Plot twists and the Moment of Truth – a customer service analysis for writers

Novelists don’t think of themselves as being in ‘Customer Service.’ But we are – we are in business to satisfy our customers – readers – with our work: a constant stream of words, properly presented, for the entertainment and delectation of the person who honors us first with his money and then with her time.

We want to keep that customer satisfied. Basic customer service.

A satisfied customer will:

be happy he spent money to acquire our book for entertainment purposes

be happy she read our book

buy future books from us

tell other readers about our book personally, on a review site, on his blog – in positive, possibly glowing tones

become a true fan

possibly even become a friend.

In contrast, an UNsatisfied customer will, after throwing the book against the wall (TTBATW):

be unhappy about paying for our book – and may even return it (even if the book’s cost is small)

wish she’d never wasted her time (which she can never get back) reading our book

never buy future books of ours

tell other readers about our book personally, on a review site, on his blog – in negative, possibly scathing tones and with as few stars as possible

become a critic

maybe even become a troll.

Moment of Truth Analysis

From CreatingMinds.org.:

The term ‘Moment of Truth’ was coined by Jan Carlzon, who managed the Scandinavian SAS Airlines. He used the term to mean those moments in which important brand impressions are formed and where there is significant opportunity for good or bad impressions to be made.

Moments of Truth often happen when they are not thought to occur, in odd interfaces with staff and moments with products. First impressions are often critical moments. When customers have certain expectations and they are disappointed, then they can form very negative impressions or feel a sense of betrayal that sends them into destructive desires for retribution.

From ManagementStudyGuide.com:

Service Encounter / Moment of Truth

A moment of truth is usually defined as an instance wherein the customer and the organization come into contact with one another in a manner that gives the customer an opportunity to either form or change an impression about the firm.

From KingsInsight.com we get questions:

When do customers interact with the team?

What happens when customers interact with the team?

and a sample process of how to evaluate the interactions, followed by:

Wrapping up the moment of truth analysis

The final stage is to consider how each of these elements interacts with the others to support or hinder the team’s ability to provide positive “moments of truth”.

Moments of Truth in Fiction

So, as writers with books as our product, what are the moments of interaction we have with our readers?

The obvious ones are many:

cover

description

tags

book sample – on our website, on selling sites such as Amazon, on other people’s blogs

our choices for front matter – including table of contents, number of pages, ease of links, dedications, forewords, prologues, introductions

end of our book items – which includes back matter, samples of our other work, links, and requests for feedback

The writer MUST consider the reader’s experience at each one of these junctures and satisfy or exceed the reader’s expectations at every one. This means basic competence is taken for granted (no typos, and, you can spell, can’t you?).

And, now that we have more control over the details (if we self-publish), learning how to do each of the items on the list WELL, or finding people who will do them for us WELL.

Moments of Truth in Writing

The more important – but less obvious places we interact with customers – and must satisfy their experience of the interaction are in the writing:

presentation of characters

hook (and what the hook promises the reader)

setting

clarity of writing and writing style

And each of the plot twists that are on the critical path for the story.

Here I’m using ‘critical path’ as a concept applying, not to the writing of each scene (as here), but to the concept of journeying through the story in a linear way, meeting the characters, learning about their conflicts step by step, seeing how the conflicts are resolved, and reaching the end of the story having agreed that the resolution presented by the author is the ONLY possible resolution to the story we’ve just read.

ANY one of these plot twists has the potential for being the TTBATW moment: that is what we do, we take chances, put the reader on edge, give him an experience he won’t have in person but is deeply involved in, give her an experience she wishes she could have in person, take them up to the mountain and promise them the world. If they will only read. (The bowing down before us is nice, but not strictly necessary, and probably bad for our character.)

A reader MAY (but is not required to AND will be disappointed if asked to) suspend disbelief about our handling of a plot twist or two – give us a break – accept that our characters are fascinating enough to ignore a few small details.

But the reader won’t do it very many times, and won’t let us goof off for long: the TTBATW moment is due – and is what we deserve – from the very first time a reader doesn’t believe a word we write.

Plot twists on the critical path are the steps in the story that MUST happen: the main characters must meet, the antagonist must have a strong and plausible reason for antagonizing, a turn from characters loathing each other to considering each other as potential mates must be carefully set up – preferably without dumb ‘nobody would act like that!’ moments of cuteness, the external situation can’t be so contrived as to be unbelievable (yes, even if it is of a spaceship hurtling through time and black holes).

The steps are stepping stones across the river from the reader’s comfortable starting position on the bank, uncommitted, to the far shore of customer satisfaction: missing stones make it very likely that the customer will fall into the river. Soaked customers are like wet cats: unhappy and looking around for someone to claw.

Remedying failures at the Moment of Truth

The good part of all this analysis is that in the same way customer satisfaction can be assessed by examining the individual encounters a customer has with the service company, and making sure each of these interactions is as good as possible, meeting or exceeding the customer’s expectations, each individual plot twist in the critical path can be examined – and there are known writing techniques for fixing problematic ones.

There is a famous cartoon of two scientists standing in front of a blackboard covered on the left with equations, and again covered with equations on the right, with a blank section between them labeled ‘then a miracle occurs.’ The first step in fixing a problem ‘plot twist’ is to identify in which ones we are relying on a miracle to carry the reader over the stepping stone, resting as it were on nothing holding it up in the current of the story.

The next step is to anchor that plot twist, build a support structure under it from the water level down to the riverbed. One of the easiest technique for this is to set up the twist by planting clues which the reader absorbs in advance and then is able to rely on when the twist hits (Sol Stein covers this in On Writing in his chapter 15, The Keys to Credibility). This allows the plot twist not to come out of the blue (water), but to be anchored – and thus logically supported – by what has gone earlier in the story.

The clues can be plot-, character-, theme-, or genre-based – as long as the reader recognizes them and remembers them well enough to put it all together when the twister hits. Fortunately for writers, these anchors can be added AFTER the story is finished, when the advance alpha and beta readers point out that your story can’t swim.

Donald Maass, in Chapter 6 of The Fire in Fiction, discusses Making the Impossible Real, and points out that the harder a twist is to swallow, the more words the writer will have to use to set it up as possible, even plausible – and shows techniques such as first making us believe in the story’s characters, and then making the characters afraid, if the goal is to make a skeptical reader afraid. A highly-recommended read for this and many other techniques.

So, in summary: there is a use for a Moment of Truth Analysis for a novel (short story, novella, play, script…) in assessing whether the reader satisfaction has been taken into account everywhere necessary, and there are proven techniques for improving those places we identify where the interaction between reader and book may be a failure.

We just have to do our job, and avoid places where we allow readers to form ‘negative impressions’ or

a sense of betrayal that sends [readers] into destructive desires for retribution.

It isn’t mercenary to do so: it is smart. Writers don’t get do-overs on first impressions. Comments?

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3 thoughts on “Plot twists and the Moment of Truth – a customer service analysis for writers

  1. Rachel6

    “Soaked customers are like wet cats”– brilliant!

    I have read before that almost any plot twist can be made acceptable if you plant and plan it far enough in advance–condition the reader, as it were, to accept the reality you will hand them.

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    Reply
    1. ABE Post author

      If it weren’t true, how would people like Dexter and Hannibal Lecter? Not everyone’s favorite characters, but humans don’t act without motivation.

      If readers get the motivation, they can suspend disbelief – and then disown the story later, if it makes them too uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the human race has had plenty of monsters. Also saints. I couldn’t be either, I don’t think, but I can write them.

      Learning to do all these things it what makes the job interesting: as a kid I just knew I loved reading.

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