Tag Archives: Plot

How to Use Plot Spoilers in a Story

26 Aug
Sean Ennis' debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Sean Ennis’ debut story collection, Chase Us, follows the lives of boys living on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. The novelist Paul Murray actually did this with the title of his book: Skippy Dies. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did Skippy die? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work?

Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase.” It was included in his collection of linked stories Chase Us, and you can read it now at The Good Men Project.

How the Story Works

The first seven words of the story give away the ending: “The night Roger was beaten to death.” That’s the plot spoiler. A lesser story might depend on that spoiler alone to generate suspense. After all, it’s a powerful statement: Roger wasn’t killed but beaten to death. It’s natural for the reader to want to know what happened. Who was Roger? How did he arrive at such an awful ending?

But those seven words are just the beginning of passage that build suspense in a variety of ways. Here are the first two paragraphs in their entirety:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time.

The initial pulse of suspense comes from “beaten to death,” but that suspense is heightened by the incongruity and mystery of what comes next: “I was out there running, too.” What does this mean? Running away? But what about that word too? He was running with Roger? The sentence makes perfect grammatical sense but leaves a great deal unclear in terms of the scene and what was happening. So, now the reader not only wants to know how and why Roger died but also what was going on in the background. Then, the next sentence introduces the word playground, which we don’t normally associate with beaten to death or beer and wild nudity. Again, it’s important to note that there is nothing literally  confusing about the paragraph. The sentences are not purposefully obscuring the facts. The confusion or mystery comes from not seeing only a glimpse of the entire picture. The narrator cannot explain everything in a few words, in part because it is first-person and therefore imperfect in the ways that all people are imperfect, rather than third-person and capable of omniscience.

The second paragraph continues the incongruity of playground/beaten to death by stringing together kids who “got in fights, smoked” with soccer and the idea that “Seventh grade is a tenuous time.” These are just kids, we realize. They’re playing at being adults but still stuck with the trappings of childhood—playgrounds and soccer.

So, even though the first sentence contains an enormous plot spoiler, the rest of the opening two paragraphs introduce a complexity and confusion that the reader wants to unravel and understand. If you read the entire story (which you most definitely should), you’ll likely find that the plot point of Roger’s death is less important than everything that was going on around it. In other words, the spoiler isn’t really a spoiler at all but a way of directing the reader’s attention toward what is truly important.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a plot spoiler into the beginning of a story using “Saint Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis as a model:

  1. Identify the most important thing that happens in your story. There are, of course, likely several important points, and the biggest of them might be internal—but internal plot points don’t really work as spoilers. Part of the problem is that even the deepest moments of realization for a character can sound, when distilled to a sentence, like the sentiments of a Hallmark card (“The Things They Carried”: Don’t let grief get you down.). To make a spoiler work, you need plot, which almost always means action and often means the external consequence of some internal turning point. So, identify the biggest plot point in the story.
  2. Write a sentence that states the spoiler plainly. You can’t get much plainer than “The night Roger was beaten to death.” But notice what else that sentence does: it suggest that other things are happening. It’s even a good idea to use Ennis’ first sentence as a template: On the _____ that ____ happened… You want to hint to the reader that though you’re revealing some parts of the story, there are others yet to be found out.
  3. Surround the plot spoiler with incongruities. Some spoilers aren’t really spoiler (A man went to war and died. A couple met in Vegas and got married and a year later they were divorced.) No one is going to wonder how those things happened because of course they happened. You want to provide details that make the spoiler not quite make sense. Ennis pairs “beaten to death” with a playground and wild parties and, eventually, seventh grade. These are things that don’t usually appear alongside a brutal murder. So, fill your first paragraph with details that one wouldn’t normally expect to find alongside the plot point that you’ve revealed. Keep in mind, though, that you’re not searching for opposites. Don’t be blatantly thematic (He died in a maternity ward). Be weird. Be unexpected. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of Stuart Dybek’s famous story “We Didn’t”: “We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market.” Nobody expects to find smoked chubs in a sentence about sex. Allow your imagination to roam. What detail would make the reader sit up and say, “Huh?”
  4. Run with those details. Once you’ve got the plot spoiler in the story (and if it’s a good one), then there’s no doubt that you’ll return to it eventually. It’s also almost inevitable that it will press its face against the pane of your story over and over again. You won’t be able to get rid of it. So don’t feel the need to remind your readers that it’s there. Instead, elaborate on the incongruous details you’ve discovered. Ennis puts a playground and soccer in a paragraph with murder, and it’s the playground and the soccer that the story focuses on for a very long time—except that they’re not just soccer and a playground. They’re soccer and a playground that are accessories to murder. As a result, we pay attention. We want to know how the incongruous details will be brought together.

Good luck and have fun!

How to Put the Gun on the Wall

24 Sep
Ethan Rutherford's story "Dirwhals!" was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

Ethan Rutherford’s story “Dirwhals!” was published at FiveChapters and included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin.

By now, everyone knows the Russian story writer Anton Chekhov’s suggestion, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” In workshop, if a story needs more tension, it’s not uncommon for someone to say, “Put a gun on the wall.” Students tend to take this advice literally and hang up not only guns but knives, axes, chain saws, and mean dogs.

So, what if you want to set up plot without literally hanging something on your story’s wall? The writer Ethan Rutherford demonstrates another method in his futuristic whaling story, “Dirwhals!” It’s included in his debut collection The Peripatetic Coffin, and you can read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

The story is about a whaling ship in the Gulf of Mexico–except that the Gulf has been drained of water, and the whales are large whale-like beasts that burrow through the sand. Most of the dirwhals have already been killed, and so the ships hunting them must travel into unknown areas. In this scene, a ship’s captain is speaking to his crew, and what he says will set up a plot point as neatly as putting a gun on the wall:

“But what he had come to tell us was now that we were moving further and further into the basin, those on watch were to be spotting for two things: dirwhals, and other shipper-tanks, which, given our current location, would most likely belong to the Firsties. A collective groan, followed by hissing, went up among the crew. Protection kooks, someone explained to me when I asked who the Firsties were. Bushard added: kamikaze environmentalists; degenerates; cultists; criminals. Capt. Tonker held up his hand for silence.

Their aim, he said, is to put us out of a job.”

The captain’s speech neatly lays out the stakes, not only the crew versus the Firsties but also the forces that are pushing them into a confrontation. Now watch how Rutherford uses these stakes to set the crew on a course that will determine the plot for the rest of the story:

“So, his order: spot the Firsties, and report them, but under no circumstances were we to engage, even if provoked. They had cameras, they wanted us to fire on them, and they would stop at nothing to manufacture an incident, even if it came at great cost to their organization. He asked us if we understood. We answered: yes, of course.”

As savvy readers, we know that the crew will run into the Firsties and things will not go according to plan. The certainty of that encounter is the gun on the wall. The decisions that lead the crew into that inevitable encounter is the story’s plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use the captain’s speech in “Dirwhals!” as a model for how to set up plot:

  1. Choose a resource that can be exhausted. In “Dirwhals!” that resource is the whale-like creatures. But most things in the world exist in limited quantities: time, money, and jobs but also less tangible things like patience and endurance.
  2. For most resources, there is one side that wants to deplete the resource and another side that wants to conserve it. For the resource that you chose, what are those sides?
  3. Let a spokesperson for one of the sides explain the situation that will lead to an inevitable confrontation with the other side. So, if the story is about a woman who works 50 hours a week and in her off-hours takes care of her kids and maintains the integrity of the house and family, she will feel that her time is limited. If her brother calls and says that their mom can’t take care of herself and so should move in with the woman, the woman will obviously not feel that such an arrangement is possible. But, let’s say her brother is in the army and about to be deployed overseas. Now, you have two sides: one (the brother) pushing to deplete an already limited resource (the woman’s time), and another (the woman) trying to conserve what little time she has left to herself. Imagine the rant she might deliver to her husband or kids about the situation–imagine if that rant ends with “One of these days, my brother and I are going to have it out, and that will be the end of things.” What follows–the events that lead to that confrontation–is the story’s plot.
  4. If you want, you can outline those events.

Good luck with this exercise. You may find that a plot outline is not necessary. Knowing where the story is headed can sometimes guide you as much as any outline.

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