Crafting Plot: How to Deliver and Surprise
In his podcast, The Story Grid, veteran editor Shawn Coyne teaches a novice novelist the importance of knowing your genre and knowing your readers. In the February 10 episode, titled “Shawn Rips Apart Tim’s Scene (again)”, I learned this valuable lesson: meet the reader’s expectation, and then pull the rug out from under her.
The novice novelist, Tim Grahl, wrote the opening scene to a super hero novel. The structure of the scene, said Coyne, was perfectly sound. The events of the scene, however, were unoriginal.
As a writer, I think it important to remember how a reader will come upon our stories. The reader will know the genre. She will have looked at the cover, read the synopsis. And so the beginning of our stories should not be surprising to just anyone; it should be surprising to a reader of our genre who knows the synopsis.
This is the lesson Shawn Coyne taught me in an episode of his podcast, and it’s the same lesson Ryan Coogler taught me in the movie, Creed. If you haven’t seen the movie and plan to, stop reading now, watch, and come back. It will be worth it!
As Coyne teaches, there are certain obligatory scenes of every genre which the viewer/reader will expect to see. And thanks to “Sly” Stallone, boxing movies are now in a genre of their own. People have certain expectations when they sit down to watch a boxing movie. They’ll want to see scenes like the training sequence, the love interest who doesn’t believe in her boxer, and the epic underdog triumph. The boxing movie in question, Creed, is an Oscar nominated film written and directed by 29 year old Ryan Coogler. And it delivers all the obligatory scenes of its genre, but it surprises the viewer.
A writer can obey the rules of the genre without being predictable. Coogler did that by identifying the clichés of the genre that everyone took for granted, and twisting them. Here are just a few that I noticed.
- The underdog boxer is from the streets and has to fight because otherwise, he faces a menial existence. Creed’s protagonist, Donnie Johnson, is no street rat. Sure, he is an illegitimate son and started life in and out of juvi (hey, he’s gotta develop a mean streak somehow). But by the time he decides to fight professionally, he has grown up living with a wealthy and loving adoptive mother in LA and has a respectable job in the business world. Rather than using the old model of “a poor kid can’t get no respect,” Coogler twists the convention and gives his protagonist a different disadvantage: he’s too square. To me, this is actually much more believable, that a boxer without a criminal record or a coked up mama would have more to prove than the rest.
- The boxer’s lover is constantly crying and hysterical about the possibility of her man getting hurt. Coogler gave his protagonist an alluring, confident, yet trusting love interest. She is colorful, off-beat, and almost has a sense of humor about Johnson’s dream to make a name for himself. Sure, Coogler delivers the obligatory break up scene, but he steers clear of the expected hysteria. Johnson’s girlfriend doesn’t simper if he gets beat up; but she has something to say if he lies to her, or if he can’t control his temper outside of the ring.
- The underdog boxer wins the big fight at the end. Huge spoiler alert, but I loved how Coogler chose to end this movie. The match up is almost unbelievable: Johnson the unknown fighter who just started to train professionally vs. “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, a world champ. But Coogler gets us there by giving Conlan a handicap – 1) he had a brush with the law and is going to prison in a few short months, 2) he lost his temper and broke his last opponent’s jaw before their scheduled fight. So, Conlan’s lost a lot of clout, and he is desperate to go out with some dignity before being locked away.
Boxing fans expect Johnson to be beaten to a pulp, but they hope his famous father’s genes (Apollo Creed from the early movies) will work a miracle in the ring. And Coogler doesn’t make it easy for his protagonist; Conlan surely beats Johnson to a pulp. In the end, in an epic moment of resolution in his relationship with Rocky Balboa and in his internal struggle with being an illegitimate son, Johnson manages to knock Conlan off of his feet for the first time in Conlan’s career. We think it will be a KO, and Johnson will take the fight, but at the last minute, Conlan gets back up and the bell rings. The ref declares Conlan the winner of the fight, and as the announcer states, “Conlan wins the fight, but Johnson wins the night!” It was incredibly satisfying as a viewer who was rooting for the protagonist, but it was also respectful toward our intelligence and didn’t ask us to suspend our disbelief about the odds of the matchup.
Meet the reader’s expectations for the genre, but twist the conventions. As Coyne advises, reject the first five, ten, twenty ideas you come up with and start taking the next dozen seriously. It hasn’t all been done before. There is still plenty of room for innovation.