Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

I’m reposting “Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations” from two years ago as I get ready for my cover reveal and pre-order promotion for “A Shadow on the Snow” on October 15. I can’t believe I wrote that! When I tell people I’m a writer and they ask what do I write, I can now say, “Novels.” Seems like it’s still a dream. Keep watching for more details as October 15. approaches!

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.

These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.

Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.

Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.

Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.

GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH CONTRIVANCE

My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.

Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.

This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.

RUBE GOLDBERG METHOD OF PLOTTING

Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.

Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.

Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and use it to steal one missile.

They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots

People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.

In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.

In 1947 film noir Out of the PastKirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.

The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.

Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.

For more advice on plot, click here. For a different view on plotting, check out this article “Puzzling Away at Plotting” from the site Seekerville.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly

Last week, I gave some examples from movies and books of what I considered plotting elegantly. This week, I list six tips for plotting elegantly–three for how to recognize when you’re not plotting elegantly and three for how to fix the problems.

Three Clues to When You Aren’t Plotting Elegantly

Too Much Explanation. If I find myself writing pages and pages, trying to explain a plot point, something is wrong. This is a particular pitfall for mystery writers. We have to explain the mystery at the end, but we should be as concise as possible. After sending the manuscript for A Shadow on the Snow to my publisher, I didn’t look at it for several weeks. When I went back to work on the edits I received, I was shocked at how chatty my characters were in the last chapter, over-explaining the solution to the mystery.

Your Guts Say No, But Your Brain Says Yes. When it comes to my writing, I go with my gut. If I reread something and my gut gets sick. I know something is wrong. When I reread the climax for Shadow, I cringed . Nothing technically wrong with it, except that I’d seen or read something like it about a thousand times before. And it felt mean. I could do better, write something original that flowed elegantly from the traits of the characters.

No One Will Notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a section, toward the end of an editing session, and thought, “This isn’t great, but no one will notice.” I’m tired of editing, my creativity is ebbing, and so I want to skip the mediocre section. It’s much better to flag it, let it sit awhile, and come back to it when I’m fresh.

Three Tips to Help You Plot Elegantly

Let Your Characters Act Naturally. If you know your characters like you know your relatives, they can help you when the plotting turns clunky. Often when my plot limps along, I realize I’m forcing my characters to act contrary to the way I’ve designed them. If I’m forcing an introverted character to act extroverted, and haven’t given any reason for this change in behavior, I’m in trouble. If a certain behavior is essential to the plot, I need to find the character most suitable for it.

Examine Your Setting. In a previous post, I write about how to “Maximize a Setting”. Are you taking advantage of everything a particular setting has to offer? My main character Rae Riley works as a check-out clerk in a library. One advantage of this setting is that it’s public, so I can have just about any character walk through the doors. It’s also a place where Rae learns to conduct research because she interacts with librarians. This fact gives my nineteen-year-old MC a plausible reason for knowing what a microfim machine is and how to use it to look up old newspaper article.

What Would the Reader Like? Until I tackled Shadow, I didn’t understand how critical keeping future readers in mind is. In the middle of my novel, Rae has a personal breakthrough. I got all warm and fuzzy writing it. After polishing it, I realized I couldn’t let all these cuddly emotions continue. Readers might overdose on the sweetness or grow bored. I had to let something bad happen. Even mean. I forced myself to give my main character a major setback. That setback led to more clues and hugely helped the plotting of the mystery.

Writers, what do you do when your plot starts to sputter and clank? Readers, what’s one of your favorite plot?

Plotting Elegantly

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.

For more tips on writing plots, click here.

Your turn. What plots have you read or watched that are elegant?

Swindle Series by Gordon Korman

I’m moving from last month’s theme of setting to this month’s theme of plot. This story component is the one I struggle with the most. Characters pop into my mind with little effort, exploring and describing settings is a delight, but plotting–that’s where the hard work comes in. If you fall into that camp, read a book from the Swindle series by Gordon Korman. These middle-grade novels are densely plotted, but they’re easy to study because they’re written for ten-year-olds. They’re also a hoot.

The books feature six middle school kids and their whacky adventures as they attempt to foil the plans of crooked adults. In the first book, Griffin Bing is swindled out of a million-dollar baseball card. His parents and the police are no help. Only one thing to do: steal it back.

The plots depend on the personalities and talents of the six kids:

  • Griffin Bing–the Man with the Plan
  • Ben Slovak–smallest kid, a worrier, and Griffin’s best friend.
  • Logan Kellerman–professional actor (the books take place on Long Island)
  • Antonia “Pitch” Benson–athlete
  • Melissa Dukakis–science whiz
  • Savannah Drysdale–animal lover

Zoobreak

In this second book of the series, Savannah’s pet monkey Cleo disappears. While on a school field trip to a zoo that motors up and down in the east coast in a paddle wheeler, the kids discover Cleo on exhibit in the ill-kept boat. The owner, Mr. Nastase, says he has proof of purchase of the monkey. Again the parents say they can’t do anything. So Griffin decided to spring Cleo.

The execution of the zoo break, all the twists and turns, is so much fun to read and even more helpful for a writer to analyze. Such as, once the kids sneak aboard to free Cleo, Savannah is so appalled at the living conditions of the other animals that she insists they take them all or she’ll remain on the boat. If she gets arrested for breaking and entering, at least, the cops will see how awful the zoo is. This plot twist is in keeping with Savannah’s personality, which was established in the first pages.

The kids free the other animals and are about to make their escape when they can’t find the boat they used to row over to the paddle wheeler. But Griffin remembers a yellow box he used to help Ben reach a vent. It’s a life raft.

Once the kids makes it home with the animals, Savannah plans on calling a scientist at a well-run local zoo. But the woman is out of the country for two weeks. The kids now have to divide the animals between their homes until the scientist returns. Eventually, this proves so difficult that Griffin devises another zoobreak, this to to break animals into the good zoo.

Unleashed

This book is second to last in the Swindle series by Gordon Korman. The school science fair is coming up. Griffin and Melissa both have entries, and a rivalry heats up, with the friends taking sides. Then Melissa’s invention disappears.

This one is so much fun because you think you’ve picked out the adult the kids are going to face off against, and Mr. Korman pulls a hilarious switcheroo. This story is also heaped with plot twists, but every one makes sense from the way the author lays his groundwork throughout the story.

For another book recommendation on plotting, click here.

What books do you recommend to learn about plotting? Or what book does plotting exceptionally well?

Final Advice on Writing Endings

It’s appropriate for my final post of the year on the final day of the year to be about final advice on writing endings. This advice comes from three YA authors, Jill Williamson, Stephanie Morrill, and Shannon Dittemore, in their recently released book Go Teen Writers: Write Your Novel. I finally received my copy once Amazon figured out that I didn’t live in Maryland. The advice these ladies offer on how to craft endings is worth the price of the book alone.

There’s no single way to craft an ending, and each author offers different approaches. Ms. Williamson discusses “the five-step finale”. Ms. Morrill uses the ending of Frozen to illustrate certain concepts and give tips on when to use an epilogue. I particularly like the section by Ms. Williamson entitled “Make Your Main Character Integral to Saving the Day.”

One of my biggest gripes about YA books is when I feel cheated because the main character is sidelined at the climax. I’ve followed the teen through the roller coaster of the plot, rooting for them through all their battles, only to have some adult character save them during the finale.

The questions the authors pose in this section are ones I’ve wrestled with as I’ve shaped the ending of my YA mystery, such as how to make the climax exciting and surprising but not shocking and the denouement satisfying. One way is look back at what you have built throughout my story. Ms. Williamson calls this bringing the story full circle. I’ve been calling it echoing. I need to echo themes I’ve woven into my story at the end.

And this is what I’ve gotten out of one chapter. If you need writing advice, check out Go Teen Writer: Write Your Novel. For more tips on writing endings, visit my blog post, “The Three Key Elements of an Ending”.

Any final thoughts on how to write endings or stories with great ones?

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