise until later is that the writers actually reveal their entire plot in that sentence, only instead of a night out, they describe Shaun’s bid for survival during a zombie outbreak. Including foreshadowing is easy once you know how. Not only that, setting it up fun for the writer and readers.
One final way to write a clever plot that keeps readers guessing is to subvert expectations. Note, though, that doing so is risky. Some readers rebel against such changes because they expect well-worn tropes that they associate with their favourite genres: romances end with a happily ever after; the hero slays the dragon in fantasy; the detective catches the killer in police procedurals. Readers can feel cheated if a story doesn’t adhere to their expectations, especially if those expectations are what attracted them to it in the first place. However, flipping the story can grip other readers if done in a satisfying way.
George R. R. Martin is the posterchild for this strategy because he routinely upends fantasy conventions. Not only does he blur the lines between good and evil, which have historically been clearly defined in the genre, but he also unjustly murders popular characters before they fulfil their role. This ability to shock in A Game of Thrones is what has made his career.
If you want to achieve a similar effect then consider the tropes of your genre and subvert them. Perhaps, if you’re writing a space opera like Star Trek, which is known for having expendable side characters called “redshirts” whose job is to die for plot purposes, have a redshirt defeat the villain while your hero drowns in their own blood. This twist upends the trope but can still be satisfying if it’s foreshadowed and executed well.
Writing clever, original plots can be a challenge when you first start writing, but it isn’t something some authors are born to do while other simply cannot – it’s a skill you can codify with tricks and perfect with practice. Once you’ve tested these tips yourself, you’ll quickly realise that you too can write plots as clever as those you consider masters of their craft.
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