Somehow, last week, I skipped over The Trick–my favorite writing tip of them all!
The Trick: Raising expectations in one direction but having the story first go in the opposite direction.
The Trick is the secret to writing, the thing that makes a story work: expectation followed by something other than the expected outcome – but something that is thematically consistent with the original events.
In art, artists use shading to emphasize the lighter portion of their work. The shading provides contrast that draws the eye back to the non-shaded part. In a story, writer’s need to do the same thing. One way of providing that contrast is with The Trick.
Of all writing techniques, The Trick is the easiest to do. You just decide where you want the story to go, and then you indicate—through dialogue, character thought, or narration—that the opposite is coming. If you want to have a happy incident, you make your character glum. If you want something bad to happen, you make him unexpectedly happy. It is that simple, and it is tremendously effective.
You just have to remember to use it. That is all.
How best to use it, of course, gets more difficult. If you are too blatant about your reversals, the audience will not be taken in. I’ve read books or watched shows where every time someone was happy, I winced because I knew something bad was coming. That actually undercuts the effect. The reader is alerted rather than lulled into a false sense of security.
So, the more subtly you can apply it, the more effective your scene. But you would be amazed at how blatant you can be and still have it work. Some of the bestselling authors today are quite obvious in their use of the Trick, and yet people read their books with great eagerness.
Where the Trick gets tricky is when there is more than one expected outcome, either one of which will not surprise anyone. The author is then called upon to do some clever thinking and find a third option that will surprise and delight. Sometimes, this takes time and creativity, but it is usually worth the effort.
I ran into this problem in my Prospero books. The plot starts out with Miranda believing that everything is fine. Then, aspersions are cast upon her father. Now, suddenly, either outcome “Prospero is innocent of the charges against him” or “Prospero is guilty” no longer seems that interesting.
Either way, there is no Trick.
(The innocent option leaves the reader thinking: “Well, why did I go through all that just to get back where I started.” The guilty option seems too pat: “Prospero was accused of X and Y in Book One and by Book Three, we find out X and Y are true. So? You told us that two books ago.”)
Solving this problem, coming up with an ending that did not disappoint, took quite some effort (and an idea I borrowed from Tolkien. Not a plot idea, mind you, something from his philosophy on storytelling.) But ultimately, it was a matter of the Trick again. I had to find an option that followed from what had been established, but was not what was easily anticipated.
The best primer for understanding the Trick I have ever seen is the book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. In this book, everything reverses. If the main character thinks something good is coming, something bad happens. If she expects the worst, it turns out well. The whole book is the young woman’s fantasies and then the contrasting reality that ensues.
Other good examples? Harry Potter: which is more surprising, more interesting: a rich, popular boy saves the world? Or an unwanted boy who lives under the stairs saves the world?
The Hobbit, etc.: which is more surprising: a great hero defeats the Dark Lord? Or, an ordinary short hobbit defeats the Dark Lord?
Strider is a really great example. He looks all dark and sinister. No one expected the guy sitting in the dark in a cloak in an inn—the epitome of a robber or bad character—to be the hidden king! (He’s such a good example, there’s even a poem about it.)
How exactly does one use The Trick? Let me use an example from real life. This happened last spring.
I have a friend whose house was foreclosed by Bank of America. It was a condo, really, but it was his home. It was a very sad thing because he had been up on his payments. However, there was a misunderstanding. Some years earlier, my friend had lost his job. During his jobless period, he had arranged payment plan with B of A, where he was paying a portion of the monthly amount.
My friend is a hard worker. When he got a new job, he approached B of A and offered to return to the full payment. The person on the phone told him to stick to the current payment plan.
Fast forward a few years. My friend gets a sudden call from B of A. They say: Pay up the many thousand dollars you are now behind. Obviously, my friend did not have this on hand.
He lost his home. Time went by. There was a class-action suit against B of A. My friend participated and was part of a winning settlement.
A few days ago, the check arrived. When he called me to share the story, he said that he sat with it in his hand for almost half an hour, praying and terrified, before he opened it. You see, he knew that while some people had gotten as much as $3000 from the settlement, many had only received $300. He did not know if he could bear it if his check contained only $300.
Finally, he ripped open the envelope. It contained a check for $6000!
Pause a moment. Think of how that makes you feel. Okay. Ready? Let’s go on.
Now, there’s another part of this story I left out. My friend works in an office, but he has always wanted to do more. When he graduated from college, he wanted to serve in the army or as a police officer. He wanted to do a job that mattered. He applied many places. Each time, he was turned down due to ill health.
That was nearly twenty years ago. His health has improved. Recently, he discovered that he might qualify to become a firefighter. This is the kind of work he could excel at—active work helping people with truly important things.
To make this change work, it would help a great deal if he could take some paramedic classes. This will be difficult for him, of course, because taking classes while working is always a strain.
When word first came about the B of A settlement, he looked online to find out how much he might be getting. The top payment for someone in his category was: $125,000!
Even though he knew this was probably an exaggeration, my friend spend an evening daydreaming of what he might do if he received the entire $125,000. He could quit his job, pay off his debts, and take the classes! He could be free of his current life entirely! He could be the man he wished to be.
Eventually, however, he discovered that this was not the amount people in his position would receive—and the fears of receiving only $300 began.
Now, think of how different the story I told above would have felt if I had told you: He held the envelope, expecting, hoping, that it would contain $125,000. All his hopes for the future, all his dreams, lay in this one check. He ripped the envelop open. It contained a check for $6000.
Instead of a miraculous triumph, that same $6000 now feels like a crushing defeat.
That’s The Trick.
So next time you sit down to write a story, just take a few minutes to think how best to lead the reader up before he goes down. Pick where you want to go, then put the something that is directly contrary to that idea in before you get there.
It is amazing how quickly and easily this brightens up a story. Almost like adding garlic or chocolate to dish of food (though hopefully not both at the same time. )