Meaningful (Extraordinary) Plot Elements
If you want readers to pick up your story, you need something special to make it stand out from all those other stories out there. That something might be found in your characters or your setting, but if you want them to read all the way to the end, you need something extraordinary in the plot to keep your readers turning the page, because however well-developed your characters are, however exotic your setting, without an eye-catching, special something in the plot to keep the pages turning, readers won’t finish the story.
Whether you’re writing an epic like Homer or a short story like Aesop, you still need all the pieces. And whether your final copy is long or short, if something’s missing, a reader won’t last until “The End.” So what does a writer do?
The plot is most closely connected to the “why?” and “how?” of a story, so this is where things get interesting. For example, a man walking into a convenience store isn’t very interesting. A man walking into a convenience store to buy the cigarettes he promised his wife he’d quit smoking adds to the tension. A man walking into a convenience store to buy the cigarettes he promised his wife he’d quite smoking only to confront an armed robber who shoots him in the head? Now that is an extraordinary scenario with so many possibilities there’s not a reader in America who’s going to want to put it down. (This plot is from the motion picture, Regarding Henry, Paramount Pictures, 1991. J. J. Abrams, Screenwriter.)
The story of the Good Samaritan was so effective because it was so unexpected that it would be a detested Samaritan who actually stopped to help the injured Jew. The Lion and the Mouse is so riveting, because it’s a tiny little mouse that rescues the great big fierce lion in the end. C. S. Lewis had his school children find adventure inside what appeared to be an ordinary wardrobe, through which they walked into the magical world of Narnia. And the thought of a Cinderella continues to charm audiences, because, really, don’t we all wish for a fairy godmother at times?
Even if your stories are set in the here and now, they need that spark, that touch of the extraordinary to get your readers’ attention. You wrote a scary, crusty elderly woman into your story? Somewhere along the line, let one of her irritated neighbors accidentally get a glimpse of the number tattooed on her arm. You’ve created the quintessential mean junior high school teacher? Let your readers see how shy he actually is when he unbends enough to help a shy student fit in. The tough street kid who gets caught returning a book he “borrowed” from the mall book store. An uppity, controlling socialite? What if she is actually an emotionally abused wife at home? Much like the ancient Greek writers, we have our contemporary stereotypical characters—the crusty old neighbor, the mean teacher, the street tough, the upper class snob—but to leave them as stereotypes is to miss a great opportunity to add something truly interesting to your story line which gives your readers a reason to keep turning the page in order to answer the question, “What happens next?”
So, what extraordinary things will your characters do—or have done to them—to keep your readers turning the page? What twist of the ordinary, what special spark, will light up your next story?