7 Bad Plots
I talk a lot about how to build a good plot, but I thought it might be useful to talk
about some of the bad plots that I see frequently. Yes, even in movies and on
television, and often in literary fiction that you might read in college as an
example of good fiction. I'm not going to argue literary merit here, but if you want
to sell commercial fiction, you should avoid these plots:
1. Victim Plot
2. Deus Ex Machina Plot
3. Coincidental Plot
4. Random Plot
5. Meaningless Plot
6. Abrupt Ending Plot
7. Gotcha Plot
Victim Plot is the kind of story about a character who has things happen to them,
but rarely, if ever, acts proactively to make their own life change. You may not
realize you are writing this kind of plot, but sometimes fantasy and science fiction
can end up creating this kind of plot because you as the writer are focusing too
intensely on the big scenery behind the story itself, and end up making the
character into a puppet of the big events. You do not have to tell a story about a
character who makes the big events happen if you don't want to. I like small
stakes fantasy and science fiction stories better most of the time than the other
kind of story. But if you are going to tell a BIG story, you have to tell about the
people who make the big story happen.
Yes, I was a grad student of literary fiction. Yes, I know that plenty of literary
stories are about character who are helpless victims of their own lives, who are
surrounded by events bigger than they are. I know that there is some truth to this
kind of story. I don't recommend telling it. That said, of course, a brilliant writer
can make this story work. I just don't think it's necessarily a great idea to set out
to do something so difficult for a first book.
Deus Ex Machina Plot is named for the Greek Euripides' tendency to deal with an
all-too-complicated plot problem by having a god descend and force a solution
onto characters since they won't figure it out for themselves in the time frame of a
three-act play. I don't know if the Greek audiences liked this or not. I do know that
modern readers won't put up with it. And there are many variations to this that you
may not be thinking count as deus ex machine.
Don't end your story with an earthquake or other natural event that makes
everyone who was arguing before suddenly work together. Don't end your story
with a character who has not previously been part of events and has much greater
power than anyone else in the story fixing things. Don't end your story with
people who have so far been unable to change suddenly changing for no other
apparent reason than it suits you as the writer to have them change so you can end
the story and tie up loose ends.
Coincidental Plot is when the main events of the plot are motivated not by any
character but by coincidence. You are writing a detective story and the detective
coincidentally comes across the one person who can identify the killer. You are
writing a fantasy story and the hero of the story coincidentally stumbles across a
book with the answer to the magic problem. You are writing a science fiction story
and the rebels coincidentally are able to defeat the tyrant of the universe because
they have found his one weakness.
Anything you use in the ending of your book to offer as a resolution must be
carefully shown to develop throughout the book. No shortcuts.
Random Plot is when the events of the plot are random and have little connection
to each other. This can feel like a victim plot, but even if you work to make sure
your main character is motivating each event, they must be connected in order for
it to feel like a story. For instance, if you have a main character who wants to
become an astronaut and the story ends up being about her going to college and
getting a degree in engineering, then having an interview with NASA that turns
out badly, then deciding to get a job with a big cosmetics firm, then marrying and
losing a child, then getting a divorce, and finally ending up with a movie career,
I'd call this a random plot.
Plots need to be connected from point to point with more than the random,
changing impulses of the main character. Again, literary fiction may find it
interesting and experimental to have a main character whose goals change from
chapter to chapter, but commercial readers are not interested much in this.
Meaningless Plot is plot that may have events connected one to another, but still
does not offer a meaning. I have read published books like this, books that lack a
theme or a kind of overarching message. I'm not saying that fiction should preach.
It shouldn't. If you know what your message is, you might be better off writing a
pamphlet than fiction, at least to begin with. But that doesn't mean that your plot
should end without offering some insight to the reader into the human character,
into society in general, or perhaps into the nature of the quest itself.
You should have something meaty to say or to describe when you are plotting
events. Are corporations evil? Why? Are people destined to hurt each other? Are
we destined to leave Earth because of our inherent need to achieve more, to go
further and faster than before? I have to say, one of my biggest disappointments
with Hollywood lately is the tendency to write scripts that are nothing more than
one explosion after another, retreads of old characters in the same old plot but
without any attempt to update it to speak to us today. I don't want explosions
without meaning. I don't want to follow a character who learns nothing and is
basically the same as the hero of a 50s movie.
Abrupt Ending Plot is when the plot simply ends abruptly. Sure, I know that this is
a device that literary writers use precisely because their audience doesn't like it.
That's why you shouldn't use it. It tweaks readers who want to have the sense that
reading this book means something and that there will be a point to the journey
through the book. Readers want an ending that actually ends. Leaving the reader
hanging is a pointless kind of "F--- you." Why do you even want readers to read
your book if you care so little for their satisfaction? Take the time to figure out a
real ending to the story and then work toward it so that there is an ending.
I am not saying that you can't offer an ending that isn't a happy one. You can. You
can even write up to the point that you've almost reached the ending, but refuse to
do all the work of writing it and let the reader do the rest. Or you can write an
ambiguous ending, one that can be interpreted either happily or not. I approve of
all of those. But there must be an ending of some kind, not just a sense that just as
the story is getting good, you've decided that you have something else to do with
your time, like going to the grocery store.
Gotcha Plot is the plot where the writer twists the ending in such a way that the
reader is surprised, but not in a satisfied way. Instead, the reader feels cheated
because the author purposely gave clues that made it clear that the final solution
was an impossible one. But somehow, it gets shoved in at the end because there
had to be some kind of ending, and it's wrapped up in tinsel and flashing lights as
if that makes it more palatable. You set up the rules for your universe, whether it's
contemporary or fantastical, and you can't change those rules at the end for your
You may disagree with me and you're free to. Write a book or a movie script that
is so good that I don't care what you have to say. I dare you! In fact, I daresay that
these kinds of rules are exactly the kind of thing that led me to write several of my
novels. Someone once told me that you can't write a romance between a person
and an animal that would be taken seriously (hence The Princess and the Hound).
Another person told me that stories told from the point of view of inanimate
objects are always tiresome (hence Mira, Mirror). And I was also told that no one
wants to hear about Mormons. So that was why I wrote The Bishop's Wife.
Dare to break the rules anyone sets you. But do it well!
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison