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Twisting an Old Plot into a Fresh Idea

Sherry-Anne Jacobs, author of 18 published novels so far, wrote something in her handbook called Plotting and Editing that made a great deal of sense to me. On page 19, under the heading, What Makes Your Book special?, she writes:

“All the time you’re writing, whichever method you use, you should bear in mind that there has to be something that makes your story special, different, exciting — both to an editor who reads dozens of manuscripts and proposals each month, as well as to readers after publication. You also need to remember that merely ‘good’ isn’t enough to sell a manuscript to a publisher — or to fascinate readers. Your story will have to be ‘sparkling’, especially if you are unknown as a writer.”

Okay, that’s wonderful, sage advice from a lady who obviously knows what she’s talking about. But here’s the crunch for most of us: how do we do it? How do we find a true definition of those two dreaded words, emotional punch, and put it in our work?

That’s what this workshop is for: to take existing plots and make them special, so special your characters will flow from it, and be so real they’ll leap up yelling at an editor, “buy me!” I can’t give you any magic formulas; all I can do is pass on the details of my personal journey on plot discovery, and find ways to make something sparkling from basic plots.

It’s said there are 8 basic plots for a romance novel. As some of you know, with help from the RWNZ email list, I got them down pat recently. They are:

* Beauty and the Beast
* King and beggarmaid/ princess and pauper
* Reunion after painful past
* Secret Baby
* Cinderella
* Marriage of convenience
* Forced Marriage/blackmail
* Bad girl/Good boy and vice versa

Now we all know the basic twist of combining two or more of these elements, such as reunion/secret baby, or marriage of convenience/Cinderella. Adding such things as ‘woman in danger’ usually stems from these basic plots, and can be innovative and effective; but the plot twists I’m talking about are different.

I’m going to start with a working example. The last thing I want (or probably you) is for me to bore you with the story of my books. But five minutes should make the point, and we can move on together. Her Galahad, which will be released by Silhouette Intimate Moments in October 2002, combines a few basic plots:

* Princess and pauper
* Reunion after painful past
* Secret Baby
* Forced Marriage/blackmail
* Good girl/Bad boy

Then I took each theme and twisted them.

  1. Princess and pauper? How could I twist that? By turning it around. They had been, in their painful past, princess and pauper, rich white upper-class girl and Aboriginal carpenter. Now she’s a poorly paid teacher on the run from her obsessive, abusive, bigamous ‘husband’, and he’s a rich artist. He wants seven kids; she knows she can’t have any more. So she’s on the back foot right from the start.
  2. Now the Secret baby plot? It sounds plain and straightforward, doesn’t it? So how to twist that? By making the baby so secret the heroine thinks she died. And the hero hates the heroine because he thinks she adopted their baby out. And he also has a baby, a son from another relationship with a woman who died. There’s always ways and means to twist something new from a plot!
  3. I twisted the good girl/bad boy plot by giving the good girl martial arts skills and turning on her family, willing to imprison them if she has to, on a quest to find her child they adopted out and told her had died. The bad boy becomes a good hero by being a bad boy not of his own choice, but imprisoned for crimes he didn’t commit — by the man the heroine marries five weeks after the hero’s arrest, and the heroine’s brother and father. And this bad boy’s been declared dead twice — once legally, with a death certificate to prove it. The heroine has a matching certificate, dated three years before his. And if the cops find him, he’ll be imprisoned again just for being alive (by the way, this came from truth: in my university course I discovered the Australian government issued fake death certificates to Aboriginal kids taken from their families to stop them finding their heritage and make them ‘blend’ into white society. I thought, if they can do it, it can be done!)
  4. The forced marriage/blackmail plot? I twisted that by giving the hero and heroine a secret marriage of one day, and the heroine, a forced marriage to a man who blackmailed her into becoming an unwitting bigamist, knowing she thought her true husband was dead.

From all these unusual plot twists, I suddenly found a wealth of creative emotion coming straight from the heart. I felt for this suffering hero and heroine. I wanted them to have a happy ending because, hell, they deserved it! I didn’t just want to write the book by the time I’d finished – I was compelled to. The characters were so real to me I couldn’t leave them hanging in the air. I finally understood why actors talked about their character in a movie as if that person was real: because, to them, they were. They had to be, or the movie won’t work for the actors or the theatre goers. That was what happened to me with Her Galahad, and the way I continued with the Nighthawks series. The basic plots with the twist in the tail!

Emma Darcy says in her how-to book that empathizing with a hero or heroine is important — but it’s not always just ‘writing from the heart’ that does it. You can make a heroine cry, she says, but will it make the reader cry? Not if they haven’t gone on the journey with the heroine first, to feel what she’s feeling before she cries. It’s true what Valerie Parv says in her How-to book: You have to torture your characters! You have to make them orphans, throw them in boiling oil, drop them out of trees and throw them off cliffs, shoot them, stab them, and then, right when it can’t get worse — make it worse! Why? Empathy! Because readers love to go on the journey. They want to feel what the characters are feeling, to cheer them on, to find reasons for these people to deserve their happy ending. Without this vital element, a book loses its interest. If an author writes more than one book where I don’t feel for the characters I won’t buy that author again. I’m afraid I’m not loyal to authors: I read what entertains me.

How about you? What is it you look for in a book? What drags you in? What books are your all-time favourites? Do you know why you love those books? Analyze it. Do you know the basic plot of that book you love? Now think about the twists on these plots the author used to hook you in. These points show exactly what I meant in the beginning: these authors have twisted the basic, well-loved plot to make it extraordinary, stand-out, unforgettable — the emotions have come right from the author’s heart.

When you have several plot twists it prevents the dreaded sagging middle if you pace them out. You can’t bombard the reader with too much information at once, but to add another twist just as the story slows, or becomes close to resolution — fabulous! Something to make the reader gasp, be they judge, editor, agent or someone who picked it up in a bookshop. Isn’t that what you love in a book — something to keep that hero and heroine apart just a little longer?

Get those plot twists going. Get them spinning like juggler’s balls in the air and catch them, one by one! Or let them fall with a crash! Either way, your story keeps going without a sagging middle, and should keep the reader hooked.


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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