Chaos is what sends the storyline or the characters’ lives and plans into a tale spin in your manuscript. It disrupts things. But that gives us the points we climb towards and those we fall from, doesn’t it? Just when everything seems to be going well, BOOM!
The best chaotic twist is one that the reader doesn’t see coming. I think that’s what I love about Brent Weeks’ work – he constantly finds ways to impress me with a twist that dropped on me like a piece of space junk falling from the sky. It’s also why readers (and viewers) have not seen the death of a major character coming until they are pushing up daisies in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (aka HBO’s Game of Thrones).
I also admire that same quality in the Doctor Who scripts that have been written since the franchise rebooted in the 21st century.
This doesn’t mean that all chaos in a storyline needs to be drastic. It can be subtle, it can be a trope, that is something that readers have been programed to expect, though when you manage to give it a twist, that’s what sets your work apart from someone else’s.
Chaos in a story begins on page one. It is something that has changed from what came before the opening line in the book. That might have occurred in the timeline only a few moments before…it might be something that has been building.
It’s easy to see the chaos when the event is dramatic – say a character looks down and sees blood spreading from a mortal wound, or sees blood on their hand after having inadvertently just injured someone themselves.
It could be less dramatic, though just as important, to launching into the story – a decision made, either by a main character or one that affects the life of the main character – mate asks for a divorce, divorce papers are signed, character learns of the death of someone close to them, is given a pink slip-is downsized, gets a call from the principal’s office, misses the ball and thus is the one player everyone can point at as having lost them the championship.
It doesn’t have to be a downer sort of chaos, it can be a positive one, too. Chaos does play all sides of the net. So, the papers are signed for the new house, the character learns they have been promoted, won the election, won the lottery. The person who was standing outside the door is someone they loved and thought they’d lost.
Still, depending on the type of book you’re writing, chances are the chaos unveiled on page one will be of the not-so-good kind. Why? Well, because the storyline of every manuscript you pen needs to show the characters – particularly the main character/characters – growing and people grow best when challenged. Most challenges involve strife, ergo, a storyline that begins with the not-so-good sort of chaos supplies a solid launch pad.
It would be handy to know how well your characters deal with chaos in their lives before you hit that first line on the first page though, wouldn’t it?
What has built their character – built the kind of person they are two seconds before that first line on page one? Even the characters in middle grade books have life experiences that have made them the sort of person they already are at six or eight or ten years old.
So, let’s find out what sort of experience they have at this point.
The best way I know to discover what this is, is to interview them – but do so within a specific guideline. This first guideline is their past. Everything that has happened to them in their life prior to page one, line one in the coming story. Our emphasis is going to be on chaotic events as those will have shaped them.
Here are the questions the main characters, and possibly some of the secondary ones, need to answer:
What is your first sad or frightening memory?
What is your first happy memory?
What is your birth placement order in your family if there are more children than just you?
If you are an only child, what do you find is different about the way you are treated within your family unit and outside of it?
Did you grow up with both your parents living in the same house, or with just one?
If just one, where was the other?
How did you feel about this growing up?
How do you think it made you look at life or what you would be able to do with your life?
Did you have any particular interests growing up that made you a stronger person or disappointed you? Explain what they were and how you felt or feel about them.
What is it that brought you to where you are before this story begins?
As an example, I’m going to use a main character from one of my in-progress stories. Here’s what the character had to say:
“First sad or frightening memory? Tough one. My earliest memories are of being taken into one foster family after another and then returned to child services within a few weeks or months. Depending on the family I’d been placed with, this situation was either sad or the thought of remaining with them so frightening that I welcomed being rejected.
“My first happy memory – truly happy – is of being released from the system officially, although I’d already spent four years slipping away from the foster families to make my own way before the system no longer cared what became of me.
“Since I never knew any of my family, I’ve no idea of whether I have siblings, was the eldest or youngest or one of many middle children. In the foster families, I landed in each of these age placement spots somewhere along the way. As my experiences hadn’t led to close ties anywhere, I tended to be a loner, considered standoffish by some and as having a superiority complex to others. In reality, I felt inferior to everyone since I never stayed anywhere long enough to feel wanted or loved. That sort of wraps up several of your questions, doesn’t it?
“That brings us to question #8 – how did being an unwanted and frequently shuffled around foster child with no idea much less memory of any family affect me? Obviously, I learned that the only constant in my life would be what I came up with myself. There was no one else to depend on and chances were that this was all there was – I’d always be alone, but I was used to that. There was a sort of freedom, even if my situation wasn’t settled – it never had been. Being “settled” or even considering staying in one place seems unnatural to me. It would make me uncomfortable. I don’t have a profession and I own only what I carry in one bag. I make enough doing my “trick”, making sure I get the cash up front, then disappearing, getting on my way to the next place that calls.
“Other kids had dreams of what their future would be like – I spent my time shrugging when guidance counselors asked what I had in mind. I’m footloose but curious. I’ll stay somewhere for a month or more if I like it and spend my time at the local library, reading whatever happens to catch my interest as I stroll down the shelves. As a result, I know more about a wider variety of subjects than any college program could ever teach me. When I begin to feel like I’m in a rut, I shove the basics of my life back in the bag and board the next Greyhound bus out of town, my destination chosen by the vagaries of schedules. I go wherever the next bus leaving is headed.
“What brought me to the bar I’ve walked into prior to page one? Wandering feet. They always know where to head and they always land me where it appears I need to be. My only goals when I walked in were to make enough cash with the trick to put a roof over my head for a few nights and more than one meal a day in my belly. I’ve been on my own and doing this for over a decade, being just a shadow compared to other people. But if you don’t put yourself in a situation where others can reject you, you don’t get hurt. “
This, by the way, is my heroine. She seems to simply be marking time but her background as a child was one of being rejected repeatedly. There’s a reason for this, but she’ll have to wait for the story to unfold to discover who she is and how events are about to unfold.
Knowing where each character who will have a large enough part to play that they will influence or be influenced by the things you plan to do to them will supply a lot of guidelines. Chances are you already know these things about these characters, but writing them down is part of that launch pad we’re building.
What our characters have been through before is nothing compared to what is yet to happen to them in the manuscript.
Excerpt from CHAOS THEORY OF PLOTTING
Click on the cover above for Kindle. Also available for Nook.