Plot & Structure Exercise 38: Plot Tools

In Mr Bell’s final chapter (FINAL CHAPTER!!!) the gentleman of plot offers us a peek inside his tool chest. Inside is an assortment of techniques we can use to spruce up a tricky novel. The metaphor, which he offers at the beginning of the chapter to help us understand this concept, is about a neighbor and car. It was a vintage hot rod, red, gorgeous, with so many problems. And every Saturday, Mr Bell saw his neighbor outside the garage working on the old beauty. “Why?” Because he loved it. Every time the neighbor encountered a new problem, this did not detour him. It only pushed him to solve it and find a better way of doing things.


The only way he could, however, was by owning and knowing a whole lot of tools. Any mechanical error could be met with the right sized nut or wrench.


The story vibes with me because my old roommate and best friend (who I want to base my next novel on) also bought a beat up version of his dream car. For a year he workshopped it over the weekend. Now he rides to the beach in it, with his babe and his dog, a roadie beer cracked open probably, and the music turned way up.


Don’t you have a weekend project that invigorates you? As for me, you bet I’ve been working on these plot posts every Saturday. Working on the craft of my soul.


Last exercise, pick two of the tools mentioned in this chapter, to use them immediately.


. . .


Unanticipate — because stories in all shapes and sizes saturate the market, audiences expect just about everything. The trick of this tool is to take what you’ve written as a cliché, something obvious, but instead thwart the reader. Dislocated them! Make them wake up to your ingenuity.


The literary example that comes to mind is the XVII century novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. With a phat title like that, contemporary audiences, so accustomed to novels about knights, expected just another hero’s story. Instead, what they got was a sucker punch to the gut, when they read the first sentence. Basically, “So, there was this guy, from what place I don’t remember . . .”


This is unanticipating the audience. Giving them something that appears like a cliché, but surprising them.


The trick (god, this trick is everything) is to work on a scene, but imagine various scenarios. Picking the most unconventional one.


Scene: a man comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. Cliché: he grabs his rifle and guns them down. Alternative 1: he greets the man, who is his buddy, wishing him good luck. Alternative 2: he jumps out the window. Alternative 3: he creeps towards the stunned lovers, gun in hand, but pees on them rather than kill them.


Scene: a boy walking home from school ducks into an alley when he realizes the class bully is running after him. Cliché 1: searching for safety, he stumbles into a mysterious antique shop where, after a whole novel, the boy learns he needs to stand up for himself. Alternative 1: coming to a dead end, the boy turns around and takes a nasty beating. Alternative 2: he narrowly escapes the bully, by diving into a trash bin, from where he sees the bully run into a child molesting pervert who has his way with the bully for 20 mins. Alternative 3: there is a dead end, but the bully isn’t trying to kick his ass, but ask the kid to help him to forge a signature on his report card, since the boy has the best handwriting in class.


Scene: a shy, top-button-done secretary decides to venture into the neighborhood dyke bar one Friday evening. Cliché: after a wild night she decides to return to her normal life, with a new found appreciation of her true, revealed sexuality. Alternative 1: she meets a guardian figure who shows her the ropes of this new world, only to reveal herself to be the future-version of this secretary, who had traveled back in time in order to save her from making the same mistakes in the future. Alternative 2: the secretary slips and falls on her head as soon as she walks in, causing her to flash back to a series of lesbian episodes from her childhood. Alternative 3: she sees her bosses there, gets a promotion after a long discussion, but decides to step away, quit her job, and go back to Kansas where she’s from.


. . .


The second tool is called the Raymond Chandler “Guy with a gun” technique. As legend has it, whenever Ray got bored with a story he brought in a man with a gun. This always shook the dust off a boring story, got readers sneezing with excitement. Best part, it doesn’t need to be a gun. Just anything crazy.


So, here we go. Five five-sentence stories, with a “gun” of sorts, coming in at the fourth sentence.


1. A woman lays in a full bathtub, stroking her butterfly wings. It has been months since she had me-time. Her ex-boyfriend would never leave her alone, but now? Suddenly a SWAT team blasts through the bathroom window, busts down the door, and blows a hole from the ceiling. “Freeze, you crazy bitch!” the men are yelling, pointing their rifles at the woman, who is actually relaxing in a bath full of the ex’s blood.


2. The cashier at a local diner sneezes directly into the handful of coins she was handing back to a customer. The customer had been expecting to receive his $1.37 in change, not COVID. “Keep it,” the guy says, turning to walk away. Just then, chiming the bells over the exit, stood three pimply guys with guns. When they got to the customer who was leaving, he replied, “She has my money! The cashier!”


3. Her phone buzzed in class. Lacy Lu, the most popular girl in kindergarten, was use to this. Her classmates were always sending her texts during class. Yet, when she swiped her phone open, underneath the table, she shirked at what she saw. The boys from a table opposite of hers had sent her a dick-pic, featuring both their little wormy wieners.


4. The lady wouldn’t shut the hell up. She must have been a hundred years old, white hairs forming a mustache, one eye veiled in cataract, and yapping away. Telling me her life story, 5000 feet above ground, while I nodded politely from my unlucky airplane seat. Right before I dozed off listening to her, she produced a blade. “How did she sneak that on?” was all I could think of, as she ran the steely edge into her ear, bleeding all over me, before I awoke.


5. I cocked the hammer of the cold revolver in my hand. It had been a gift from my father. But now that man was standing before me, probably regretting all the things he did to me, including teaching me how to use this thing. “Son,” he said, reaching into his jacket, trembling, “wait, wait, look at what I brought.” Before he could pull it out, I unloaded all six rounds into his chest, from where his hand fell, dropping an official release form, from the mental hospital.


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