My friend Caroline Warfield shared the following story about a conversation between the Hollywood screenwriter Charles MacArthur and Charlie Chaplin.
“How, for example, could I make a fat lady, walking down Fifth Avenue, slip on a banana peel and still get a laugh? It’s been done a million times,” said MacArthur. “What’s the best way to get the laugh? Do I show first the banana peel, then the fat lady approaching, then she slips? Or do I show the fat lady first, then the banana peel, and then she slips?”
“Neither,” said Chaplin without a moment’s hesitation. “You show the fat lady approaching; then you show the banana peel; then you show the fat lady and the banana peel together; then she steps over the banana peel and disappears down a manhole.”
This is a wonderful hint for plotting, so this week I’ve been thinking about those manhole moments. Do you have any? Where you’d set up a certain expectation for your readers and then you do something else? Please share an excerpt in the comments.
My excerpt is from The Lost Treasure of Lorne, a made-to-order story I’m writing as a party prize. The curse comes to fruition at midnight. Or does it?
The three of them met in Michael’s private sitting room to wait for midnight, and in ones and twos the ghosts seeped through the walls to join them.
“Do you suppose the servants are mistaken about the date?” John asked as the clock chimed eleven times.
“Or about the consequence,” Michael suggested. “The ghosts will stay in the castle, and not all be forfeit to the devil.”
“If the curse is true and the date is true…” Caitlin said, as the ghosts crowded around her nodding, “then we have less than an hour to find the answer.” The ghosts seemed to lose interest, wandering off again to their corners.
“I can’t think of anywhere we have not looked,” Michael grieved. “Fiona.” He stood in front of the ghost of his young wife, so that she had to look up at him. “Fiona, I want to help. Can’t you tell us how to find the treasure? And the casket with the marriage lines? Please, Fiona.”
But Fiona slid her eyes away from him and circled around him to join the others in the corner.
They watched the hands of the clock shift with glacial speed towards midnight, and still the ghosts remained, even after 31 August became 1 September. Caitlin had no idea what she expected. Anything from a silent disappearance to Satan himself arriving in clouds of fire and sweeping her relatives into the maw of hell. For nothing to happen at all was almost a let down, relieved though she was.
“Is the clock slow, perhaps?” John suggested, and they waited another interminable half hour.
“We might as well go to bed,” Caitlin said at last. “Either the legend is wrong or the date is.”
“The date!” Michael stopped short, halfway across the room to the door. “It isn’t 31 August.”
“No,” John agreed. “It is after midnight.”
“That’s not what I mean. The Calendar Act. The Calendar Act, Caitlin.”