Don’t SPOILER your plot!
THURSDAY BONUS POST! AKA, I don’t know why I try to use the Post Scheduler and write things ahead of time. That thing hates me. It steals my socks and puts nails in my tires and stands over my bed at night with a knife in its hand, just watching. FOR NOW. Anyway, let’s just pretend that we’re time travelers, and we’re going back to Monday’s post, to-day-ay-ay-ay-ay….
Why do we turn from page one to page two? Because we want to know what happens next. Therefore one of the worst sins a writer can commit is spoilering his own plot by telegraphing his plot punches.
If your hero’s wife, Daphne Camille Elizabeth, is a superficial and conniving shrew with no quality but beauty to recommend her, I know she will horribly betray the hero before the book ends. (And maybe he deserves it for being such an idiot as to marry her in the first place).
And yet, I will also know it won’t matter too much because it will free the hero to marry the equally beautiful young Mary Sue, introduced in Chapter Two, who is forthright, kind, fearless, and practically perfect in every way, just like that other Mary. (Except Mary Poppins is an arrogant commitment-phobe, which are the flaws that make her so delightful.)
Knowing what happens in advance of actually reading it sucks half the fun out of any given book. If I, the reader, can also figure out HOW Daphne Camille Elizabeth will betray the hero, so much the worse.
So how does this spoilering happen? For illustrative purposes, here is a short scene written two different ways, in which a powerful gentleman has just made an inappropriate proposal to an impoverished young lady:
“I say, my dear, no need to get your nose out of joint,” blustered Figlips, self-consciously adjusting his lavish wig. “Many young ladies like to ‘ride the ponies’. It’s a compliment to be asked, you know.” He smiled greasily, his rat-like eyes running slowly up and down her length. His ugly face screwed into a coarse, vulgar smile as he adjusted his belt, several sizes too tight for his unsightly girth. “I hope you do not tattle to Papa and sour our business venture. It would break his heart.”
“I say, my dear, no need to get your nose out of joint.” Figlips smiled, his mild brown eyes running over her. “Many young ladies like to ‘ride the ponies’. I only meant to pay you a compliment when I asked.” He bowed, his lavish wig tipping slightly to one side. “Forgive me, I beg. I meant no offense. You know I hold your family in the very highest of esteem; else I never would have aided your father in this perilous diamond venture. Please say all is well between us, it will break my heart if you don’t. ”
Don’t we all hate Figlips? But in that first example, we are being hammered over the head with hating Figlips. His threats are obvious and clumsy. He blusters, rather than speaking. We are shown he is vulgar and coarse, then told directly that he is vulgar and coarse. And there’s the use of ugliness and obesity to signal negative character traits (which, by the way, is lazy as hell.). This is just a short paragraph, imagine pages and pages of this mustachio-twirling. By the third chapter you just know he’s going to ruin Papa and try to rape our poor heroine for good measure. Why Papa is such a dumb-dumb as to get involved with an obvious monster like Figlips #1 instead of shooting him on sight is beyond me; certainly it lessens my sympathy for the beleaguered family.
In example two, Figlips is still creepy, but more ambiguous. Perhaps he really did mean well and is just socially awkward, but with a name like Figlips… probably not. Asking our unnamed heroine’s forgiveness also puts her in a bind; does she graciously accept his apology, with all its creepy implications, or does she spurn him, and appear a churl? Perhaps he will change for the better. Perhaps he will do something dastardly. Both seem possible… the author can take it either way, and I won’t feel betrayed. The truth is, I’m not sure what Figlips #2 is going to do next. I only know I don’t trust him.
So, how do we telegraph our plot punches, spoiler our plot, overplay our hand? By overusing adverbs and adjectives rather than relying on action and dialogue, drawing characters as caricatures, not people, and generally just not trusting the reader. When you trust the reader, it frees you to be subtle, which in turn will keep the reader guessing as he turns those pages.