Your characters are on a quest for the fabled Sword of Bighands.
They’re sitting around a thick iron-banded wooden table at the Borderlands Pub, a dark, seedy local hangout where you can buy anything from drugs to human slaves. Or a really good guide to get you out of Bordertown and across the great Scorched Desert, to the fabled Treasure Lands across that hot, dry, shimmering expanse of red sand.
Your characters are talking about the long trek ahead, sharing war stories, and sipping on curiously ice-cold mead. And they’re absolutely bored out of their gourds.
So what can you do to liven things up?
Put a wolf under the table.
What might happen when your new pet wolf begins to snarl and bite all the soft body parts within its reach under that beer-soaked table? When someone loses a finger (or worse) and people start to react with screams and falling backward out of their chairs and maybe even fighting back against our poor displaced wolf?
When your plot slows to a crawl, one of the easiest ways to fix it is to throw in an unexpected element that turns everything on its head, and sends the story racing off in a new direction. Just think of the questions it raises:
Why is there a wolf under the table?
Who put it there?
Was it there the whole time and snarled when someone stepped on its tail?
is it a werewolf?
Why am I just standing here while said wolf slaughters my fellow questers?
I was recently writing a scene with several of my characters sitting in carriages, enroute from the city to a manor out in the countryside. It was raining, and one of the POV characters was staring out the window, brooding on his life and his fate.
For a paragraph or two, it was fine, but after four or five, even Aik began to roll his eyes at me.
I needed a wolf.
Aik grabbed hold of the handle above the door, peering out into the falling rain.
“I don’t think so. It’s—” The carriage lurched forward and then down, sending him flying into the front of the cabin. Aik caught himself with his right hand, saving himself from a probable broken nose.
There was a horrid grinding sound, and then everything came to a screeching halt with the carriage laying at an awkward angle.
Boom. Wolf added. The carriage had broken a wheel, stranding Aik and his two companions and their driver in the middle of an old iron bridge. They did the sensible thing and started to replace the tire. But sometimes one wolf isn’t enough:
A low rumble quickly grew into a crescendo, and the bridge began to sway crazily under Aik.
“Quake! Hold on!” Malin dropped the wheel, and it bounced away, rolling down the shaking bridge. He reached for the carriage, but a jolt threw him back against the rail, where he collapsed to the ground.
Now our boring riding-in-the-carriage scene has been transformed into a thrilling run-for-your-life one as our characters scramble in a mad dash to get off the bridge before it collapses. And as a bonus, our poor friend Aik still has all his brooding worries going on in the background.
These events also set things up nicely for a reveal of the secret Aik has been hiding from his best friend, which itself sends the story careening off in a new direction.
Plot wolves can take many forms – physical events, surprise arrivals of other characters, secrets revealed, etc.
For a master class in this technique, check out the latest version of “Lost in Space” on Netflix. This show regularly releases two or three wolves in an episode, creating chaos and plot movement (and making the phrase “Things are not looking good for our heroes” run through my head almost constantly).
You do have to be careful about overusing this device, though. Too many wolves and your readers may start feeling like sheep being fleeced, especially if your characters escape unscathed every single time.
Still, the “wolf under the table” is a surefire way to add a little life to a tired plot arc and get things moving again.
And if you need some additional inspiration, I may have a pack of wolves to sell you. 🙂
To my fellow authors, what’s your version of the wolf under the table?