Turkey City Lexicon Part Three: Plots
Part Three of the Turkey City Lexicon focuses in on Plot. As our regular readers know, Literary Rebel is big on knowing where you are going before you get in the car, but there are a lot of would be authors out there who like to wing it. (Also called pantsing. A term we hate.) Part three will examine some of the common story types that have been done to death, and also some common plot problems you might run up against in your own writing.
Abbess Phone Home
Takes its name from a mainstream story about a medieval cloister which was sold as SF because of the serendipitous arrival of a UFO at the end. By extension, any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.
This is a fairly common occurrence in main stream fiction. When a pantser tells a story with no real plot, which don’t exactly fit into upscale fiction markets, but isn’t genre fiction either, but the author has a way with words. The publishing company thinks they can turn a profit on the book, but they don’t know what category it fits into. You can almost hear the editor whispering in the Author’s ear, “Add aliens!”
See the book Cloud Atlas. Is it Sci-Fi? General Fiction? Who the hell knows. These books usually hit the market big and then are quickly forgotten. If your goal is to build up a steady readership, best avoid.
Picaresque plot in which this happens, and then that happens, and then something else happens, and it all adds up to nothing in particular.
These stories often feel like several loosely related short stories. Often times, the author even bills it as such.
List of actions a character could have taken, but didn’t. Frequently includes all the reasons why. In this nervous mannerism, the author stops the action dead to work out complicated plot problems at the reader’s expense. “If I’d gone along with the cops they would have found the gun in my purse. And anyway, I didn’t want to spend the night in jail. I suppose I could have just run instead of stealing their car, but then … ” etc.
Best dispensed with entirely. If your characters are making decisions that don’t make sense, or have to be explained to the reader, more than likely you have a plot problem. In my first book Noble Man, (Yes, I’m using my own fiction as an example ) no one questions why Noble would take a job working for the CIA after they burned him. His mother is dying of cancer and he needs the money. If you craft your plot correctly, your character’s motivations should be clear to the reader.
Card Tricks in the Dark
Elaborately contrived plot which arrives at (a) the punchline of a private joke no reader will get or (b) the display of some bit of learned trivia relevant only to the author. This stunt may be intensely ingenious, and very gratifying to the author, but annoys readers. (Attr. Tim Powers)
Card Tricks in the Dark are common, unfortunately there are no examples to which I can point. Probably because stories like this don’t get published. Want to take a guess as to why?
A plot which functions only because all the characters involved are idiots. They behave in a way that suits the author’s convenience, rather than through any rational motivation of their own. (Attr. James Blish)
You’ll find Idiot Plots in amateur attempts at horror and YA books especially. But it also creeps into detective fiction featuring serial killers and spy fiction. Defenseless women walking down dark alleys in the middle of the night after seeing a report about an escaped convict on the loose? Idiot. Ace detective that never seems to notice his girlfriend is always conveniently absent every time the killer strikes? Idiot. Secret Service agents who leave the President and his family unattended while they respond to a threat in the Rose Garden? Not even a chance. For a perfect example of an Idiot Plot, read Running Blind by Lee Child. If you can’t spot the killer in the first hundred pages, then you have no business writing. NOTE: Usually Child is a top notch thriller but Running Blind sucked the sweat from a dead man’s back.
Plot which weaves and curls and writhes in weedy organic profusion, smothering everything in its path.
The Kudzu Plot is better experienced than explained. Watch the television show Lost. The writers kept adding in plot elements and twists until the final product was a mess. In the end, they had created such a mess, there was no way they could have explained it all. So instead, they pulled the old, “They’re all DEAD! It doesn’t have to make sense!” FYI, Yes, it does have to make sense.
The basic building blocks of the quest-type fantasy plot. The “hero” collects sufficient plot coupons (magic sword, magic book, magic cat) to send off to the author for the ending. Note that “the author” can be substituted for “the Gods” in such a work: “The Gods decreed he would pursue this quest.” Sure they did. The author decreed he would pursue this quest until sufficient pages were filled to procure an advance. (Nick Lowe)
J.K. Rowling’s lazy use of Horcruxes is an example of Plot Coupons. In the sixth book, Harry has to run around collecting and destroying various devices that Voldemort has used to preserve his soul/power. The book really doesn’t have much in the way of story. Just Harry and gang gathering plot coupons.
Some will argue that Rowling made a bazillion dollars and therefore this is a recipe for making money. Literary Rebel will point out that the series success is founded on, admittedly, good writing and plotting in the first four books. The final three were lack luster at best.