Writing Experiment No. 64: The Wrong Envelope

I’m planning for a workshop on plotting I’m leading at the Getting Published Day on Saturday. I went online earlier to read the news, and I saw this photograph of the audience at the Oscars just as it became clear that the wrong envelope had been opened by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway when they announced Best Picture. A classic reversal of fortune! Everything was going smoothly, and then it turned out someone had made a very human error. An error with a very human cause, and perhaps with very human effects (let’s see who carries those briefcases next year). But fortunately there are systems in place, so it was an error that was caught and resulted in that moment of truth; it all ended happily ever after, with two production teams acknowledging – celebrating – the victory of one of them on stage.

The moment of truth is captured above by Los Angeles Times photographer Al Sei – read the story about the taking of it here: ‘What is happening???’ Times photographer explains how he captured that viral Oscars moment. Look at those big names we’ve seen on Graham Norton’s sofa. Look at those slack jaws, look at those stars who’ve entertained us so often on the edges of their seats. I don’t think they were acting right then.

This unexpected error certainly injected some drama and thrills. Poor La La Land! But how wonderful for Moonlight! As Anthony Lane said in this charming piece in the New Yorker: ‘it was a disaster for all concerned, but it was also, in its harmless way, super, super everything we need in our lives right now. Peace and blessings’.

In reading this story about the wrong envelope, I’m also thinking: what does wrong actually mean? This strikes my imagination perhaps because last week I read another news story about the great, great care that goes into making sure that everything is right and correct in the running of the Oscars. Who knew?! We scoff at contrivances in the melodramatic plots of blockbusters and soaps, but things go wrong all the time in the real world, so why shouldn’t they in fiction? Writers just have to make things feel credible, or at least compelling. (Compelling can probably rush a reader past any lack of credibility. Compelling, and a good voice.)

As a writing experiment: Write a short story called ‘The Wrong Envelope’ in which someone is given a wrong envelope. The story could culminate in this event, or it could begin with this event, or the handing over of the envelope could take place off the page, or before the main action of the storyline begins. The giving of the wrong envelope could result from a human error, or otherwise. A train of events will be triggered: there should be causes, or consequences, or both. There might, or might not, be a moment of truth. And perhaps you can take your readers to the edges of their seats too.

Peace and blessings!

Friday Writing Experiment No. 40: Friday the 13th


Eek, it’s Friday the 13th! Hope nothing unexpectedly bad has happened to you.

This set me to thinking about reversals of fortune – those unexpected happenings that throw characters’ lives into a spin and in testing them bring out their essential qualities. Sometimes, when a piece of writing is going flat it can help to craft a reversal of fortune to shake things up.

Sometimes reversals are positive: the appearance of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, Oliver Twist being taken in by Mr Brownlow, Charlie finding the golden ticket that takes him to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Sometimes reversals are negative: the outcome of Othello hangs on the accidental dropping of a handkerchief. Anyone who’s read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters will know (no spoilers) that something quite unexpected happens at a certain point, and that changes everything.

Sometimes reversals are more complex, as when Bilbo finds Gollum’s precious ring in The Hobbit. Bottom falling asleep in the woods in Midsummer Night’s Dream and having his head turned into an ass’s by Puck, and then Titania seeing him first on waking from her drugged sleep: they are reversals of fortune. Whether they are good luck or bad luck is debatable, but they certainly add to the mix.

For this week’s writing experiment: Create a scene in which you craft a reversal of fortune that somehow changes a character’s destiny. It’s a contrivance in the writing, of course, so much of the art will lie in making it believable as well as compelling. Healthy dialogue, a strong setting, and a well-drawn character will all come into play.