I recently caught an interview with Aaron Sorkin about the new season of “Newsroom.” He explained how he generates tension when viewers already know what the main plot twists are going to be – the current season deals with the 2012 election. It’s hard to surprise your readers when your major story developments are literally last year’s news.
This problem shows up in writing more often than you might imagine. Writers of historical fiction have to deal with the fact that history happened and we’re stuck with it. A lot of mysteries have to spell out the situation that leads to the killing before the body drops, which is hard to do without having readers guess the victim. And sometimes the nature of the story just makes some developments inevitable.
There are techniques that can help you disguise these plot twists — I’ve collected a few on my website  — but these techniques only go so far. How do you generate surprise or maintain tension when your readers can see what’s coming?
One way to work a twist into an inevitable event is to make it mean something your readers didn’t expect. Part of the ominous future hanging over Matthew Shardlake, the hero of C. J. Sansom’s mysteries set in the reign of Henry VIII, is the coming fall from grace and imprisonment of Thomas Cromwell. (It’s not as well known as last year’s election, but it’s the sort of thing Sansom’s readers would know is coming.) Cromwell is Matthew’s patron, and in the cutthroat world of Tudor England, the loss of a patron usually means disaster. Yet in Dark Fire, the second book of the series, Matthew is on an assignment from Cromwell on behalf of the king. When the assignment ends badly, Matthew knows Cromwell will be furious and the king may be murderous. But on the day Matthew is to give his report, Cromwell is imprisoned, and Matthew’s assignment is forgotten. Essentially, Sansom has turned the anticipated disaster into a moment of relief.
You can also build tension around an important subplot while your readers are waiting for the main plot development to arrive. I had a client with a mystery whose murder had complex motives that required a lot of setup — he had to show how and why a lot of different people hated the future victim. This both made the victim obvious and gave readers a long wait before the victim eventually dropped. I suggested that he add a prologue that showed the discovery of a body in the woods without revealing whose body it was. Since the intended victim drives a couple of other characters near to suicide, the possibility that one of the other characters might give in to despair kept the tension high until the intended victim finally got what was coming to him.
You can draw your tension not from the events themselves, but from how the events will affect your characters – this was Sorkin’s approach. In fact, your readers may feel even more tense as they watch your characters blithely living their lives, unaware of the coming disaster. Or as Sorkin put it, “When you go see ‘Titanic,’ you know the ship isn’t going to pull into New York Harbor.”
One recent client told the story of a young woman who needed a heart transplant. Early in the manuscript, he also introduced a young man in a parallel story. There was really no way to hide the fact that the young man was going to be the transplant donor. Instead, I suggested that the client bring the donor’s father, who had become very depressed after his wife’s death, more prominently into the story. Because readers began to wonder how the father would handle the son’s inevitable death, the story gained tension.
Most plot twists rely on events that the readers didn’t anticipate. But good stories work at several levels. So if you’re ever stuck with events your readers can’t help but see coming, look past the surface level. Drill down into your characters’ internal lives and the subtleties of your plot. The results will surprise you – and your readers, too.
What’s your favorite example of how a writer dealt with plot inevitability? Have you found other ways to work around an easily foreseen plot development?