Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2015

Plot Formulas Stink

There is no formula to plot. The more I talk to writers I admire about writing, the more suspicious I am about books or formulas about how to plot anything "the right way." As a reader/viewer myself, I can smell formula a mile away. Plot that feels imposed on characters can never satisfy. Let me give some examples of problems that I've seen in plot and I think you will agree. From there, I'll talk about how to plot outside of the box in ways that will really surprise you and the most savvy consumers out there.

One of the most common plot devices is to kill a character near the end of a story in order to raise the final stakes at the climax of the book. The villain chooses a character to kill who is "really" important to the main character. This is also a character we consumers have fallen in love with. The writer(s) have done everything possible to make us care about the character in question, giving this character strengths and vulnerabilities, and even showing us a character arc in development. Often this is the "best" character, the one who is the kindest, the smartest, the cleanest (in terms of the consequences of the story arc that clings to the main character in particular). So when this character dies, we consumers feel really angry. We want to throw things at the screen or shout out loud. Yet this is all pre-determined. The writer(s) intend this very response and bank on it. And yet, precisely because it is so effective, it has become a shtick, predictable and, to me, annoying.

How often have I seen this happen? It occurs over and over again in American television, where writers wear golden handcuffs that force them to return to the previous season's beginning in order to continue the formula which has been successful and bankable for the corporation that pays for the show to be produced. They wouldn't want to risk losing all their advertisers by changing the rules of the game, right? That would be crazy. And when people are still watching a show, why would they risk ending the show early. There seems to be a rule in American television that you have to milk a cow until it is well and truly dead. If people are still watching, the cow might be old and stinking to high heaven, but we don't kill it.

House was one of my favorite television shows, but I got pretty tired of the insistence on not allowing House to change and grow in a good way. Every season, when you were ready to believe that House might, in fact, have learned something this time -- nope! Back he went into his drug-addicted, arrogant, lonely stupidity. Because he wasn't House -- the brilliant doctor -- unless he was like that. Remember the character Amber, who was one of the few characters who threatened the show's real premise? We got to like her, and then she got killed off. Of course she did.

We watched the first season of Arrow as a family. My twelve year-old son, at about episode fifteen, predicted that Tommy would die by the end of the season. We all actually took bets against him (Slurpees). And he won handily and enjoyed his bet. When he explained to me his reasoning, I could see how obvious it was that this would happen. None of the other characters could die. Certainly not Laurel, the eternal girlfriend. Villains are far harder to kill than best friends of heroes. My son said that Tommy had to die because it would increase the guilt on Arrow himself, which was absolutely true. And it wouldn't dramatically change the show. Every time there is a choice in this show about killing a character, you can bank on the character dying who will increase guilt and not change the basic premise of the show. If you like a character too much, the character will die.

So if you as a writer are told to follow this formula because it increases dramatic tension, my advice is to run -- not walk -- far away from the person giving this advice. Sure, it will give you a story that has certain effects. But it won't feel like a genuine story, in my opinion. It will feel like a story that has been tailored to a certain formula, a Hollywood formula that will feel in twenty or forty years very much tied to our day and age. I would even predict that this formula will make a lot of the stories (perhaps not all) that are written today unreadable in the future. They will feel so very dated and stale. That's not what I'm aiming for when I write.

Another cliché in Hollywood of late is the beginning of a movie that is really a set-up or prolog for the rest of the movie. All the motivations of the main characters of the rest of the movie are explained in this very dramatic, short sequence of about twenty minutes. There will be at least one death of someone that the hero loves very much and cannot save (because -- guilt and sympathy on the part of the audience is irresistible, right?). There will also be a disaster of some kind and someone who has paid a terrible price (there are no prices in Hollywood to be paid that are not terrible, in case you were wondering). This person has to seek "redemption" in the rest of the story because well, apparently Hollywood believes that these are the sorts of people that the rest of us either admire or want to watch in movies.

The characters I don't see in Hollywood plots? Ordinary people who act in heroic ways without having their loved ones threatened directly by terrorists/aliens/super viruses. The people who refuse to be manipulated by cheap tricks and threats by terrible people (and who understand that dealing with terrible people means you become a terrible person yourself). I don't see cops who believe in the justice system and who never ever use force or violence against a potential perpetrator because they can never be one hundred percent confident in their own instincts about who is guilty. I don't read many stories about housewives who like cooking and who change the world by raising money for good causes and who don't cheat on their husbands or decide to run away from their children and responsibilities.

If I never again see a movie about a person who has a mental illness who is actually tormented, a genius, and whose mental illness is a metaphor for art or seeing the world in a different way, I think I would celebrate rather loudly. If I have to see a movie again with someone who "never gets over his first love," even after being married for thirty years to someone else, I will puke. I'm not insisting here that every character is perfect. I don't even need my characters to be good. I only want them to be compelling, and to be compelling in a way that doesn't rely on a tired cliché of Hollywood. Look, book writers, we're supposed to be creating the material that Hollywood uses for films, not the other way around. Don't ape Hollywood conventions to make good books. Books are books because they do things that no movie can do. (And yes, I will admit that movies can do things books can't, though I am heavily oriented to book reading and to text in general over visual media).

The weird thing about Hollywood plot taking over the whole storytelling industry is that Hollywood pretends that "novelty" or "hook" are so important. And then once there is a tiny bit of novelty presented, everything else is the same as the story plays out on the screen. My suggestion for writers tends to be that you can write about anything. Just write about it truthfully. Write from your heart. Write about life as you know it (not quite the same as writing what you know, but akin to it). Write about the people you've met and the lessons you've learned along the way (the ones that you can't distill down to a single sentence, but have to show in a whole novel, if you know what I mean). What should be original about your book, in my opinion, isn't the first sentence, the set-up, the explosions, the magic system, the language, the cool map of your world, the dazzling scope of your drama, or even your vast political system. It should be your characters. And their lives, which take these tiny, unexpected turns all over the place.

I guess if you've read this far (or have read anything else I've written), you know that I'm a pantser. I know some outliners who write out of the box very well and I know pantsers who fall back on tired formulas, often unconsciously. I don't think that's what makes the difference in fresh plotting. And I don't think there's anything wrong with using loose plot graphs to help you along to see that a story needs an ending, a crisis of some kind, and a climax. Characters need to change and grow. They begin one place and end in another. The world changes around them. These generalities are not what I object to when I talk about plot formulas.

But if someone tells you that you need to have x in your first chapter, or that you must have someone die just before the climax, I think these people are peddling the literary equivalent of drugs, which is a promise of quick results that never really turn out to be true. They're pretending that the way to write a great story is to just copy what other people have done. Sure, nothing new is under the sun. Sure, Shakespeare stole a lot of his plot from other people. But that's trivial information. Shakespeare also knew how to make something his own. He knew how to use cliché and make it new. He saw how to give the audience what they wanted, and then take it away from them at the same time. He made people think about their own assumptions about villains and heroes in an uncomfortable way. And so should you as a writer.

One of my favorite authors (Lois McMaster Bujold) says that she plots simply by asking herself what would hurt a character most. I think this is an excellent way to plot because in order to do it, you have to know your character intimately. And the reality is, that if you are writing a truly unique character, you are going to discover that this character's fears (notwithstanding the quiz on Facebook going around recently that purports to guess at your worst nightmare) are not going to be the same fears that anyone else has. My nightmares may be about having to redo my General's Exam for my PhD, but the questions the professors ask are always different for me than they are for other people (for instance, if I've ever read Goethe's Faust, which I haven't). My nightmares are about searching for a lost child/friend/loved one and never finding them. But that is a nightmare for me for a very specific reason, because of the loss of my youngest child and the very specific experience I had afterward.

No one's life is a formula. If you want your stories to feel like real life, you will resist the impulse to make them feel like that. A life is not a roller coaster ride. It's not an ad-man's dream. It's individual, and quirky, and some people will love it and some people will hate it. That's the way it's going to be if it's to feel real. So if you're asking me how to plot a book, I will always tell you to go back to the character. The character will always lead you to the right plot. Or at least to one of the right plots. Look at life, at the real world. Write about how it feels to you. Make your words as much as possible like a true experience of reality, even if you are writing fantasy (especially if you are writing fantasy). And your novel will never seem formulaic, which I think is the best compliment I can offer to any writer.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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