shootout at the corral

You know I love a good pithy saying. Here’s one I made up, just for you: Good books get read; great books get reread. 

Think of the books on your shelves. Most of them you’ll read once, but the ones you absolutely love you will surely read again and again.

A great book is a friend for life. The better you know it, the more you love to reread it — and you can take that as proof that great storytelling does not depend on keeping secrets from the reader. 

A common authorial misstep is to conceal the hero’s true mission from the reader.

Why do this? These authors mistakenly assume that secrecy equals suspense. They hope that the reader will keep reading in order to find out what’s really going on.

It’s a false hope, alas. The reader keeps reading to find out not what the climactic scene of the plot is, but how that scene turns out. 

Will the Wizard help Dorothy get home to Kansas? Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? Will Bilbo prevail when he finally comes face to face with the dragon Smaug?

In story structure we call it the ordeal. These climactic scenes have been promised to the reader since quite early in their respective stories, and the journey to get to the ordeal is what occupies our hero during the entirety of the second act. 

Learning the outcome of this promised scene is what keeps the reader engaged and willing to turn all those second act pages.

Writers who choose secrecy over true reader engagement put themselves in a difficult situation: To keep the plot secret from the reader, they end up having to keep it a secret from the hero, too!  

The result is a muddled middle, a passive hero with no clear mission being led about by far more interesting sidekicks, and a series of second act complications that seem random and disconnected. 

Now, I have seen approximately one zillion examples of this over my years of teaching, and I have great sympathy for the writer who falls into this all too common trap. For those without a clear understanding of story structure, it’s hard to avoid. 

These are the drafts that get abandoned halfway. It takes enormous effort to keep inventing material in a story vacuum. 

Eventually the writer gives up because it’s “not going anywhere,” or they feel “stuck” or “blocked” or they “ran out of ideas.” The pain shows up in the middle, but the problem stems from much earlier, right around the act break where the hero’s mission should have been definitively established.

That mission should be crystal clear and specific enough to have a what, where, and when attached. It’s a gunfight at the O.K. Corral at high noon. Promise it to the reader! And then, keep your promise.

TIP: If you had to write the “promised scene” (or ordeal) of your current work in progress right now, could you? What do you already know about that scene? What don’t you know? 

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