Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2015

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 own convenience.

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

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