Writing Technique: Prep the Reader for Your Plot Twist and/or Make-Believe Element

Using a few techniques to prepare your reader for you plot twist or your make-believe element can draw your reader into your story, increase suspense, and create a huge emotional reaction in your reader.

I was probably three or four the first time I went to see Santa Claus. I remember looking up at this huge guy with a biker beard who was dressed in bright red and wanted me to sit on his lap. It did not go well. I freaked out and burst into tears. My mom had not prepped my preschool self appropriately for Santa Claus. Had I been told that Santa was the nice man responsible for filling my Christmas wish list, I might have been much more willing to sit in the guy’s lap.

The second time I visited Santa, I had experienced a Christmas where he had left me presents. I had seen Christmas movies about Santa and Rudolf. I was fully prepared to tell Santa my Christmas desires—without bursting into tears.

Sometimes, you just can’t throw a three-year-old on Santa’s lap without explaining who Santa is. In the same way, sometimes you need to prep your audience in order to get them to suspend disbelief in your make-believe elements. Drawing the reader in and leaving clues to your make-believe element is a great way to get your audience to press the I Believe Button. It works especially well in with genres such as paranormal, urban fantasy, and crossovers that are intended to grab a larger audience.

Prepping the reader can:

  • Create suspension of disbelief. A reader who might not like speculative fiction will be more willing to suspend disbelief because the clues were laid out for him first.
  • Build suspense. Prepping the reader creates suspense. Suspense, after all, is a form of tension, and tension turns pages. The unknown is a powerful tool for writers. It creates fear in readers that you can’t create by just throwing a monster at them. On that note, remember that…
  • Cause your reader to imagine the worst possible scenario. I’ve discovered this through my readers and the questions they would ask me about what might happen in the next book. So many times, I’ve thought, “Wow, that’s pretty scary. I didn’t even consider it.” Hiding your monster, villain, or ghost from the reader’s view will give your reader the chance to imagine something worse than you can dream up. (On that note, make sure the creature (or the secret world, etc.) lives up to the hype when you finally bring it out in the open.)
  • Make your reader continue to read. Curiosity can kill cats. Curiosity can also keep your reader interested in your story. What is causing the noise in the attic upstairs? What made the crop circles in the corn field? How did the books move across the table when no one is in the house? All of us want to know what’s going on.
  • Create an intense emotional response in the reader. I still get goose bumps up and down my arms when I watch the climactic scene in Signs, even though I’ve seen it many times. When the audience finally sees how the random cups of water, the asthma, and the dying wife’s cryptic messages of “Swing away” and “Tell Grant to see” finally come together and make sense, my emotional response is far stronger than if those clues were explained right away.

How to prep your audience:

  • Leave clues throughout the story. This is tricky. You need to leave enough clues so that your end result makes sense, but not too many. You don’t want your audience to guess where you’re heading and call your story “predictable.” You want your audience to experience what I call “The double ‘Oh’ moment.” Oh #1: What your reader says—with surprise—when you reveal your secret. Oh #2 = What your reader says when he realizes the clues where there all along.
  • Use sensory details as much as possible. I cannot stress the importance of sensory details enough. Make sure your readers feel your story. It will 1) emotionally draw them in and 2) make them suspend disbelief.
  • Make sure your characters react realistically to the clues. If your clues aren’t strong enough to elicit an emotional reaction from your characters, don’t force it. Likewise, if your character should react a certain way—say, by running away from the growling noise in the basement instead going down the stairs to investigate because you need her too, your audience won’t buy it. Instead they’ll make a spoof off of it and post it on YouTube. (Worse yet, they’ll make up an excuse to create another movie in the Scary Movie series. For the love of good cinema, watch your character’s reactions!)
  • Hide your creature/villain/surprise for as long as possible. This can create terror in your reader. It can also create wonder and awe. If your surprise fantasy creature is a unicorn, your audience’s reaction to finally seeing will be stronger if you hold off on revealing it. (Ooh, this sounds like a good story. I’m so writing this.)
  • Make sure your clues are researched. I’m eventually going to write a YA novel about a werewolf. I’ve studied werewolf legends, and I’ve also researched predatory activity in Sylva, North Carolina—the story’s setting. Turns out, they have just released red wolves back into the Smokey Mountains. Guess what I’m going to be bringing up and exploiting in the story? Red wolves. Did they kill whatever my werewolves will kill? No. Will they be blamed? Yes. Will it cause controversy? Yep. Will my clues be researched? Yep.

What to take from this: If you execute it properly, you can get even non-fantasy readers to suspend disbelief in your make-believe world and enjoy your story. The key: prepping them for your make-believe elements.

Mainstream writers: You might not drop the “It was aliens” bomb on your reader, but you may have a plot twist at the end of your story. Make sure to prep your reader for your twist. The reader doesn’t need to be able to guess whodunit, but he does need to be able to reread the story and pick up on all the clues he missed the first time.

Speculative writers: Our biggest mistakes in this area will involve 1) inappropriate character reactions to our clues, 2) failure to live up to the hype we’ve created, and 3) showing the make-believe element too soon. Pay careful attention to these issues.

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.” Thanks for stopping by!

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

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About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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