Don’t be Afraid to Go There in Your Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m a fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which I’ve been re-watching. So smartly written and superbly acted, and its attention to detail in the setting—1960s New York ad world—is fantastic.

Among the many episodes and scenes that have stayed with me, the one that stands out is from the first season—Episode 9, “Shoot” (written by Chris Provenzano and series creator Matthew Weiner ). The title is a play on words, for in the episode there’s a photo shoot, and at the end another kind of shoot, which I’ll get to in a moment.

In this one, Betty Draper—perfectly played by the incandescent January Jones—is given a (seemingly) out-of-nowhere offer to become the new face of Coca-Cola. She had done some modeling before marrying Don Draper and taking on the duties of a full-time housewife.

Betty is flattered and excited. It’s a chance to break out of the routine she’s in, to escape some of the mundane problems she has to deal with at home. One of those problems is a neighbor who raises pigeons. The man chewed out Betty’s kids for letting their dog attack one of his free-flying birds. He threatens to shoot the dog if it happens again.

Now Betty has this opportunity! An exec at McCann-Erickson, one of the big agencies, calls her into a studio for a photographic session.

And then she gets canned. The agency tells her it’s because the higher-ups have decided to go in a different direction. It’s a lie. Unbeknownst to Betty, the exec at McCann gave her the gig only to coax Don to come over to his agency. When Don tells him to pound sand, Betty is shown the door.

You really feel for Betty, of course. She was so thrilled at getting selected for a prime role, while all along she was just a pawn in a man’s game.

At the end of the episode, Betty is dressed in a flimsy robe one morning. She lights a cigarette and sticks it in her mouth, gun-moll style. Then she takes her son’s BB gun out into the yard and starts shooting at the neighbor’s pigeons, as he screams at her to stop.

Fade out.

It is one of the most stunning and surprising endings to a TV episode ever. Variety called it “the first truly brilliant moment of the 2007-08 television season with the pitch-perfect end…”

One of the secrets of page-turning fiction is what I call unanticipation. It’s the opposite of boring, for boredom comes when a reader anticipates (even subconsciously) what will happen next—and then it does.

If that occurs over and over, the reader is not going to finish the book. Why should they? They already know what will happen.

Thus, it behooves a writer to constantly be asking, What would the average reader expect to happen next? and then do something else.

Even more to the point, sometimes go to a place that is at the far end of the unanticipation scale, so far that it makes you nervous.

I wonder what the story meeting on this Mad Men episode sounded like.

“So Betty is deeply hurt and despairing about getting dropped as a model. She tries to save Don’s feelings by telling him she didn’t want the gig after all. How do we fade out?”

“Maybe Betty is sitting alone, smoking a cigarette, pouring herself a drink.”

“Kind of what we’d expect, though.” 

“Yeah…what if she looks at herself in the mirror then breaks the glass?” 

“Again, seen it.” 

“So then what?” 

“I dunno. What if she drives the car into a lamppost … no … what if she stands in the window at Macy’s as if she’s a mannequin … wait … she goes outside her house with a gun and shoots at some birds!”

“What birds?”

“We’ll plant a neighbor in act one, who’s obnoxious and raises pigeons. Betty’ll blast ’em!”

“Whoa! That is so un-Betty like. She’s Miss Perfect.”

“That’s what’ll blow people away!” 

That’s the kind of thinking you should do. Learn to reject the first, second, even third idea you come up with in order to get to a place you never thought you’d go. Because if you never thought it, it’s certain the reader won’t think it, either!

So when was a time you went to a place in your writing that surprised or even shocked you? How did it turn out?

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36 thoughts on “Don’t be Afraid to Go There in Your Writing

  1. I had a confessed murderer give legal guardianship of his daughter to the (childless) wife of the man he murdered.

    My readers seem to like this twist.

  2. It’s early. And I can’t remember the book, or the twist, but I do remember one of my critique partners saying, “I didn’t expect that.” The fact that I remember his comment means it was a recent book, but I get most reader comments about the who turned out to be the bad guy in Deadly Secrets, my first mystery. They say it surprised them, which is good, because it surprised me, too.

  3. This is an interesting topic because I don’t see Betty’s actions so much as a plot twist as I do a deeper reveal of her character, a clarification of her Character versus her Characterization. It resonates because once we see it unfold, we suddenly realize that Betty is capable of shooting the pigeons in her rage. It also resonates because one of the Mad Men themes is how much of a man’s world it was in the 1960s, and the effect it had on folks like Betty.

  4. I love this post. It’s an inspiration for fun. I do things in my writing to entertain myself. I know it’s indulgent, but hey, it’s what makes me laugh.

    There’s a trend in TV shows that I like to call WTF TV where the characters are earnestly serious about their stories, but the show writers put them in outlandish situations that have me roaring with laughter at the audacity. The early episodes of Orphan Black on BBC America is a good example of this.

    I wish there was a “what if” game made for writers where (like the game of 8 Ball or a digital spinning wheel of options) a writer could mismatch character types with crazy occupations or situations. Maybe that’s a game for the boys in the basement.

    Thanks, Jim. Have a good Sunday.

    • Jordan, re:mismatch, I have a set of cards called Storymatic, which is mad up of two types: character and situation. You can randomly match two cards and you’re off to the races. I use them for flash fiction and short story ideas. The other day I pulled out “Fashion Designer” and “Box of Teeth.” Hoo boy!

  5. In a roundtable I was in one day, the writer asked the people seated around the table, “What do you think, based on what I’ve read, is going to happen next?” with the idea that whatever we said, she’d like to choose something different if possible. If we were anticipating what was coming, she wanted to go a different direction.

    Thanks for the shout-out re Storymatic. Ordered a deck to bring along on a 6-woman writing retreat I’m going to in a month. Should be fun to play with a bottle of wine or two!

  6. Love this post, Jim! As an avid thriller reader and watcher, I guess the ending all too often. It drives my husband crazy. So, as a writer, I pondered several different ways to veer down an unanticipated road. It’s almost never my first idea.

  7. One of my favorite types of twist is the expectation reversal. Sometimes, this involves the writer using a popular story trope like the marriage of convenience.

    When the reader realizes this trope is being used, she will expect it to follow the standard pattern of the pretend marriage– the characters will avoid sexual and emotional entanglement, they will gradually become emotionally and sexually closer, then their sham marriage will become a real marriage.

    With the expectation reversal, the trope is set up, but the characters will do the exact opposite of what is expected. For example, the sexual relationship they’ve agreed not to have may happen almost immediately when they get drunk on their wedding night.

  8. Love this post. Especially your point to think what a character would do then think again and rethink until you hit on the right note. I guess the only thing I would add, though, is that whatever plot kink you come up with, it has to come organically from the character’s true self. As for Betty, shooting something WAS exactly what was in her gut and soul at that lonely bitter moment.

    One time I did this was with an ending. Cops were hunting a particularly sadistic killer of girls who had, in one brutal scene, captured, raped and left a female cop for dead. When he is finally caught, the three cops (including the female who had been raped) talked about what to do. Michigan has no death penalty and the killer would have probably been sent to mental hospital. They vote to leave him in the snow to die. His bones turn up in the spring thaw. Nobody came forward to claim him.

    I was at book signing and a retired police chief came up to my table and said, “I need to talk to you about the ending of this book.” I took a deep breath. He said, “I would have done the same thing.”

    A tough ending that had its own twisted logic. A few readers didn’t like it but most did. We had to go there.

  9. My current series is about a young Marine military police officer who gets involved in chasing cryptid creatures.

    This past week, I started another standalone story about a young, beautiful Chinese-American girl from a wealthy family, an assassin who works for The Shop. Carol faces the End Times of the Bible–her parents have been removed from the earth, and she must protect her grandfather who is developing Alzheimer’s. Now, she’s called by The Shop to perform, a task that may unleash the biggest monster ever on the people of the world.
    I’ve never thought about going these places except in my wildest fantasies.

    And I’m scared to death.

  10. I’m a romance writer, and part of the obligation of being one is to have the hero and heroine commit to each other by the end of the book. Romance endings have a tendency to get wrapped up in a nice, pretty bow; and while it’s what the readers want and expect (genre conventions after all), well… the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, even in fiction. And I like to make my characters work for their happily ever after.

    But, I’m also of the opinion that sometimes, even after the Big Bad is defeated, it’s not enough to keep them together. It’s as though they get together solely to defeat the Big Bad, and their entire relationship is based around what they’ve gone through together.

    Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

    I’ve been writing in a second “lovers break up” scene; where someone (either the hero or heroine) comes to this realisation after the Big Bad’s been defeated: she rejects his marriage proposal, or he thinks he’s got nothing in common with her, or he’s in no way equipped to handle his own serious emotional issues and doesn’t want to saddle someone else with them. For me, there has to be a genuine reason why these two are going to get together in the end, not just because they went to Hell and back together.

    I’m sure, when I’m at the point where I’m ready to submit for publication, editors will balk. But, until then, I don’t think any of the words are wasted.

    • Maybe it would work out that the rest of the book is compelling enough for them to say, hey, we want this, but can you tweak the ending? At least then you have a choice!

    • A romance ALWAYS has a happily-ever-after or a happy-for-now resolution. No exceptions, or you will be crucified by readers, not that you will sell an unhappy ending to any sane publisher. This is the one rule you can’t break. If you want to write what you want to write and decide to publish it yourself as a romance, don’t be shocked by the 1-star reviews. So, either you write the HEA, or you market it as another genre. Yes, this is harsh, but I’m being honest. My primary market was romance with 7 books sold, and I’ve been in and around the business for over forty years so I do know what I’m talking about.

      • So where would a good story like this go? “Mainstream”? I’ve read that there is no more mainstream. Everything has to be some genre. What’s an author to do?

            • The question was what to do with a good story that defies genre conventions. A publisher may reject on that basis. If you believe in it you can publish it yourself and use keywords to place it where it best fits.

            • If it’s published by a conglomerate publisher and it’s not part of a specfic genre line, they will choose the genre or throw it out into mainstream. If it’s self-published, the author will choose, wisely or very badly. One author that made me bang my head against my desk decided that his thriller series which makes fun of paranormal mysteries would be labeled urban fantasy. So, not only does it not have magic, it makes fun of those who like urban fantasy.

  11. It always surprises me when you can’t figure out a solution to a plot point, or you’ve written yourself into a corner and then you realise the solution was there all along. I wrote a short story in which I wanted a house fire and was trying to work out a good reason for that fire starting, when I realised there was a rebellious teenage girl in the house. Of course she was smoking a cigarette in secret when the mother came to tell her it was time to leave (family needed to get to work/school) – in trying to hide the cigarette from her mother, she didn’t properly extinguish it and rushed from the room. Maybe not a huge surprise, but it made perfect sense.

  12. I love this idea. It makes writing fun. However, I wonder how it dovetails with the advice: know your ending before you write.

  13. That’s a great question, Nancy. I for one think it’s good to have an ending in mind when you write. But nothing stops you from brainstorming a shocking ending at the beginning of things. And further, every ending is subject to change without notice as the book lives and breathes.

  14. Excellent post. I love your example. It is fun when a story ending pops up seemingly out of nowhere. That happened in my last book for my paranormal thriller series. I laid in hints/foreshadowing what was to come and sweated out the critiques and beta readers afraid I had given too much away. I exhaled that long held breath when every reader said they never saw it coming. Whew!

    Having done that, now the pressure is on to come up with something more unexpected in the next book. This post will help!

    Actually, all of your writing tips have set off many lightbulbs and energized The Muse. Thank you for sharing with us!

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