Today, I watched a classic of musical theater and historical fiction. The one that dealt with founding fathers before Hamilton was cool. Yes, friends, I watched 1776.
If you’re not familiar with it, it is the very amusing depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is played by Mr. Feeny, Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother gets it on with Thomas Jefferson, and there’s a very moving song about the Battle of Lexington and Concord that happened down the street from my alma mater. They argue about South Carolina having too much sway, whether they’ll ever abolish slavery, the consequences of treason, etc., and it ends with a staging of the famous John Trumbull painting.
Back in the ’90s, I told my friend that Titanic was kind of predictable because we know that when the boat sank, there were only so many men who survived. She screamed “The boat SINKS?” at me and got mad that I told her that element of the movie.
There are movies where we know the outcome. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence will always be signed. We know that Apollo 13 got home safely, Even in Gettysburg, we know who came out of that battle alive. Yet in each of those examples, the storytelling and writing is agonizingly suspenseful at times.
For me, some of the most effective fictional storytelling has a similar effect. In Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, there is a specific line in the third book that I’ve been told was NOT predictable, except it had been my fan theory and as soon as it was stated, I could pinpoint every moment that had hit us over the head with it in the first two books.
Lest you think I am good at this, I also just watched the first season of Westworld and was so stunned by one revelation that I screeched “What????” and then swore in shock. Katey, who got me into the series, had been laughing at me during that episode because it was literally spelled out in the music and I said “Oh, that’s a really interesting augmentation of this person’s theme music. I wonder why.”
For me, therefore, there is a fine line between an outcome coming out of the blue and a plot twist that you can’t stop seeing coming once you know about it. Doctor Who does this for two seasons with one character. J.K. Rowling does it for seven Harry Potter books. Recently, I took my mother to see Dear Evan Hansen and at the end of the first act, she sighed that this was so fantastically inspirational. I just responded, “It’s going to get wicked complicated.” The second act is about the ramifications of what lies were told in the first act and the poor woman was bawling by the end. It’s a great show, but the optimism on which the first act ends is based on a very problematic situation.
I think the best thing is to do what my piano teacher mother always told me: “Begin with the end in mind.” In a recent story, I had to write a medical emergency and realized while planning it out that I’d set the stage for it in the second scene I ever wrote. I also have a book that I’m working on finding a publisher for, where one character is very significant, but we don’t know why because he’s barely mentioned and it isn’t until 3/4 of the way through the book that we find out why that is. Yet there are allusions to it in several chapters.
When you know the end result from the start, it’ll help you establish those kinds of allusions and stepping stones. You can decide from there who knows the whole story, who knows the least, who is understanding the entire situation based on one or more faulty pieces of information. (For an excellent example of this, ask me about my confirmed theories for The Rise of Skywalker and why a line in the first scene made me punch the air in triumph.)
Once you’ve figured out who knows what and who will know by the end, think about the methods of discovery. Word of mouth? Hearsay? Some found letter? Not everyone can have their entire life changed in the middle of a climactic battle scene. One of the best reveals of a secret is in another book by J.K. Rowling, Lethal White (under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym). Robin Ellacott finds an earring by stepping on it and it suddenly changes the way we read the book up to that point.
Or, if you want to really create intrigue, take another cue from Luke Skywalker. In one movie, he says a single line that raises a host of unanswered questions: “Leia knew, too.” Knew when? Knew how? Cared? Didn’t care? Knew how it felt?
Most importantly, if you’re going to make a habit of raising questions, make sure you know the answers before you sit down to write.