Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Take the Fifth

by Suzanne Y. Cordatos

When a story has you hanging by your nails on the edge of a cliffhanger, how often do you correctly guess what happens next? Fifty percent of the time? Five?

If you can name the whodunit in the first chapter or can identify the mysterious thing lurking at the back of the dark adventure before the hero gets there, be honest. Don't you feel cheated? Wouldn't you rather feel the tingle of terror?  If you predict the next trick up James Bond’s tuxedo sleeve, doesn’t the movie get boring?

As writers, it is our job to craft the surprises. The trick is, how?

Stories—Picture Books through Adult—lose their luster if the author doesn’t have richer surprises in store. Translate boring to mean “stop reading” (or the nastier “I’ll never buy another book from that author”) and you’ll understand the importance of the surprise.

Exercise Creativity Muscles
Not sure from which SCBWI (children's writer society) keynote speaker I heard this golden nugget, but here’s a solution that works for me and is easy to implement in your own Work-in-Progress:

Need an escape hatch? Heroic deed? Creepy creature? Make a list. Write down the first solution that comes to the top of your head.

Jot down more ideas. Work fast. Don’t think too much.

DISREGARD the first three on the list. Your readers will think of these quickly as you!

Delete deus ex machina—Greek for any solutions handed down by the “gods” without the hero’s direct involvement. Maybe there's another blog topic in here, but you don't want readers to feel like it would have been impossible to guess the outcome.

Now, take the fifth . . . or sixth idea on the remaining list. This is the one more likely to be a creative solution unique to your book—and not the stock scene played out in a hundred books and movies already.

The Ah-Ha Moment

If your solution is believable and true to the world you've created, true to your character's skill set and talents hinted throughout the story, readers will come to the reveal surprised but think, “I should've seen this one coming.”


  1. I love the 5th idea suggestion! I need reminders to make that extra push for better descriptions, reader surprises, and clever plot twists. I know I really enjoy those in a novel. Thanks for your suggestions!

    Kristi Rhodes

  2. Wayne Harris-WyrickApril 11, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    I wish more writers understood this concept.

    1. Wayne, with all the editing you do, you know how many don't understand.

      I don't know if some writers are too lazy to find the fifth or sixth, or if they haven't developed their imaginations enough to realize more than the obvious.

    2. Thanks, Wayne, for your kind words. When I heard this for the first time I thought, "Oh right, that's why my ideas fall short of spectacular. I picked the first thing that came to the top of my head." It always helps to push oneself for excellence!

  3. I like the idea of searching deeper for plot twists. However, I also love a thriller where the reader can see the monster that the hero can't. The tension comes from all the close calls and lucky saves the hero doesn't see. I have one question about Suzy's posting. Deus ex machina sounds like latin to me (not Greek). I know this literary device was an epidemic in classical Greek epic poems, but I think the phrase is latin.

  4. Good point! Maybe another blog topic can be how doing better research before posting a blog article is always a good idea! Ancient Greek tragedies used this device all the time.

  5. Suzanne, thanks for the great tip. I think most of us writers face the 'closed door' at one time or another. Using the 5th or 6th option is a helpful trick.