Time for our monthly chat about writing, with fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson, and mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith. This month we discuss plot thumbscrews.
I love a plot thumbscrew. This is an event where two or more storylines intersect and the difficulty escalates for the protagonist – they find it much harder to get what they want. Characters and their attendant storylines meet all the time in a narrative, but the difference is that a plot thumbscrew escalates the difficulty. The plot veers off in an unexpected new direction because of this difficulty. The protagonist struggles to resolve the conflict in their own favour. I call these tension points “plot thumbscrews” because they tighten until it hurts.
When a novel doesn’t have any plot thumbscrews, the story is monotonous and one-note. People who say that nothing happens in literary fiction are referring to the lack of plot thumbscrews – either too few or none at all. Plot thumbscrews energise a plot by increasing the difficulty. I think of what happens when someone touches an electrified object – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the object. This is what happens to the reader when they reach a plot thumbscrew – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the story. It hurts the protagonist and it hurts the reader – and the reader loves it! Good plot thumbscrews keep the reader turning the page into the small hours.
I’m sorry, but every time I try to write about plot thumbscrews in my current work in progress, I risk giving away spoilers. It’s a novel of romantic suspense. The tension grows gradually, one plot point building on another, each one vital to the next. I’ve analysed my whole story (as much of it as I know so far anyway) and can’t think of one squeeze point that I can discuss without giving the game away. I’m rather pleased actually – it means no dead wood in the story. Either that or I’m paranoid!
So, I’m going to contribute to this discussion by using an example from another book that has some similarities to my story – The Firm. In this novel by John Grisham, Mitch, an idealistic young lawyer straight out of law school gets his dream job and discovers he has sold his soul to the devil and must fight to get it back. No, seriously, there are parallels!
A scene that really ratchets up the tension occurs at the midpoint. Shortly after Mitch passes his bar exam, an FBI agent confronts him. Mitch learns that the firm he works for is actually part of the white collar operations of a vicious crime family. They lure new lawyers from poor backgrounds with promises of wealth and security, involving them in multi-million dollar tax-fraud and money laundering schemes. By the time a lawyer is aware of the firm’s actual operations, he cannot leave. No lawyer has escaped the firm alive. The scene brings together three storylines. His suspicions about being followed are confirmed. His search for answers about the other lawyers’ funerals is at an end. And his meteoric career rise is explained and tainted. The scene escalates the external conflict because he is now caught between the Firm which will kill him if he betrays them, and the FBI who will send him to prison if he doesn’t help them. It escalates the internal conflict because he is also caught between ambition and idealism. I’m aiming for something like it in my new book.
Now tell me, Sydney, is that a plot thumbscrew?
That is a fabulous plot thumbscrew! What I didn’t say, and should have said, in my description of what a plot thumbscrew is, is that a plot thumbscrew hands the protagonist a new problem to solve. This is a twist on the old problem. You see how Mitch now understands things better and that hands him a problem that twists the old one. In the old one, he’s trying to find out what’s going on. The new twist is that he’s trapped and has to find a way out. He was always trapped. He just didn’t know it. Now he knows it. AND he knows that getting out is life-threatening. He knows because other lawyers who tried to get out lost their lives. What a terrific plot thumbscrew!
Well, Sydney, as you know, my problem is always that I want to protect Erica, my protagonist. Which doesn’t make for very exciting reading, not at all! So for me, writing a plot thumbscrew can be agonising. Probably more so for me than for Erica. But it must be done if we want our readers to be satisfied!
Here I want to talk about a plot thumbscrew in Avatar, a science-fiction/fantasy movie I loved. It’s about paraplegic human, Jake Sully, who is given the job of learning about the Na’vi people so they can either be persuaded into leaving their home (so the humans can mine it for a precious mineral) or, if they refuse to leave, work out how best to drive them off or kill them, as is our human wont. Jake is offered a leg-restoring operation in return for his cooperation.
A plot thumbscrew occurs when Jake is separated from his crew and finds himself alone and in grave danger in the jungles of Pandora. There he meets a Na’vi woman who’d quite like to kill him (two storylines clashing), but she receives a sign from their goddess and chooses to help Jake instead. She introduces him to her family, and Jake comes to love the Na’vi people.
This of course increases the difficulty for Jake to achieve his goal, which is: drive out the Na’vi or find out how best to kill them. He is falling more and more in love with the Na’vi people, and one lady in particular *sigh*, and so becomes torn, and is eventually forced to choose a side.
It’s not over yet, though. The Na’vi discover Jake’s true purpose and no longer trust him. They leave him for dead. And so, with a new mission in mind, Jake must push through another couple of excruciating plot thumbscrews to save what’s left of the Na’vi and be with his true love – 3½ metres of blue-tailed gorgeousness.
Well, I can see why you call it a plot thumbscrew, Kath. And it is. But the way you describe it de-emphasises the plot thumbscrew. This is how I would put it: Jake wants more than anything to get the use of his legs back. He’s prepared to do anything, which includes finding ways of getting rid of the Na’vi so that an evil corporation can exploit the resources on the Na’vi’s land. He is sent to find out all he can about the Na’vi. But when he meets 3½ metres of blue gorgeousness, he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets to know her people and like them. Now he’s stuck in a bind: if he goes through with his mission, he will get the use of his legs back, but he will lose Blue Gorgeousness and her people will be driven off their traditional lands. But if he saves them, he will be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.
You know what? This sounds like a plot trigger. Plot triggers can look like plot thumbscrews sometimes. Quite often, actually. But this looks like a plot trigger because it kicks off the problem he has to solve. That problem is not his paraplegia but his dilemma: me or the Na’vi?
That just goes to show how tricky it often is to identify plot thumbscrews, even though they arrive with fireworks detonating everywhere. When we remember a film or a novel, we will often remember a plot thumbscrew – like Jane Eyre finding out Mr Rochester is already married, and to a mad woman he keeps in the attic.
So here’s one way of thinking about it. Remember that old circus trick about the strong man holding up an inverted pyramid of men. The protagonist of the drama is the strong man. His plot trigger happens when two men climb up and stand on his shoulders. His aim is to stay on his feet, supporting the men standing on his shoulders. Then some more men climb up and stand on the shoulders of those two men. Now it’s harder for the strong man to stay on his feet. He staggers this way and that. But he continues to uphold the growing pyramid of men. Then another group of men scale the inverted triangle and mount the shoulders of the men, forming a new row. It is extraordinarily hard for the strong man to hold up all these people and keep his feet. His legs tremble. He grunts with the effort. He stumbles from side to side. But he goes on holding them up because he has to stay on his feet. Each time men climb up to form a new row, that’s a plot thumbscrew. But the first two men who climbed up – that was the plot trigger.
Geez. Jenny gets a gold star. I get to sit in the corner.
Reader, Kath awarded Jenny the gold star and put herself in the naughty corner. She didn’t consult me or, as far as I know, Jenny. It’s all her.
Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.