Friday, June 4, 2010

Over the Top

Okay, back to the Over the Top dilemma. We want dramatic events, and we want plot twists, and we want the unexpected in our stories. So how do we do that so the reader gasps not scoffs?

"Wow, awesome!" not "Huh. That could never happen."

What do you all think? What will work to make an Over the Top event feel right if surprising?

You know, I think placement of the event matters. In the opening few chapters, the reader won't be so disconcerted with OTT events. She doesn't really know this universe (of the book, I mean) so she can't really judge if, you know, the sudden appearance of a spaceship in the school courtyard is impossible. And she doesn't know the characters well, so who knows? Maybe Auntie Beth really is the queen of England. But later in the book, when she knows more about this universe and characters, she might not be so forgiving of incongruous events. She has more ability maybe to judge whether this fits the story and characters.

Okay, let me give some examples of OTT events I've seen in submissions and books and TV shows:

Heroine and hero finally get back together (that's not the OTT :) after a long separation. They're about to go to the courthouse for a marriage license when she's suddenly kidnapped by Colombian drug lords.
This was OTT for me because never before in the story was there any reference to Colombian drug lords, or any reason why they'd kidnap her. They just came out of nowhere.
So what would make it exciting and shocking, but not OTT? Well, I think if she had some connection to Colombian druglords, like she was a Miami reporter who had written articles about the drug trade. Or she was from Colombia. I don't think I'd need a full explanation-- there's no shock if the possibility of this event is previewed explicitly-- just an actual connection set up BEFORE.

Halfway through the story, the teenaged hero gets a visitation from a lawyer, and it turns out he's the heir to a huge fortune from his birth family.
I guess if there was some talk earlier in the book about him being adopted, it wouldn't seem out of the blue. Also, if this event happened earlier in the book, it might seem like a conflict and not so much a resolution of conflict. That is, something early in the book, we automatically assume is a conflict, just because, well, the first chapters usually set up the conflict. So we as readers are trained to think that even a good thing that happens in Chapter 2 is probably going to cause unanticipated problems.

1) Set things up. If you want to have this be a surprise, you still should set it up, maybe just a piece of it (he's adopted) slid in early on. That will keep the surprise (heir to huge fortune) surprising, while also making it believable.
2) Early over-the-topness is more acceptable than late. Late OTTness might seem too much like a deus ex machina, a magical way to hype up the conflict or resolve the plot.
3) Coincidence or OTT that causes rather than resolves conflict will be more fun.

Other suggestions?


Linda Maye Adams said...

Limit yourself also to one of these elements and make it as believable as possible. I was reading David Gerrold's Worlds of Wonder, and he talks about this--it's particularly an issue in science fiction and fantasy (there's a term for it, but it eludes me at the moment--coined by Arthur C. Clarke).

I'm also reminded of a writer who fussed about thrillers, where you might have OTT elements as part of the story. She was wondering why writers would choose to write something that wasn't believable. My comment was that the writer made it believable in the world of the book. Sure, there are some elements that aren't true in the real world, but the writer built the book's world to make those credible. It wasn't just a matter of tossing an element in, but taking the time to develop it.

Never use it to solve a problem that's hard to solve. A book went OTT for me because the writer needed the bad guys to get into a high security facility. Solution? The guards at the high security facility were stupid. Not just a little stupid, but "Why were you hired in the first place?" stupid. Shortcuts will always look like what they are!

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think you're right-- often these are "shortcuts", meant to get out of some plotting problem.

I think identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, so I wonder if instead of going "over the top", we ought to think, "How can I make this plausible?"

Anonymous said...

This is Miss Snark's "aliens in chapter 17" beef.