I’ve said before that explaining the plot is not your characters’ job: the obstacles and conflicts, external and internal, should be visibly apparent, without forcing your characters to explain them to the audience. But now I’ll go further and point out that your audience should never really know the full plot. As with character backstories, you need to know more than you show.
You’ve created this big, beautiful story, and now you want to show it off …but you can’t. Your audience doesn’t want to be told your story, they want to figure it out. The second that they understand everything that’s going on, they’ll lose interest.
I’ve mentioned before that I always ask people who don’t finish what I sent them where they stopped reading. Likewise, whenever I start writing something and don’t finish it, I go back to check where I stopped writing. As I mentioned here, it’s often about the halfway point. Why? Because that’s the point where I’ve finally laid everything on the table.
This seems counterintuitive: I’ve spend the first half assembling my characters and plot elements, and now that everything is in place, we’re off and running, right? Wrong. It means the story just died.
Not only do you need to have an overarching dramatic question that is posed at the very beginning and answered at the very end, but you need to have lots of additional mysteries propelling each scene forward into the next. The reader is always looking for excuses to quit reading, just as you the writer are looking for excuses to quit writing. The perfect set-it-down place for both of you is the moment when everything finally makes sense.
Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a logical and cohesive plot, but also you have to hide some of that cohesiveness from your readers. They do not want things to fully cohere until the very end.
Sketch out your whole plot, then figure out which facts it would be most compelling to withhold from your audience. First cut it down to just what they need to know, then cut it down even more. Give them just enough to fall in love with the story, but withhold the crucial plot elements that they’ll crave.
- Show them that the villain is up to something, but don’t show them enough to guess what it is.
- Show then that hero has a plan, but withhold the linchpin of that plan until it goes into effect.
- Imply that the hero and villain know each other, but don’t tell them how.
- Show them the arrival of an interloper but make them guess why he’s there.
Obviously, this can go very, very wrong: “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” never cohered and their audiences were infuriated (even through they’d been thoroughly entertained for most of the journey...)
J. K. Rowling, on the other hand, did a much better job with the Harry Potter saga: A big part of the thrill of that series came from the fact that she had obviously figured out the entire, massive history of her world, but she wasn’t going to reveal each aspect of it until we desperately wanted to know it. Unlike with “Lost” and “BSG”, most Potter fans felt tremendously gratified by the final picture that had emerged by the end of the last book. (And it’s worth pointing out that, even at the end, she still knew more than she ever showed, as one shocked Q and A participant found out.)
Next, we finish up with theme…