I finally finished a rewrite on a short story that I like, that keeps getting rejected. I ended up…I don’t know, maybe saving two particularly clever lines and a handful of ones generic enough not to need changing. Plot? Different. Character voices? Different. Settings? Different for the last half of the story. One of those rewrites. I even changed the title.
It was exhausting.
I was experimenting with the story structure that I talked about here, from Story Engineering. I really liked the new version of this story…up to the ending. Then I realized that I didn’t want to write the ending that I had planned. Bleah! It would involved basically a novel’s worth of material squished into a long fight scene. It’s not that I’ve never had a story turn into a novel (and I usually enjoy it when it does), but that I didn’t even want to write that novel.
So I went for a two-hour walk to brainstorm, in which I spent a certain amount of time reading the first chapters of three books at the library. I just could not focus.
At any rate…I ended up going around and around in circles. Tracing out character-development arcs. Making sure I knew who the antagonist was and could say that they were getting in the way as much as possible. Trying to find a different ending that still fit the pattern.
But the problem was that the main character’s goal had to change, right at the moment that it really shouldn’t.
Here’s the gist of it:
R. says “yes” to his girlfriend (setup). Well, there’s someone else who wants him (S.), and S. doesn’t have scruples. S. abducts the GF (first plot point) and threatens to take R., too. V., who is the GF’s ally, gets R. out of the picture (reaction), while R. sees the brutal murder of V.’s friend F (pinch 1). R. fights his way back to V. who tries to shoo him off again. He insults her to the point that she agrees to go after GF, even though it’s the worst thing they could do (midpoint). They get through a couple of challenges with increasing difficulty (action), then witness the brutal murder of the GF (pinch 2). Then the person who wants R. gets hold of them both (second plot point), and…
And I was going to say that S. makes a very convincing argument that he needs R. and V. for the same reason that GF really wanted R. (GF’s motivations were ulterior…but also genuine, I should stipulate.) And then send R. and V. off to fight that battle, in the name of both S. and GF. But, of course, I couldn’t do it. Ugh.
What I eventually came to was to do a twist.
What most people assume when they’re reading a story is that it’s about the main character. Duh, right? That’s how stories work: the story is about the main character having a goal and seeing it through, either succeeding or driving it definitively into the ground. Or changing goals from a stupid external goal to one motivated by their deepest passions. That kind of thing.
Is that how the real world works? No. Sometimes, it’s not all about you.
So what I did was look at V.’s character arc.
If R. is the protagonist, then S. is the antagonist, and V. is the helper/relationship character. R. has a lot to learn from V., and in fact does: his entire character arc is driven by going, “What would V. do?”
BUT (as stipulated by my original ending), what if S. is right?
Then V., who has been egging R. on to go against S., is the antagonist, isn’t she? And R. has something to learn from S.
And from V.’s perspective, S. is the antagonist, and R. is the helper character, and she has something to learn from R.
So the ending goes like this: R., following S.’s lead, corners V. into making her do the thing that R. should be doing for S., which is the last thing she wants to do. R. does this by forcing V. to kill him, watch the consequences, and come to the conclusion that she has to take R.’s place. (I should note that I use two alternating POVs, R.’s and V.’s, throughout.)
–It’s funny. I wrote this as horror (V.’s perspective) OR as really dark fanatasy (R.’s perspective), but now I want to write it again as a crime story. Or maybe as something like Attack the Block.
The point being, this twist isn’t about A Big Reveal at the end of the story. A Big Reveal is, in fact, not a twist. It’s just A Big Reveal. A twist…is when you reframe what was previously defined in the story. A hero is a monster (like in Up). A monster is a hero. The person you always hated is the one person who will ever make you happy. That kind of thing.
But my favorite kinds of twists are the ones where the whole story shifts, based on the fact that every character is the hero of their own story.
It’s weird. You have to make sure that the former protagonist’s story has its own satisfying ending; you can’t just let them dangle. You have to show that the new protagonists’s story has had a satisfying character arc all along. (Inflexible, short-sighted V. learns to have a wider vision, to do more than make the sacrifices she feels like making, but make the ones that need to be made.) And you have to have a reason to write it: in this, the whole story is about people who find out that their conceptions of what’s going on is wrong. So it seems fair to do that to the reader, too.
So now – off the story goes. We’ll see if my theory works…