Friday, June 4, 2010

Reverse Engineering Stories

The theme runs throughout the story from beginning to end. When watching television shows, I’ve noticed that whatever issue is being handled in the A-plot is also being handled in the B-plot. If the character in the A-plot is having an argument with his wife, we may see a character in the B-plot having an argument with her boyfriend. I began to wonder about this because it seem like we might be able to work backwards from some of the things we see happening in the B-plot and discover where the A-plot is headed. That isn’t a problem unless by doing so we reveal too much.

Suppose that in our story a murder has taken place, but the reader doesn’t know who did it or why. In our B-plot, we reveal that the theme is about the importance of family. In our list of suspects we only have one person with a motive based around a family. In keeping with the theme, this person has to be the one to commit the crime. If the reader discovers this and has a rudimentary understanding of story structure, our killer is revealed.

This isn’t a reason to quit writing to a theme—quite the contrary. One of the best ways to hide our killer until we’re ready to reveal him is to give many people a motive that seems to fit with the theme and then reveal another motive at the end that fits with the theme but does so in an unexpected way. We could have a family fighting over an inheritance. All would have a motive to kill for the money, but in the end we may discover that the killer’s motive was to prevent the victim from using the money in a particular way, instead of because the killer needed the money. It’s no guarantee, but it might prevent the reader from discovering the end from our theme.