It Came From Left Field: The Enjoyable Challenge of the Unexpected Plot Twist

My all-time favorite writing experience is a collaboration I did with my friend Kelleen a few years ago.  Kelleen suggested we try writing something using the method Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer did to write Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot. They started out by playing a game and wound up writing a book together.

In the appendix of their book, they describe the Letter Game: two players take turns writing each other letters “in persona”, as if they were the character they are writing about. The only rule is that the players cannot discuss their plot ideas with each other. Each person responds to the last person’s letter until the story has been told.

Kelleen and I agreed we were not writing a book for publication. We were out to have fun, so we made up our own rules. Instead of writing letters, our characters would be together for the story. We would write alternate chapters of narration using first person from the point of view of our “persona” characters. We agreed that we were not allowed to do anything irrevocable to the other person’s character. We promised not to use the fast-fix cop-out of waking from a dream to cancel out events that we didn’t like from the other person’s chapters. And we would follow Wrede and Stevermer’s rule; we were not allowed to discuss the plot.

We each wrote up a short backstory resume for our characters for reference purposes. Kelleen wrote the first chapter to get us started. My Samantha was visiting Kelleen’s Jennifer in Texas and they were at the Renaissance Festival. We took turns and wrote 14 chapters in all. Before we were done, Sam and Jen were transported to a medieval world where they had magical powers and dragons. Princes helped them and wizards chased them. In the midst of it all, they had to figure out how to get home again.

Our first two chapters were each about eight pages long. By the time we reached the end of our story, our chapters had tripled in length. For one of them I wrote 146 draft pages by hand, considering five different plots and writing material for two of them in the process, all to produce a typed chapter twenty pages long.

What inspired me to put so much effort into a story I was writing for fun?

The unexpected.

While we might not have been talking about the plot, both Kelleen and I had our ideas of what kind of story we were writing, what kind of things might happen. Our general ideas about our story matched well, but the specifics as detailed in the chapters we wrote constantly surprised one another.

For example, in chapter three, Kelleen had our characters meet conveniently unmarried princes. Then Sam and Jen were arrested and locked in a dungeon to await their executions. I didn’t mind the princes, but I had not planned on a dungeon. In accordance with the rules, we didn’t talk about what we thought might happen next. I did my best to get our modern American characters out of the dungeon realistically, even though dragons and magic were involved.

In the next chapter I received, Sam had been kidnapped by a terrifying stranger. There was no explanation of who he was and minimal explanation of what he wanted. I wasn’t planning on a kidnapping, but I had to find a way to get my character out of this horrible situation, right after I figured out how she’d gotten there in the first place.

This pattern became the norm. A new chapter would arrive. I’d read it, be surprised, shocked, stumped. Once I got over the novelty of all the unexpected material that had been handed to me, I thought hard about what came next. Eventually I’d have an idea of how to solve the current problem and I would do my best to come up with a devil of a plot twist to end with so Kelleen could sweat for a bit.

At first all I could think was how hard it was to try to write this way. But with time I came to enjoy it. We were two animals harnessed together and trying to reach different destinations. The story lurched along as a result, first going this way, then going that way, constantly getting dragged back to a sort of middle road that wasn’t what either of us was actually aiming for. We had to work like crazy to squeeze in the moments we had dreamt up for our characters while also dealing with all the things we hadn’t planned on that had been dumped on us by our co-author.

We got really good at this. Our later chapters are amazing. We created dramatic moments, interesting characters, funky magic, and a fairly coherent story without once discussing the actual plot. Our story even had a happy ending, although that was one thing we would definitely have agreed on if we’d been allowed to talk about it ahead of time.

It was a glorious, hair-pulling, that’s-the-ticket, how-can-I-make-things-worse?, I-did-it ride. And absolutely the most fun I have ever ever ever had writing. Thanks, Kelleen.

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