My husband, a nuclear engineer, once mentioned to me that mathematicians try to create elegant formulas. A longer, clunkier one might get the job done, but a simpler, elegant formula is the goal. I realized that should be the goal of writers too–plotting elegantly.
The Bourne Identity
The best way I know to explain plotting elegantly is to use the storyline of the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity. By the way, it’s a terrific international thriller, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t read on.
Jason Bourne is pulled out of the ocean by fishermen without any idea of who he is. As he slowly uncovers his past, he believes he’s an assassin for the CIA, a conclusion that sickens him. His handlers are searching for him, thinking he’s gone rogue or turned traitor. Bit by bit, Jason remembers what finally drove him to escape from his life as a government killer and prompted his amnesia.
The writers could have created any number of backstories to explain why Jason rebelled against his handlers. He could have been an angry young man, taking revenge on the world, until that revenge proved worse than his rage. Or he could have been so empty and purposeless that joining the CIA gave him a chance to feel important, like he was making a difference. Then he falls in love with a woman, maybe a doctor, who shows him that all life is sacred.
Those scenarios and others would have worked. But the screenwriters came up with something elegant. Jason finally remembers his last government hit. He was assigned to sneak onboard a yacht and kill the dictator of an African country. Jason slips into the main cabin, puts the gun to the dictator’s head, and stops. The man’s children, ages five to thirteen, have fallen asleep while watching TV with their father. Jason bolts from the cabin. He can’t bring himself to kill a man in front of his children. Or worse, have to kill the children along with their father so there are no witnesses.
The reason for his amnesia is simple and compelling, so elegant. The writers lay some groundwork. While Jason and the woman, who is helping him evade the police, stay a night with her brother, we see Jason hanging around the brother’s children as they play outside in the twilight. That night, the woman finds Jason checking on the children. These scenes have much more meaning after the single, flashback scene at the end when Jason is on the yacht.
Too Many Clients by Rex Stout
Plotting elegantly doesn’t just mean for the overall story. Each plot point can be given an elegant polish. In Too Many Clients, the body of a wealthy, powerful man is found wrapped and left at an excavation site. Detective Archie Goodwin discovers that the man kept an apartment in a nearby building for his many affairs.
When Archie questions the building’s superintendent and his wife, they confess that they found the body in the apartment and moved it so no one would know about the clandestine rooms. Since they’ve admitted to moving the body, maybe they had some role in the man’s death. Archie asks why they covered the body when they left it at the excavation site. The superintendent replies that the man was dead.
From the way the superintendent says it, as if that was the only decent thing they could do, Archie believes he and his wife are innocent of the crime. It’s a small point in the entire novel, but it’s elegantly done.
Your turn. What plots have you read or watched that are elegant?