Story Tricks: No. 1 – Planting Plums
This is a new occasional series for both readers and budding writers, about some of the tricks that can be used to improve stories.
This one’s a classic. Oddly enough, it’s use has been made much easier since the advent of computers, because you can go back and revise manuscripts accordingly. It involves the planting of moments in the first half of your story that pay off reader satisfaction in the second. There are obvious examples, like the hiding of Agatha Christie inanimate clues that pay off in the closing pages, but we find them in every type of writing.
Most recently I saw the system at work in the revised book of ‘Mack and Mabel’. The actress Mabel Normand complains about the way she is treated by her director. Mack Sennett controls her on-camera movements by counting from one to ten. Before they embark on their affair he warns her he’ll never give her roses, remember her birthday or even be faithful, but she accepts his conditions, sleeping with him only after he slips a napkin ring onto her finger.
At the play’s end, just as it seems they’ll be reconciled, the drug-ravaged Normand dies in Sennett’s arms. Devastated, he tries to direct her back to life using the same counting method. As he loses her, Normand’s hand opens, releasing the napkin ring she still carried, and behind Sennett is the bunch of roses he had finally brought for her.
The rose, the ring, the counting system – in a novel three would have been overkill but on stage the combination drives home the central theme, that each had mistimed the other’s devotion.
The planting of these devices is riskier in mysteries, because the reader is always looking for clues. I can spot bad writing a mile off, because these little points are poorly integrated and stick out like bricks for the reader to stumble over.
Margery Allingham used something called the ‘Plum Pudding Principal’, which involved providing the reader with one of such moments every few pages, so that they were repaid for the process of reading. Incredibly, we still comes across the Deus Ex-Machina ending which appears as if from nowhere, and fails to satisfy. Often the writers who provide the most satisfying plots are poor creators of memorable characters. Think of Dan Brown, whose books are peppered with examples of this device, but who is rarely able to create a real character, or Christie, where the satisfaction stems from the mechanics of the plot and not from the tragedy of the people behind it.
One of the best films in recent years to use the device beautifully is ‘The Lives of Others’, wherein the lead character’s chief flaw causes his downfall – but look at the way in which the plums have been planted; they’re signposted throughout the screenplay and yet we fail to avoid the outcome.
In my recent story ‘The Eleventh Day’, which can be found in ‘Red Gloves’, I stripped back details and characters to such a minimum that it gave me almost no place to plant the plums. But after you reach the logical conclusion of the story you can go back over the pages and quite clearly spot them, sitting in plain sight. It’s a great trick if you can pull it off, and rewards the reader enormously.