Moving with the Road
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been a passenger in a car that has taken a curve too fast? You got tossed around, didn’t you? And, if you didn’t have a seat belt on and were sharing the space with another passenger, I’ll bet you instinctively reached out to that other person for a little stability.
Welcome to the experience of your typical reader.
Stories often rely on sharp twists, unexpected turns and exciting jolts in plot. Heck, sometimes even the characterization of a protagonist or an antagonist relies on these curve-balls to progress the story. It’s part of what makes things interesting!
When a story is set in a concrete, realistic world, these jolts are minimized by the “safety” belt of familiar circumstances. We can easily make the judgment whether the twists make sense or not, whether we can “stay with the story” or not, because we know the measuring stick that they are being held against.
However, when writing a story that is set in an unfamiliar location (such as a fantasy or science fiction piece) or with an unfamiliar culture, the reader often lacks that ability to judge what’s normal and what isn’t. As a result, they aren’t always “fully strapped in”.
Yep. Those poor readers are seatbelt-less in the backseats of our story cars and they have no idea what to hold on to.
Enter the character archetype of the newcomer! When you have a character in your story that is almost as new to the world as the reader, the reader gets the benefit of a familiar viewpoint and a proxy voice all at once. These sorts of characters give your readers someone else to grab onto during the turns. And the more you keep them connected to your readers, the harder you can make your turns without your audience flying away from you.
So, what other sort of tactics can you use to keep your readers attached?
Example: “The Force?” Luke Skywalker
While you don’t want to bog your plot down with too many questions, there are some that are just too big to miss. So don’t be afraid to have one of your characters ask them. Even if it’s a bit of a stretch for that character, you have some wiggle room. For example, if Jedi existed less than eighteen years ago, one could argue that Luke really should have had an idea of what and who they were. However, the fact that the audience needs the information creates just the bit of willing suspension of disbelief that we need to accept him asking the question.
Don’t Explain Things (but still ask the question)
Example: “I’ll explain later!” The Doctor
Whenever there is a horribly complex situation (or a plot hole that needs to be hidden) in Doctor Who, the smart screenwriter has the ever-so-helpful companion stand in for the audience and call the Doctor on it. And more often than not, the question never gets answered.
You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t matter! Just acknowledging the situation through the mouth of one of the characters involved allows the audience to feel vindicated about their sense that something isn’t right. As long as they know that the “world” acknowledges the apparent discrepancy, they can often move on.
Put Them In New Shoes
Example: “She said no, and yes, and no again, day and night and for the first time she began to feel the minutes crawling over her like worms.”The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle
We can accept characters that make odd decisions if we are able to see how they got to those decisions. Likewise, we can handle a plot that jukes and twists on us if we get some detail to ease the transition. Just be careful to use a light hand, especially if there is “action” going on in the scene. Pacing can take a hit if burdened with too much detail but it’ll take a worse hit if your reader becomes confused.
Foreshadow, Foreshadow, Foreshadow!
Example: “I’ve been through a lot in the past few years. And it’s been hard, but I’m realizing that I had to go through all those things to learn the truth. I thought I had lost my honor, and that somehow my father could return it to me. But I know now that no one can give you your honor. It’s something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what’s right. All I want now is to play my part in ending this war.” Prince Zuko
When a character or a plot does a 180, it can be a lot to handle. It’s made infinitely worse if there’s been no breadcrumbs leading up to the change. Scattering hints in the story progression is one way of breaking the potential jolt down into manageable bites. After all, avoiding the deus ex machina moment is important for a plot but it’s also important for a character.
In the end, there are dozens of ways that you can keep your readers grounded in your story. What works in one chapter may very well not work in the next, so it’s all about finding what best fits in the plot. Plus, you’ll find that “a little dab” will go a long way. After all, your readers want to suspend their disbelief. It’s just about giving them that chance.
Curious to try out some of these techniques? Write up a quick piece and submit it to one of our flash contests, or write something a bit meatier and go for a prize. You can learn all about the latest here in our most recent newsletter.