Part II – Plot
In our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, we have taken a long and hard look at characters (Click HERE). We have identified one big contributor to writing a bad novel, it’s time to look at the next one: Plot.
I am not talking about small problems in plot points that even the most seasoned of writers face from time to time. J K Rowling admits to plotting issues in The Goblet of Fire, this despite having plotted the entire 7 books before she started. Plotting issues are fine, but when plots and sub-plots are fundamentally flawed, little can be done to save the book. It is important to keep checking every now and again to see if your book has unwittingly wandered into the murky waters of flawed plots.
Let me clarify, by flawed plots I do not mean plots that don’t have logic or are unrealistic or unbelievable. I am talking about plots that are plain wrong in structure and approach. These errors in plotting can be extremely difficult to rectify once your novel has started. Unfortunately, most of these plotting errors stem from a wrong understanding of important writing advice offered in writing courses.
I am breaking it down to 4 major flaws, the first of which is about the three wrong plot structures and the other 3 talk about generic plot issues
- The Main Plot Structure
If your main plot structure or the main action is marred by some flaws, it is almost impossible to correct that. There are 3 types of plots that spell disaster.
A. The TRUST ME plot
This is the literary equivalent of walking into a room with no lights. The author tells you to trust him and see where the story leads. It is often supported by good writing and just about intriguing enough to keep you hooked, but nothing makes sense. The author promises you with a “just a little further” or an “almost there.” Somewhere around page 75, some connection appears. A small thread of reason and logic finally appears to bind everything together. While it might sound like you are a master writer who wove magic and suddenly made things fit together, it isn’t really exciting for the reader. Most readers who have abandoned your book before page 50 will probably tell a dozen others that they couldn’t figure out what it was about. And NO, that’s not high praise.
The TRUST ME plot stems from the misinterpretation of a very important piece of writing advice: Your plot must not be obvious.
The above piece of plotting wisdom means that the action happening in the open should not have obvious reasons alone. There has to be hidden agendas and not-so-obvious things happening just under the skin of the story. While the focus of The Goblet of Fire was the tournament, there was something else of an agenda going on just a little away from our eyes.
In Mario Puzo’s timeless classic, The Godfather, when Carlo beats up Connie yet again, we feel he is just being the abusive husband he is, but there is more to the act.
It’s fantastic plotting. Unfortunately, all stories cannot have that. Fortunately, all stories don’t need to.
Your plot must not be obvious, but it doesn’t need to be a jigsaw puzzle.
B. The ROAD TRIP plot
There is no way I can call this plot anything but plain laziness. And, I have seen far too many manuscripts that have this plot.
A ROAD TRIP plot is just that, a road trip. It is not literally a road trip (sometimes it is), it is a journey. This journey redefines characters and gives them a better idea of who they are. The reader gets to share in on the character’s journey of self-realization.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
The writer is basically too lazy to come up with a story. A simple plot that has a goal at its end is good enough, but that would be too much work now, wouldn’t it.
There are many novels that have a ROAD TRIP plot and have succeeded. Don’t be misled into thinking you can get away with it. It requires phenomenal writing and tight editing to keep readers turning the pages.
It is the misinterpretation, and I believe, a deliberate misinterpretation of a fantastic piece of writing advice: The journey of a character is the story.
It is. A characters journey is in many ways the most important part of the plot, but it is not the plot.
Harry Potter is a clever and resourceful boy who is intelligent and quick to pick up new skills. He is very brave and has great integrity. He values his friendships and has equally devoted friends. Even in the face of great personal tragedy he does not take to the path of wrongdoing and is righteous till the very end.
Remove Voldemort and the above would have been the plot of the Harry Potter series, all 7 of them put together. No one wants to know about a character’s development in isolation. In the absence of a plot, character development and arc means very little.
C. The BEEN THERE plot
This is the mother of all obvious plots. The back cover of these books often have the words, “As time races” or “Will they be able to stop it in time” or “As the clock ticks away, XYZ must make choices that will put his life in grave danger.”
Yup, BEEN THERE!
While it is not really bad structure, it will take a really good writer to pull off an obvious plot like that. These plots are so repetitive and predictable that readers have little to care about. “A nuclear device is stolen and has to be retrieved before it falls into the wrong hands, will ABC manage to do it?” – are you seriously telling me you would have written the book if the Hero (ABC) doesn’t manage to save the world by the end of the novel? Of course he will save the world, and then head over to the bar across the street to share a drink with James Bond and Superman.
It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The stakes must be high and there must be urgency.
Yes, your plot needs urgency. Yes, the stakes need to be high. However, high stakes and urgency are not all about saving the world from a ticking bomb.
To be fair, this often appears in romance novels too. Will X be able to win over Y before Y marries Z.
Again, examples of successful and brilliant novels that have used these plots abound, you need to be able to pull it off. Having an obvious point puts that much more pressure on your characters and your writing.
Perspective is just another fancy way of saying viewpoint or point of view. I deliberately named this as perspective and not POV to avoid any confusion with the structural elements of a point of view and how they apply to a scene or an entire novel.
Looking at plot from a POV perspective is important. It is important that you ask and know : Whose story is it?
A plot obviously involves more than one character, and the story appears differently to different characters, but there has to be a central character whose story we are telling.
Consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy
The first part (Batman Begins) is told from the perspective of Bruce Wayne. It is Bruce Wayne’s story. How Bruce Wayne loses his parents, gets disillusioned with the law and order system, goes off in search of something and returns as Batman to finally save the city that had taken everything away from him is the story.
It is Bruce Wayne’s story.
There are other characters, strong ones too, but it is not Falcone’s story or the Scarecrow’s story, it’s not Rachel’s story or Gordon’s story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.
Each of the characters have an arc, each of them develop over the time and space of the story, but it is not their story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.
Having told Bruce Wayne’s story in the first part, the second part (The Dark Knight) very astutely ignores Bruce Wayne. Once your main lead has done something (save Gotham) it is boring to talk about how he does it again. What we get is the Joker’s story of how he gets Batman out in the open and tries to win the fight for the soul of Gotham. Batman is a reactive character here, he is trying to catch the Joker, but the story belongs to the Joker. It’s the Joker’s story of how he gets the mob on his side and wages war against Gordon and Batman. The Joker does not win in the end, but it is still the Joker’s story.
Whose story are you telling?
A novel must have only one main plot and it can only be from one person’s perspective.
- Sub-plots for the heck of it
We spoke of how supporting characters must support the story and not the protagonist . Well, the easiest way for them to do that would be via a solid sub-plot that connects to the main story. Unfortunately, The over-importance attached to characters has killed the plot. Readers however, care for the story first and characters later.
Imagine I tell you a story about my mischievous 1 year old son who puts things into the pockets of my overcoat. It’s maybe worth a smile but nothing earth-shattering. The tired co-worker in the hope that I will stop telling obvious stories, says, “Kids do that, you know.” It’s a useless sub-plot to add more depth to the character that is my son.
Now if I were to tell you: I was held up by a mugger on my way to work. As I put my hand in my coat inside pocket to take out my wallet, what should I find there? A deodorant can my little one must have put in. I sprayed the mugger in the eyes and ran. The bastard will smell of lilies all day.
Now the sub-plot makes sense, because it’s a connected sub-plot. No matter how important your son is to you, his character arc is not important to the reader unless it connects to the main events.
To put it in the simplest of terms: create a sub plot that (at some point, preferably at the end) connects to the story and then assign a supporting character to it. Don’t create a sub-plot around a character.
A flashback is basically a scene interjection that works only marginally well in movies. In books, it works even less.
A flashback is an interruption in the flow, and any interruption will obviously diffuse the tension. What a writer needs to be aware of is the level of tension before the flashback starts and he has to somehow use the flashback to increase it. If there is no tension in the scene and you interject a flat flashback then you are basically talking about two back to back flat (no tension) scenes. On the other hand, if your scene has tension and is followed by a flat flashback then you just wasted a good scene.
Golden rule: A flashback inherently reduces tension, so it must contain action, information that increases tension.
Unfortunately writers use flashbacks for the worst of reasons. When things get too intense they use it to insert some calm back story or some useless information. It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The story must flow in highs and lows, crests and troughs.
The advice means you cannot have consequent low tension scenes but you can have consequent high tension scenes. However, there is no novel that has only high tension scenes throughout, so clubbing many high tension scenes together could end in a sudden clump of low tension scenes and that’s death for a story.
Ever notice how some mystery novels fall flat after the murderer is identified, it is scene after scene of tying up loose ends. That’s scene after scene of low tension, you can’t wait to close the book shut.
Use a flashback if you must, use it to talk about things that have happened earlier and couldn’t be woven into the narrative flow in any other way. As far as maintaining the highs and lows and crests and troughs, there are better things than flashbacks to do that.
Plots are the lifeblood of stories, but they must be inconspicuous. A reader should revel in the flow of the plot but not be aware of the presence of a plot. The more attention you give to your plots the less it will come to your reader’s attention.