ABC’s of Fiction Writing: K is for Knot

Posted by on Mar 12, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

de·noue·ment : noun

the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.

Origin: In French dénouement, literally, means untying, from Middle French desnouement, from desnouer to untie.

AbbeyClelandSpryHeadshotI’ve chosen to spend many, many hours of my life watching baseball and reading novels – two activities many, many people find incredibly boring.

People who find baseball boring say it’s too slow, too long, too uneventful. While some marvel at an epic pitchers’ duel, another whines, “It’s still zero-zero?”

Quiet fiction, artful fiction, not-so-genre fiction, I’ve found, as a reader, writer, and teacher, can often prompt the same response. A trained eye may be required to appreciate the underlying nuances and subtle strategies at work. Sometimes I still find it difficult to detect the percolating rising tensions in a particularly calm character-driven story. But while we may be tempted to blame the reader, to conclude, “You’re just not reading it right,” the truth is plain and challenges us to do better:

The very act of writing a story involves drafting a contract with the reader. Keep on, we encourage, we beg. It’ll be worth it. Believe me. No, this story isn’t about you, but it will change you, alter your way of thinking, of seeing, of feeling. It’ll help you see your world anew.

As writers, there are many ways we can fail to hold up our end of the deal. One of them, an obvious, but slippery one, is to allow things to go static. When things go static, stories die. Proving, once and for all, good stories don’t happen by chance. They happen by design.

When a story goes static either the plot hasn’t been knotty enough from the start, or it unravels far too early, causing the tension to plummet long before the final page. (A story shouldn’t resolve until the last possible moment, meaning, it should really end after the reader looks away, reheats her tea, or returns to folding her laundry, or waits for her meeting to begin. It should conclude with a resonating ring that echoes and lingers within, in unexpected ways, at unexpected moments.)

So what are we really talking about here? What makes a “knot?” And how do we intensify our protagonists’ organic internal and external conflicts? In essence, how do we make the complicated jumble of events that is a story knottier and messier from the very start?

Note: While this discussion relates to “raising the stakes,” it’s helpful to think of stakes as macro, as in, a defined premise or inciting incident, a pivotal plot point, a twist, or plot-altering reversal. Meanwhile, a knot can be more subtle and nuanced, as it increases a story’s tension without necessarily altering the main storyline.

Here are some considerations to help knot things up:

Coils rooted in CHARACTER:

Would tensions rise if the relationship dynamic between key characters were altered? What if the character-in-question were her father? Mother? Twin? What if she was his boss instead of his love interest? High school sweetheart instead of neighbor? Would making a particular character a police officer or doctor or religious leader or lobbyist complicate things?

Coils rooted in SETTING:

Is there a way the setting for the piece or even a particular backdrop for a scene could make things messier for the protagonist? What if everything unfolded in a small coastal town where secrets had remarkably short shelf lives? Or what if the story took place twenty years before or twenty years after? How would location and time impact the protagonist’s journey?

Coils rooted in STRUCTURE:

How could the structure of the story be condensed, expanded, or re-sequenced to make things messier? Do the subplots contribute to propelling the “A story” in an interesting, meaningful way? Are there missed opportunities to have those subplots intersect at pivotal times in order to have more tension-filled, explosive scenes?

What if a life-spanning story were told in vignettes, a chapter dedicated to each year, or a part to each decade? Could another story become knottier by fitting the events into one summer, one week, or even one day?

Coils rooted in BACKGROUND INFORMATION:

How could a setting’s history or a character’s past experiences impact the real time story in a compelling way? If our protagonist is cornered to prevent his long-time rival from drowning, wouldn’t it be messier if he had a crippling fear of water himself, rooted in a harrowing childhood dare?

Coils rooted in WRITING the UNEXPECTED (and skipping the expected):

And lastly, there are the simple rules of drama that we all know because we’re humans, not necessarily story scholars and weavers, i.e.: a large, varied audience makes embarrassing moments more embarrassing, and acts of kindness and generosity less meaningful. Emotions run high at weddings, funerals, reunions, competitions, legal trials, high stake holidays, etc.

To make the story knottier, ensure the protagonist is sometimes surprised by the outcomes they cause, avoid, endure, and fight to change. A predictably sad funeral or joyful wedding entertains no one. If these types of scenes must be featured (and not the lead up and fall out – usually far juicier parts), then ensure something occurs that makes tensions rise in an utterly unexpected way.

If you should succeed in creating an entirely believable, but knotty story, dripping with organic tension, the conclusion of the piece – that glorious exhale, the denouement – should feel like the untangling of these knots, the smoothing of wild electrical wire. Resist tying it up in too neat of a bow, and consider yourself a literary all-star.


Abbey Cleland writes fiction, TV, film, and essays. Her work’s appeared on Lifetime, Hallmark Movie Channel, and PixL networks, while she continues to write, develop, and consult for other production companies and studios. She’s studied creative writing at The Ohio State University and The New School, and earned an MFA in Fiction from Fairfield University. Her master’s thesis, an upmarket women’s comedic novel, is currently being considered for publication. Above all, Abbey believes in hard work, October baseball, and that in each of our daily lives, there’s a delicious story to be told. Follow Abbey on her websiteFacebook, and Instagram.

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