Still Stuck? How To Unstick Your Unmotivated Writer’s Brain And WRITE

burned out womanSometimes a story gets stuck. That sucks, because we’re the ones who drove into the tree, but it happens. (This is not a post about that.)

 

When the story is fine but the writer is stuck, that’s different. That’s a mental thing, or an organization thing, or whatever, but if you are stuck and unhappy about it, here’s another method to re-engage your motivation.

 

BTW, if you have read my other piece about this and NOT tried EVERY solution offered, DO NOT complain that you are still stuck. You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

 

1 finish line c
You’ll get there.

First, don’t worry about “finishing” the story. That’s a thought too big for your unmotivated brain right now, like trying to swallow your whole Thanksgiving dinner in one bite.

 

Instead, let’s work in reverse.

 

(Ooh, math. Already, writing your story sounds good, doesn’t it? You’re welcome.)

 

How many chapters do you estimate you have to go to finish the story? I used about 1 chapter per plot point.

How many words per chapter? I use about 3000.

How long does it take to write a chapter? That depends, but you know and I don’t, for you. Using me, I’d say 3 days per chapter DEPENDING on if I have some plot points I have to work out or logic problems, etc.

 

In my fantasy romance story, The Water Castle, if Philip marries Gina and stays in Florida, he dies a year later in an Indian raid. If he doesn’t marry her and goes back to Spain, he lives. What was the option if he didn’t marry her and stayed in Florida? Oops. I guess I’d better make Spain mandatory. But then he’d live regardless. Oops. So he ONLY stays if he marries her, otherwise he has to go back. Staying is defiance. Okay. And she can’t go with him to Spain? Oops. Nope, I guess not.

 

See? All that thinking will stop the writing!

 

woman-stressed-pulling-hair-out

Anyway, if I have 6 plot points remaining (Philip has the meeting, Philip goes back to castle, Gina sees the book, Gina breaks up with Philip, Gina and her mom reconcile, Philip leaves, that’s about it.) 6 plot points. None of those is probably a whole chapter but let’s say they are.

 

6 “chapters” x 3000 words per chapter, at 2 chapters a week for normal speed = 3 weeks until I’m finished. (Again, your mileage may vary)

 

Add 50% to 100% for holiday interference and I’d say 6 weeks. Six weeks from now is, what, early January?

 

Okay, now I have to decide WHEN I’m going to write. (If you do not have a set writing time, there are ways to find time and schedule time HERE and HERE) For me, it’s usually 4am to 6am, plus 1 hour in the early evening and a few after dinner evenings, plus 3 hours on Sunday morning and 3 hours on Saturday afternoon, plus ALL DAY BLACK FRIDAY. Otherwise, whenever I can, since holidays mess things up.abacus

 

* Crunches numbers *

 

Yes, I can meet that January 7 deadline.

 

Now, if I finish before January 7, I will feel really good, but just knowing January 7 is when it’ll likely be finished, that’s GREAT. All I have to do is ensure I get my 2 hours in each morning.

 

Walk through that exercise for yourself. Be realistic, not ambitious. You’re not going to become SuperAuthor just because you wrote down some numbers.

 

Break down the numbers and have a weekly goal, with a daily estimate. A weekly goal might be 6,000 words but there will be days when I don’t write 1000. Maybe I’m rereading or reviewing – and my critique partners can usually tell when I haven’t. So I’ll go for a weekly goal but after 2 weeks if I’m only hitting 4000 words a week, guess what? REVISE THE DEADLINE or increase the weekly word production, or both.

 

0 punch
Don’t do that.

Right now, you’re beating yourself. I’d adjust the deadline. If that means March 31 and I hate it being that far away, I’ll get motivated – but the idea is to have a system to get where you want to go because right now you are NOT getting there without a system right now, are you? The system you’re using ain’t getting it done!

 

THEN take your plot points and list them:

Philip has the meeting,

Philip goes back to castle,

Gina sees the book,

Gina breaks up with Philip,

Gina and her mom reconcile,

Philip orders castle destroyed and leaves

 

Then take your favorite one and tell in 1 paragraph what happens in that part, or why it’s your favorite. Just sum it up. A few sentences may be enough, but feel free to explain the intricacies or details you want to hit.

 

Then, do that for the other points.

 

o spark
Feeling it yet?

Even if you wrote one paragraph for each of 6 plot points, you’d have written probably 1000 – 1500 words, and probably re-sparked your interest in your story. I defy you to write 1000 words on a story you love and NOT get restarted on it. But if you don’t, then set it aside and start something new. Maybe short stories or Flash Fiction challenges.

 

Me, I’d FORCE myself to write if I had to. I have written and discarded tens of thousands of words for The Water Castle. There have been a few strolls down interesting paths before the big ending that were later discarded. There was supposed to be a big dragon chase that evaporated. It’s all clay until it’s baked into a pot.

 

HappyChild_large
Me! Me! Me!

But if the story has left you, it’s okay to dance with a new story – as long as you don’t marry the new story. You don’t need 20 stories lying around that are half finished (and if you DO have 20 half-finished stories laying around, consider partnering up with others to finish them. Co-authors. Give ‘em your outline and notes and publish the thing, then split the royalties.)

 

They say if you have to wait for a muse, you’re a not a writer, you’re a waiter. Do you want that? How does that feel, to say that about yourself? You don’t want that.

 

Nobody wants that.

 

That’s why Hemingway said bite the nail every day and write. (Although he did shoot himself.) Sometimes it’s work. Build those writer muscles so next time it’ll be easier! You are not a quitter!

 

AB19725
You’ll get there!

I think breaking it down this way will help you see what you want to work on. You know what happens in the story; you just need to get it down. Also, as the end gets close, it’s hard to finish, so don’t let that get in the way. Finishing is difficult the first few times. You’ll be sitting there wondering if you tied up all the loose ends. Don’t. Just finish it. THEN worry about that stuff. Because clay. You can add to your story or change it. You can’t edit a blank page.

 

Write SOMETHING EVERY DAY, or even just reread a favorite part of the story. Do these exercises. Pretty soon the old fun feeling will be back.

 

And you’ll be writing again!

 

If YOU have ever been stuck, what worked for you? Tell us!

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Dan's pic
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Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Hit the Contact Me button and I’ll see what I can do. (I have lots of smart friends.)

 

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works. 

How To Get Past The Tricky Spot In Your Story

Remember when writing was fun?
Remember when writing was fun?

We all occasionally reach a spot in the story where we don’t know what to do, how to get the characters past a certain obstacle.

If it lasts a while, people call it writer’s block. So don’t let it last.

In Poggibonsi, the tricky spot was trying to think up a way for Mike’s wife to take him back after he cheated on her. I was stuck for a long time on that. There was no rational reason for her to do it, and yet I know lots of spouses forgive a cheating husband or wife. But I couldn’t think of what that conversation went like or how he’d earn her trust back.

In The Water castle, we have a big confrontation with several characters and a resolution need to be created. Gina’s mom finally goes to help Gina and… what, exactly?

Something will come to me.
Something will come to me.

Beats me!

Similarly, Jenny was stuck on her big battle scene, so I rolled out these two examples for her, as I am for you, because she thought she had to solve the problem alone and that nobody else has these issues. Certainly not real authors with actual books being sold.

Ha!

But, okay, we all have those issues on occasion. What do we do about them?

Usually by telling somebody – in this case Jenny, one of my critique partners – about the problem, I have to clarify things so they can understand. That helps me clarify things for myself. So, simply by explaining the problem to another person, it unravels the mystery to my own brain.

I have a hundred ideas and they all suck!
I have a hundred ideas and they all suck!

And by doing that, I almost always have a few ideas of where things might head, and why they can’t head that way.

Then, lo and behold, as I walk them through my dilemmas, usually one answer remains as the only plausible path. And my dilemma is no more.

Other times, I am hearing the problem from a fellow author and I’m providing suggestions. They may not take any of my ideas, but the sheer act of rejecting solutions kind of implies to their own brain that they have something better. Certainly they have a better feel for their story. And just as often, an answer is derived.

It always does!
It always does!

It’s like in Shakespeare In Love, when Geoffrey Rush’s character (Philip Henslowe) spoke with Hugh Fennyman, the money lender for the play. The sponsor asked how all the issues would be surmounted and the play could open, and Henslowe basically said, “I don’t know, but it always does.”

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Hugh Fennyman: How?

Philip Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

That’s my answer.

Talk the problem out with another author. An answer will present itself.

I don’t know how, but it always does.

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Your humble host.
Your humble host.

REBLOG me! Or SHARE this post on Facebook and Twitter! See those little buttons down below? Put on your glasses. There they are. Click them. The FOLLOW button is now in the lower right hand corner.

Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Hit the Contact Me button and I’ll see what I can do. (I have lots of smart friends.)

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.

I Can’t Finish My Story! Failure To Launch, a (common) writer nightmare

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

Occasionally a writer reaches out and laments about a writerly problem. Here’s one I received recently that I think is fairly common.

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Dear Dan,

I recently realized that my writing has slowed to a standstill, not because I’m busy, but because I’m terrified to finish.

Help.

Scared Storyteller

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Dear Storyteller,

It’s not uncommon to see the finish line and suddenly become… intimidated.

Truman Capote said finishing a story is like taking your child out in the back yard and shooting it.

Oh yes he did
Oh yes he did

See?

Why is that?

Why do so many writers get so far along and then not finish?

I think the reason(s) is basically simple. First of all, a lot of people get a great idea for a story, but once they get that idea down – Oh, wouldn’t it be neat if the Easter Bunny murdered Santa Claus? So they set up the murder, and the rabbit whacks the fat guy!

And then they’re sitting there thinking… Now what?

Yeah. No idea.

(Recently we discussed ways to find more time to write, HERE

Didn't happen
Awesome dragon hunt? Didn’t happen.

Or a writer decides they’re going to have a big dragon hunt and their critique partner says no dragon cos it doesn’t fit in the world you constructed. And then you’re sitting there saying, okay, no dragon, no dragon hunt… Now what?

And some people just plain old get stuck. They have an idea but they don’t have a story. Big, big, BIG difference. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends. Ideas – maybe not!

Other writers get stuck in what’s called the mushy middle. They have a beginning: Easter Bunny intends to kill Santa Claus over a long standing feud about candy. They have a great ending: Easter Bunny and Santa reconcile and Santa is not killed.

But they don’t have a middle – known as a big part of the story – and they can’t figure out how to go connect the dots to make it happen. THAT one’s a BIG “now what.”

I'm a pantser. Something will come to me.
I’m a pantser. Something will come to me.

But I believe far away the biggest reason real writers don’t finish a story is: once you get close to the end, you begin to lose your identity.

You have been spending time with these characters. You know them. You look forward to seeing them each day and you wonder what kind of funny things you can have them do or what interesting situations they’re going to get into or what new romance is right around the corner…

Shutting that door and walking away is tragic!

It’s extremely difficult!

And while I think Truman was a little over the top with his infanticide reference, finishing a story – and the fear of what waits on the other side – it is a lot like graduating high school not seeing all your friends anymore, or leaving a fun job where we had a lot of friends and going to a new job we don’t know anybody.

Introvert viewing a new workplace.
Introvert viewing a new workplace.

Graduating college, my world became very different. Bosses expected me to show up every morning and know things. There were no noon classes, it was 8am every day, butts in seats. And within 18 months, I moved across the state to take a different job, so I didn’t know anybody. I struggled for a while.

Finishing your story can be like that. It’s a big change

It’s the unknown, and people are like rightly afraid of that. You knew every day what was going to happen with your characters and now, sadly, that is going to stop.

Personally, I think that’s why a lot of sequels and trilogies get written (even when they shouldn’t). They can’t walk away from the characters, so they don’t. And only a few stories deserve trilogies. A few.

To contrast, the great John Belushi once said no sequels. And he was right, too.

There’s nothing wrong with a trilogy, but most the time one book will do it. Think of movies and think of sequels, and almost never – almost never – is the sequel (or the third or fourth) as good as the first.

The original and different and exciting. It’s usually best if we leave it that way. But…

I DID have that idea about the Santa murder...
I DID have that idea about the Santa murder…

I also believe that your ONE BIG STORY is not the only one great story you’re ever going to have!

Finishing it and setting it aside allows you get on to your next story, which will probably be even better. Do you know how I know? Because I was in the same boat. I was finishing a story and I was scared to death of what was gonna happen. I was rushing to finish because I was so excited about my story, and then it was done – and I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed a few days off, basking in the glow, knowing I’d written my best work ever, and then I became borderline depressed. Well, depressed for me, anyway, which means I was sad for a few hours. (Okay, maybe the better part of a day.)

So I get it.

And then I went on to write what most people regard as my best work ever.

Shameless plug for upcoming book.
Shameless plug for upcoming book.

And then I stretched those writer muscles and wrote another one. It’s pretty darned good, too. It has flashes of brilliance, honest.

You can do that, too.

Writers, you are NOT alone. You may be the only one typing the words of your story, but there are plenty of helpful hands patting you in the back or helping you back on your feet – or feet kicking you in the butt if necessary.

Finish your book! The NEXT great story awaits, and you can’t write that one while you’re fiddling around with this one!

Don’t be afraid to ask a friend for a suggestion. I’ve done that, on the giving end AND the receiving end. Collaborate. Ask for ideas. As soon as you hear the shitty stuff your friends come up with, an amazing idea will pop into your head.

Thumbs Up
Novellas rock!

You have short stories and blog posts you’ve wanted to do, and that will fill the void.

And then one day a pretty girl will sit across from you on a train and you’ll say, Hmm… and an amazing story will start flowing through your fingers into the keyboard.

You can do it. Writing takes a brave spirit. So does finishing.

Be brave. Your next great story is in there dying to get out. Let it.

What are some of YOUR tips to finish or experiences near the finish line?

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Your humble host.
Your humble host.

REBLOG me! Or SHARE this post on Facebook and Twitter! See those little buttons down below? Put on your glasses. There they are. Click them. The FOLLOW button is now in the lower right hand corner.

Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Hit the Contact Me button and I’ll see what I can do. (I have lots of smart friends.)

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.

Endurance: Don’t Quit =/= Never Take Breaks

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

A critique partner and friend recently noted that I’m looking even more prolific the past few days, putting out a few chapters of my story for inquiring eyes at the critique website.

Kinda sorta.

Now, you know I am a BIG advocate of WRITE EVERY DAY, but I recognized something that you need to know as the holidays approach (you’ll finish the big battle scene over Christmas break, right Jenny?) or as you transition into a new job (several of you) where you’ll have more writing time.

Currently, I am in the middle of a two week span where my wife is traveling for work Monday through Friday, and since our young daughter can’t tell time yet and has been fighting a minor cold… I can stick the little one in bed as soon as the sun goes down (6:30pm) and I have LOTS of time to write! Zero family time requirements!

Stop looking at me.

Gone, just like that.
Gone, just like that.

Also, since my wife vetoed the inclusion of the witch in my current WIP turning into a dragon and escaping, I saved about 30,000 words (maybe) about a big dragon hunt.

I do miss my dragon, but that deletion allowed me to realize that… MY STORY WAS ALMOST DONE!

I’m like, wait, if there’s no dragon hunt, then this comes next, and that, and that, and… I’m finished!

I was like, I might be able to finish this story during the two weeks my wife is gone!

(Love you, honey! Miss you! XOXO!)

And what are markers? Not felt pens? Where is all this explained???
And what are markers? Not felt pens? Where is all this explained???

Of course, I’m midway through that fourteen day span now, and I’m not sure the whole “finish the story in two weeks” thing will happen at all, but a few days ago it seemed possible. Because getting the kid up and dressed and fed and to school on time – and oh, homework (what is with this Common Core shit? I am totally lost. Add the objects and put the markers in the five frame? What the fuck is a five frame???), pick her up after school and eat dinner (I won’t lie there, it was ALL fast food and junk. Cheetos for breakfast. Stop looking at me. I’m usually the one forcing her to eat the carrots and green beans, okay? Just, you know… not this week.)

I was actually thinking about this yesterday, saying if I had 5 straight hours a day, or possibly six, times at least 10 days, plus my usual writing time on weekends (thank you, dance class) would I be able to get the book finished? That’s a lot of uninterrupted writing time, and as the end of the story nears, I get excited and want to write more anyway.

or a big mug of beer since I didn't have a picture of a bucket
or a big mug of beer since I didn’t have a picture of a bucket

And at first I thought yes, but as I went along each day I thought maybe not, but I couldn’t understand why. It was like a bucket got dumped out and needed time to fill back up.

To be crude, I actually thought it was like sex. Feel free to skip down a paragraph to protect your sensibilities. Every guy can certainly have an “O” once a day every day for a week, no problem; but trying to have seven in a row, more or less back to back, while certainly possible and with the right partner and stimulation I am willing to try, after about number three he just wouldn’t be, you know… delivering much, and by number seven maybe not anything at all. Certainly not like the first one. Most of you readers are ladies; feel free to sympathize with this dilemma.

Okay, it’s safe to start reading again, you innocent ones. And I thought the bucket analogy would be better than the sex analogy, but the sex one actually came to me first.

Must... finish... story!
Must… finish… story!

Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t still knock out my story, but I ended up pacing myself a little more, or actually allowing myself to recuperate more between writing sessions. But like working out and building a muscle (or having sex, I guess) if it’s fun and you enjoy it, you can build up your writing endurance. That… actually sounds like I’m still talking about sex stuff. I’m not, honest.

Probably the discipline analogy applies more to building muscles, but the sex analogy applies to the fun of doing the writing. The more you do, the more you are capable of doing. The longer you go, the longer you are able to go. Yeah, it all sounds like sex stuff now doesn’t it? Sorry. I shouldn’t have gone there. Try to keep your filthy mind out of the gutter.

These are probably habits that can be developed like anything else, and I’m not sure I realized that until this week.

Maybe not this much, but you get the idea.
Maybe not this much, but you get the idea.

First, realize that writing drains you! Emotionally, creatively, maybe physically. I mean, typing isn’t super exerting, but thinking and rereading and hovering over the keyboard, you might get a sore back or a headache. But when you run through an amazingly creative idea and pursue it to its end, you may need time to think up and develop the next idea for the story, or to properly smooth out the transitions, even when you’re “in the zone.”

Which is kinda DUH, of course, but I hadn’t thought about it because my writing time, like yours, is usually limited.

BUT!

Like muscles or habits, we can build them up over time. Monday, I wrote for about six hours. Six glorious, uninterrupted, creative hours. It was pure genius, flowing from my brain through my fingertips to the computer. Tuesday, I wrote a little less, but I was like: Do it! You may never get a chance like this again! They’ll teach her how to tell time in school eventually, and daylight savings time will rear its ugly head again one day! Write! Wriiiiiiiite!!!

Um, where was I?

Oh yeah, habits and endurance.

Well, maybe that last one...
I get up at 4am to write. All my author friends hate me.

So while we have all probably created some cute little writer-ey habits, like you always squeeze in an hour for your blog after dinner on Thursdays, or how you get up an hour early to work on your novel, or how each night before bedtime I read by the fireplace to my adoring daughter (it could happen), we have to realize we can add to that writing muscles and increase our endurance.

Just as breaks are necessary for the body to rebuild the fatigued muscles, increasing the weight we’re lifting allows us to eventually add more weight. So writing a little more each day will allow us to be capable of writing more each day.

To find the time for that, check out my other posts where we discuss how to find time to write, HERE and HERE.

But when you have that time, use it, and be prepared to increase the endurance. Because after lifting 20 lbs all week, lifting 10 is easy-peasy. So you can lift your 10 faster, get more reps in, whatever.

or going crazy because relatives visit and the kids are out of school
or going crazy because relatives visit and the kids are out of school

If you get the time to write more, which a lot of us do over the holidays or as we change jobs to a more writing-friendly scenario – and you’re all trying to do that, I know – realize there will be a lag time, a learning curve, to your new situation. Allow yourself time to adjust to the new schedule and don’t expect to go at it 8 hours a day every day from the jump. It may take a week or more to build your endurance up to being able to write four or eight hours every day.

And it may be incredibly hard not feeling guilty while you don’t write each hour of your new schedule. Don’t! No guilt!

Give yourself the time to build up to it. If you were trying to run a mile and hadn’t ever run further than to the fridge during a commercial TV break, your spouse wouldn’t expect the Boston Marathon on Friday. You won’t run a mile today and again tomorrow and again the next day. You have to build up to it, so run a half mile or a quarter mile or maybe just 100 yards today, and probably not even that much tomorrow, but as you stay after it, you’ll be hitting a mile or more soon enough.

I wrote all these over Christmas break. Oh, you gained 5 lbs and made cookies? YOU ROCK!
I wrote all these over Christmas break. Oh, you gained 5 lbs and made cookies? YOU ROCK!

Only you can tell what’s enough, so give yourself what you need as the holidays or new job approach, and don’t set unrealistic expectations, but as you reach success with your goals, brag about it! To us and everyone who’ll listen – which won’t be your family and friends because they have no idea if 3000 words in a day is good or not. So tell us. We get it.

I wrote this for you because I needed to grieve for my deleted dragon, and also because I needed a break from my awesome WIP. Now I’m warmed up and ready to bang out another marathon session. And we finally got past it sounding like weird sex talk… right until that last line. Darn. So close.

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Your humble host.
Your humble host.

REBLOG me! Or SHARE this post on Facebook and Twitter! See those little buttons down below? Put on your glasses. There they are. Click them. The FOLLOW button is now in the lower right hand corner.

Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Hit the Contact Me button and I’ll see what I can do. (I have lots of smart friends.)

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Click HERE to check out his other works.

3 Steps To Writing An Effective PLOT TWIST

You know how it is when you’re finishing a book and you are certain that with just one more day it’ll be done? So you blow everything off and three days later you’re still insisting you’re just one day away? That’s what happened, so Allison wrote today’s post.

Enjoy! (And thanks, Allison!!)

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Plot twists are my favorite things to write. Because they make me feel like this:

Insert evil laughter here.
Insert evil laughter here.

Plot twists are all about defying readers’ expectations. They don’t necessarily have to be gruesome or so shocking your readers pass out. They just have to take the expected course of the narrative and turn it in an unexpected way.

(To check out some of Allison’s many other brilliant blog posts, CLICK HERE – Dan)

As I prepare a blog post, I Google the topic to see what’s already been said. Unlike dramatic irony, quite a bit has been said about plot twists. There are many ways to write twists and many different kinds of twists. Definitely check those out. I’m adding my two cents because 1. I love to write them, and 2. People say I’m good at writing them.

So I thought I’d share my process for writing a twist. To illustrate, I’ll use a short story I posted recently called Final Theft.

Step 1: Set it up

Twists rarely come out of nowhere, and when they do they’re meant for shock value. Use un-set up twists (like suddenly killing your MC) sparingly for two reasons: 1. Using them repeatedly would be annoying, and 2. Readers just won’t trust you anymore. They’ll think you depend on shock to keep a story going, and of course being the masterful storyteller that you are, you don’t need to fall back on shock value.

Setting up a twist can be as simple as inserting a character name, action, or conversation. It can be a bit of back story or a nugget of information that may seem extraneous at the time. You may have to go back and add some setup to justify your twist (as I often have to). See if you can pick out my first setup in the story:

I stand on the blackened patch at the center of the crumbling structure, eyeing the fluttering gold aspen leaves through the hole in the roof. The gap has grown since I last saw it, and a few new windows to the forest outside have formed in the walls. I guess things change when you ignore them for so many years.

The dirt crunches under my shoes as I step outside. The cool October wind meets my naked arms. I’d forgotten a jacket was required around here this time of year. I stuff my hands into the pockets of my jeans, but that doesn’t keep goosebumps from forming on my prison tats. I glance back at the old building – Manny thought it was a church at one point. By the time we found it, it was good for little more than building a fire in the middle of the floor and smoking pot. That, and anything else we could find to smoke. It was the only time we didn’t feel like crap.

Come on, man, this isn’t cool. She’s our grandma.

I shake my head at the memory of my cousin’s words as the cabin comes into view.

Did you catch it? Don’t worry if you didn’t. I sprinkled a few more clues before the twist at the end, so you’ll get another shot.

Step 2: Anticipate expectations

Ask yourself this: What would most people expect in this given situation? If you’ve read a lot of other stories, you have a good idea of where a narrative like yours will naturally lead. Figure that out, and then throw it away.

Read the next chunk of the story, and I’ll ask a question at the end.

It looks like shit. I guess that happens after five years of neglect. No one bothered to clean out the place when Nana died. If I hadn’t been locked up at the time, I would have done it. But only because I know there’s something inside worth finding.

How could you?

I’m sorry, Nana. I needed it.

My grandmother gave me that necklace. It was priceless.

Her words sounded different through that phone they put on the other side of the plastic divider.

If she knew how many priceless items I’d pilfered, she wouldn’t have visited me.

I kick the door, and it opens into the darkened front room. The couch is still there – a pink relic of the 1950s. It was old when I visited as a teenager – a young man, really. Legally old enough to be charged as an adult.

A coating of dirt obscures the cushions.

I guess the broken window above it didn’t protect like it once did.

Promise me something.

What?

Don’t steal again, and give up the drugs, and I’ll request leniency in your sentencing. Manny’s been so sick. I don’t need this stress.

I did promise, but burglarizing her place was only part of the picture.

Besides, it’s not like she’ll miss what I plan to take. Is it stealing if the victim is dead?

Here’s the question: What do you expect he’ll find?

Life experience and the plots of countless movies, TV shows, and books lead us to expect jewels, money, or some other kind of valuable. So those obviously won’t do for twist purposes.

Oh, there was another setup clue in that chunk. Did you catch it?

Step 3: Withhold the twist until the last possible moment. 

I don’t mean all twists must occur at the end of the story (though many do). They can happen anywhere. What I mean is, keep any information that may spoil the twist from the reader until the story absolutely requires it. I’ve found the best twists are those that allow the reader to discover the truth right along with the character. Revelations are made in real time. It’s even better if the reader is a hair ahead of the character, because they’ll read on to see if their prediction is correct.

Remember what you guessed our MC would find in Grandma’s cabin? Hang on to that, because we’re going for a ride.

I enter her bedroom and wiggle the floorboards. Which one was it?

Nana, what are you doing? What’s in that box?

I’d left it when I pulled the job. Thought she wouldn’t suspect me, since she knew I’d seen her hide it.

Oh, it’s nothing, dear. Just some personal treasures.

The fifth board I try gives, and I lift it.

The space beneath is empty. I reach in and wave my arm under the floor.

The back of my hand bumps something.

I grasp it and pull it through the hole. It’s a small white box, held closed by a metal clasp, like the jewelry box my sister had in her room.

I look closer. This is Marcella’s box.

If I’m right, all that will be inside is a ballerina that twirls, not the treasures Nana said she kept.

Marcella died when I was twelve, around the same time I found Nana hiding this under the floor. Maybe she just wanted something personal, something her granddaughter loved. Maybe I should let it be.

I stare at it, then flick open the latch and lift the lid.

The ballerina is buried by a cloth. I remove it, and a small glass bottle with no label tumbles out and onto the floor, rolling across the wood. It looks like medicine. Makes sense. Marcella, Manny and I seemed to always be sick when we visited. Bad luck, Nana would say. Just like my dad when he was little. Sick all the time.

But why would Nana hide it?

I open the bottle and sniff. The acrid smell turns my stomach. It reminds me of lying in bed, wishing I could hike through the woods to the cave, like the kids down the road.

I cover the bottle’s opening and tip it. A coating of clear liquid covers my finger. I bring it to my mouth as a lump forms in my throat.

I wipe the liquid on my jeans. I can’t taste it. That shit made me sick for years. All the food and drink Nana prepared smelled like this. She’d said my taste was off from my illness.

The illness Manny and Marcella also suffered. The same one that ended up taking Marcella’s life.

I stare at the bottle in one hand and the cloth in the other.

Nana didn’t hide treasure. She hid evidence.

I replace the bottle and the box, leaving everything as I’d found them.

I guess I should keep my promises.

The character didn’t figure it out until the third line from the end. Did you figure it out sooner?

Of course, I could have planted the twist in another way. Maybe Manny was waiting for our guy in the cabin. Or maybe it was all a dream! (I offer that last one ironically – don’t write an “it was all a dream” twist. Just don’t.)

Bestselling Author and friend Allison Maruska
Bestselling Author and friend Allison Maruska

As I conclude, I remember two of the most famous twists ever created: those from The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects. Yes, they were surprising (as all twists should be), but the reason they worked is the viewers could look back and see all the clues. Everything in the story lead to the moment the twist was revealed, and anyone watching went, “But of course!”

What are some of your favorite twists?  

I Lost My Dragon

This is NOT my dragon.
This is NOT my dragon.

OK so I’m writing this fantasy story, right? And it’s cruising along, I’m doing great; everything is going great. It’s really flowing.

(Recently we discussed ways to be extra productive HERE)

And I had – very early on – I thought: what’s a fantasy? You want to have a castle and a prince and a knight in shining armor… a witch and a sorcerer…

And I thought, oh! Maybe a dragon!

So, time goes by and I’m 60,000 words into it now. I have the romance angle for the story and I have all these great plot twists, and I mentioned to my Critique Partner (yes, it was Allison) that when they go to burn the witch at the stake, she’s going to turn into a dragon and fly way.

Great right? Plot twist! Who’d see that coming?

Also not my dragon
Also not my dragon

I even set it up with a talk about The Inquisition and how they used to burn witches and sorcerers at the stake but that it was BS, that they really just burned dissidents at the stake and uppity folks; heretics and women who could read. Heck, they pretty much burned anybody at the stake. If they were bored on a Friday night, they’d be like, “Hey, yonder cometh Silas; friend, who can we burn?” And Silas was all like, “Ye know what? Nathan hath been bugging me lately…”

It’s how they rolled.

STILL not my dragon
STILL not my dragon

So I thought great, we will have a scene where a witch goes to get burned at the stake and instead she conjures up a magic spell and turns into a dragon and flies away.

Now, I am all set. Plotter. I got my Dragon subplot. I got everything.

I mention this to my critique partner who says, “Well you may lose some people there, with that turning into a dragon thing.” (Again, it was Allison. There’s a dragon in her story – that new Drake And The Fliers thing. She gets to keep her dragon, but I don’t get to keep mine.)

But she is a trusted CP so when she said having people suddenly turn into dragons was not consistent with the world I’d created in my story, I thought: Hmm…

So I mentioned the idea to my wife. “At the last second, as the witch is getting burned at the stake, she turns into a dragon and torches her torchers!”

I could TOTALLY see the scene in my head!
I could TOTALLY see the scene in my head!

Crickets.

My wife scrunched up her nose – you know, she gave me that look, the wife look.

And I thought: Hmm…

So… maybe nobody turns into a dragon in my story.

Okay….

And then what?

And then nothing, because I was gonna have this whole part where they chase the dragon and hunt it down… and now I don’t have a dragon. I was gonna have like 30,000 more words in the story, but now that it’s dragon-free, it’s…. it’s…

It’s almost finished.

Because there’s no goddamn Dragon.

THIS is my dragon. and my soul
THIS is my dragon.
and my soul

Oh, and in deference to Emily, there’s no ball with frilly dresses, either!

(Well, there is, but it gets messed up, and, well, I don’t want to give too much away, but they probably burn somebody at the stake over it.)

So, no dance, no Dragon, no extra 30,000 words in my story.

And like I said, that means it’s basically almost finished. Which means if I was smart I would jump on that horse and ride and finish the story.

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

So I won’t be around that much this week because I’m gonna jump on that horse and ride and finish the story!

Wish me luck.

Actually, wish me a dragon. I really liked the Dragon part.