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I’ll put my hand up and recognize the following is NOT a ‘necessity’ to any manuscript. But I’ve spoken with and read articles from several authors who consider it so.
The recipe for this technique I’ve nicknamed The Plot Mirror is quite simple:
Create a scene in the first third of your book which reflects (to a lesser degree) the worst-case-scenario events of your climax. In that first scene, let the protagonist lose or fail.
It’s simple foreshadowing, giving the reader a taste of the fearful events at the end of the book with the added tension of seeing the protagonist fail. Hence, when the be-all-end-all events of the climax are approaching the reader is frightened – we can see the worst-case-scenario possibilities. Then, when those circumstances are upon us, we can’t help being scared spitless that the protagonist will lose again.
This technique creates symmetry, builds tension and is a great way to establish a plausible foundation for your ending.
If you aren’t sure what I mean, here are some skeletal examples:
In fantasy: The Princess tells her aged father she’s become aware of a plot to overthrow him. The neighboring king – a vicious dictator – is trying to seduce the people with promises of wealth and power. She asks for her father’s permission to take the crown and lead the people against the villain. But her father says to prove her abilities, she has to fight his strongest Knight. She is quickly bested and the father laughs her out of the throne-room, declaring her mad and his eldest son to be the official heir. At the end of the book, after her brother’s hedonistic and disastrous rule is brought to a bloody end by the neighboring ruler, Princess leads her people to victory against his hordes - after using the Knight who bested her to train the people to fight.
In romance: Hero and Heroine are colleagues – she’s been in love with him for a year. After a particularly bonding late-night strategy meeting, Hero pulls heroine aside to ‘talk about something’. Heroine hopes he’s going to declare his undying love. But it turns out he wants advice on how to get her friend to go out with him instead. At the end of the book, following 200 pages of excruciating tension building, he’ll pull her aside again – but this time he’ll actually declare his love for her.
In thriller: Protagonist Detective is called in on the murder of a fellow officer. The dead man was investigating a particularly nasty serial killer. At the end of the book it will be revealed that the serial killer had to be an inside man. He’s killed two officers already because they got too close and now he’s stalked Protagonist Detective home…
I’m sure you get the picture.
The trick is to foreshadow (imply or hint at what could go terribly wrong) rather than project (tell the reader what you want them to see coming).
What's projecting look like? Well, it's the moment when the soldier heroine first meets the villain and says to herself, "This looks like a man who would eat me alive. I hope I never have to face him one on one!"
Or it could be a conversation between hero and heroine at the beginning of a romance in which the hero admits "I have this terrible habit of falling in love with someone, then getting cold feet and backing out at the last minute..." (Hint: That's actually a great tension builder to imply - by having the hero recount a past relationship, or having the heroine observe the hero in a relationship doing that very thing...but him talking about it? Waaaaaaay too obvious). Essentially, projecting is leading the reader by the nose. It isn't necessary, and a savvy reader will roll their eyes and move onto something else.
I’ll say again: A writer could argue whether the plot mirror falls within the ‘critical’ elements of plot… but I know many bestselling writers believe it is so. And many publishing professionals look for it when they’re reading. Whether you actually paint a plot-mirror-picture or not, make sure that your foreshadowing is subtle. It will serve you well in the end when your readers walk away satisfied.
Next Post: The Three Act Structure – and how to signal the end of your beginning.
Your Turn: Feel free to ask questions in the comments if any of this is unclear. I’m happy to clarify.