Wright’s Writing Corner: Writing Tip Number Two: The Trick

Here is the second in my ongoing essays about my list of writing tips:

The Trick: Raising expectations in one direction but having the story 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.

Of all writing techniques, this is the easiest to do. You just decide where you want the story to go, and then you indicate—through 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. 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 best selling authors today are quite obvious in their use of the Trick, and yet people still 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, something from his philosophy of 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. (As to whether it worked or not, I shall have to wait for future readers to decide.)

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.)

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. (Hopefully, not both at the same time. )


16 thoughts on “Wright’s Writing Corner: Writing Tip Number Two: The Trick

  1. once in a blue moon. . ..

    You can pull off the expected ending because the reader is wondering what twist you put on it.

    Indeed, for the miles gloriosus to turn out a coward is so expected, it’s surprising when the character who vaunts his prowess to turn out actually competent.

    • Re: once in a blue moon. . ..

      Some twists are so old and famous that they aren’t really twists anym more. Fantasy became polluted with Hidden Kings done in imitation of Aragorn, so that now it would be more surprising if the mysterious prophecy-clad stranger wasn’t the True King.

      • Re: once in a blue moon. . ..

        Exactly! Freshness is the other issue…it has to be something the reader would not expect. When Tolkien did it, it was unexpected. Now, not so much. ;-)

        Should have mentioned freshness.

    • Re: Cooking with a twist

      Chocolate covered garlic…

      I have to admit that’s one thing I’ve never thought of. I had heard that there’s no food that doesn’t go with either chocolate or garlic, but I never thought of using them together (though I am now a fan of the hot chili chocolate bars.)

      My new daughter doesn’t like chocolate, which is doubly weird because my youngest son did not like it and now does.

  2. Expectations well raised

    Okay, it’s been four weeks since Philcon and I’m overdue but Prospero Lost is the next novel in queue.

    Why the delay? Well, at Philcon my favorite crackdealer bookseller Larry Smith fed my habit to the tune of 27 titles.

    It’s the backlog of series for one thing. I was in the midst of Ringo & Kratman’s Watch on the Rhine when I headed to Cherry Hill, then felt obligated to finish Butcher’s Alera Codex and Charlaine Harris’s watershed Harper Connolly where the step-sibs confront the life-altering mystery of Cameron’s disappearance.

    In the midst of this spree, Lisa Scottoline, with her daughter Francesca and mother Mary, had a talk and signing at the local Christiana [not Newark, despite the designation] Borders, promoting her collection of humor columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer, titled Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog.

    We always have a fun colloquy together these last few years she’s appeared, especially a couple of years ago when she had me autograph for her a copy of Hartwell & Cramer’s annual SF collection that includes Flynn’s Hugo-nominated “Dawn, Sunet & All the Colours of the Earth” to which I contributed. She’s a peach.


    However, walking into any bookstore is a dangerous proposition for my bank account, but I only left with the aforementioned Scottoline, the newest Parker Spenser, and Grafton Millhone, the latter two which clamored to be read [I’ve been reading Lisa’s columns all along] immediately.

    [Does anyone else reading Jagi’s LJ also hear books beseeching to be cuddled and riffled through? Or is just me?]

    Also, a large Amazon order arrived with Mike Shepherd/Moscoe’s latest Kris Longknife.

    Then, because Larry had also sold me my long-neglected purchase of Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon to complete the three later installments that Naomi had signed for me at Balticon in 2008, I needed to read those and the latest PN Elrod Jack Fleming.

    So, I thought I was in the clear, when out of the blue Sarah A. Hoyt sent me Darkship Thieves as an unexpected Christmas gift.

    Finally, I rummaged into my roller luggage [this is how I’ve learned to handle transactions with Larry — bring a small rolling suitcase for my stash], bravely past Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, beyond Weber & Flint’s Torch of Freedom, around Baker’s House of the Stag, slipping by Wilson’s Ground Zero, defying Ringo’s Eye of the Storm, all the while muttering my protective mantra, “No, no, no! I promised Jagi! Vade retro me auctor!

    Thus, eschewing temptation [or, at least, ignoring lesser temptations before succumbing to the greater] I lifted Miranda’s solemn heralding portrait from the depths and brandished it before her rivals.

    Now I hew to my bed to begin this fresh venture, newly damned, I’m certain, to addiction to another fine series!

    And that’s my tale.

    Reports and findings to follow. :>)


    • Re: Expectations well raised

      Another friend put Prospero Lost aside to read the new Butcher book. I felt this was completely understandable (especially as he read my book before in manuscript form). ;-)

      Hope you enjoy it.

      So…of the books you’ve read this year, which few would you say were the best?

      • Re: Expectations well raised

        In my typical Asperger fashion, of the [presently] 162 books [mostly novels] read thus far this calendar year, these stand out and merit distinction:

        Three Days to Never, Tim Powers
        Horizon, Lois McMaster Bujold
        Watch Your Back, Donald Westlake
        White Witch, Black Curse, Kim Harrison
        Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
        Turn Coat, Jim Butcher
        Escape from Hell, Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven
        Contact with Chaos, Michael Z. Williamson
        Nonesuch, Georgette Heyer
        Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Valerie Lawson [Biography]
        What’s the Worse that Could Happen?, Donald Westlake
        Sunshine, Robin McKinley
        Ender in Exile, Orson Scott Card
        Look Again, Lisa Scottoline
        Language of Bees, Laurie R. King
        Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde & its sequels
        Spanish Bride, Georgette Heyer
        By the Sword, F. Paul Wilson
        Storm Glass, Maria V. Snyder
        Bad to the Bone, Jeri Smith-Ready
        Brother’s Price, Wen Spencer
        Noise, Hal Clement
        Monster Hunter International, Larry Correia
        Free Fall, Laura Anne Gilman
        Wyrd Sisters,
        Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett
        Hogsfather, Terry Pratchett
        Lords & Ladies, Terry Pratchett
        Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett
        Thief of Time, Terry Pratchett
        The Conquerer, Georgette Heyer
        Don’t Ask, Donald Westlake
        Get Real, Donald Westlake
        David Falkayn: Star Trader, Poul Anderson
        Tamsin, Peter Beagle
        Van Rijn Method, Poul Anderson
        Chalice, Robin McKinley
        Fleet of Worlds, Larry Liven & Edward Lerner
        Pyramid Scheme, Dave Freer & Eric Flint
        Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud
        Golem’s Eye, Jonathan Stroud
        Ptolemy’s GateJonathan Stroud
        Dexter by Design, Jeffrey Lindsay
        Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan & its sequels
        Empress of Mars, Kage Baker
        Stallion Gate, Martin Cruz Smith
        Havana Bay, Martin Cruz Smith
        Stalin’s Ghost, Martin Cruz Smith
        Emissaries from the Dead, Adam-troy Castro
        Foundling, Georgette Heyer
        First Lord’s Fury, Jim Butcher
        Grave Secret, Charlaine Harris
        “U” is for Undertow, Sue Grafton
        His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik & its sequels
        Darkship Thieves, Sarah A. Hoyt

        I confess to a fondness for strong tales of loyalty, family, intelligence, honor, wry humor, sacrifice, and opposing evil.


        • Re: Expectations well raised

          >I confess to a fondness for strong tales of loyalty, family, intelligence, honor, wry humor, sacrifice, and opposing evil.

          If so, you may well like the Prospero’s Daughter series…though quite a few of the qualities you mention don’t really come onstage until Book Two or Three.

          Thanks for the list! I’ve read a few of those, but not many.

          • Re: Expectations somewhat fulfilled

            My report, as promised.

            Your auctorial device of Mab checking his notes was a clever means of keeping the reader on track with so many names and events covered in the progress of Miranda’s journey.

            While as bright, vivid, and intricate as a cloistered manuscript illumination, the book unavoidably suffers from “first installment syndrome”. There’s no sense of completion even though you fulfilled your writerly duty by firing Chekov’s pistol in the very last sentence.

            The story moves spritely enough [pun intended] but there’s the immediate awareness that Miranda’s personality is preternaturally circumscribed, an example of arrested development. This characterization you underscore well with her flashes of jamais vu.

            Mab and Mephisto are fun. I don’t like Ferdinand.

            So, a snowbound weekend entertainingly spent and I look forward to Prospero in Hell.



          • Re: Expectations somewhat fulfilled

            Thanks so. When I decided it had to be more than one volume, I retooled the first book to come to a particular end…and then that end turned out to be too far in and I had to cut the book earlier. So, yes, it really doesn’t come to any kind of conclusion. Like many modern stories, it will be better when you can read all three at once rather than in parts.

            Glad to see that Miranda came across…and that Mab and Mephisto did their job of helping to make the story enjoyable until Miranda improves. (She does improve as the story goes along…but not in Book One. ;-)

            Prospero In Hell has gone into production, though I don’t think it will be out until this summer.


Comments are closed.