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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Ideas for writing plots

Writing Tip — Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

girlw-504315_1280I’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 steal at least 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.

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

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What’s the Plot?

namibiaw-246621_1280Use the photo above for a plot for a speculative fiction story. What are your opening lines?

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II

foodw-3040924_1280If your plot starts to bog down, examine your settings. Are you taking advantage of their full potential?

When I wrote my country noir short story, “Debt to Pay”, I knew I needed a remote location in Ohio. I chose Wayne National Forest. My husband and I went hiking in the Athen Unit on ATV trails. At the trailhead, a sign explained that if someone in your group is injured, you must figure out which helicopter clearing you are closest to. The dirt roads are so rutted that no ambulance can get back into the area. A medical helicopter is the only means of rescue. And all of that depends on whether your phone get reception, which isn’t certain in Wayne National Forest.

Now I had the ingredients for a story. Two friends are riding motorcycles. I’ll set the story in the late fall to cut down on the number of people using the trail. One friend wrecks. They can’t get phone reception. The uninjured friend thinks that if she can get to the top of the steep, wooded hills. she can call for help. Or maybe she should return to the parking lot and walk out to a road.

Darkness is closing in. If she climbs the hills, she’s not sure she can find her friend in the dark. Walking to the parking lot will take longer, but it will be easy to find her friend. The setting give me so many routes to develop a plot.

Questions to Ask about Settings

Work place: Where does your main character (MC) work? Alone or with people? If alone, would a stranger coming into the setting be upsetting? A welcome change? If with people, are they only fellow employees or also members of the public? I love using settings where the general public can be found because I can throw in almost any character I want.

MC’s home: Is it rural, suburban, urban? An apartment or condo? An apartment would allows me to introduce more characters, and therefore, more plots. In the complex where I had my first apartment, I thought my neighbor might be a vampire because I had not seen him during daylight hours.

Homes of family and friends: Same questions as above. How does MC feel about these houses? If MC is uncomfortable or uneasy, why? If he prefers it to his own home, why?

Locations of hobbies and volunteer work: MC hates her job but loves her volunteer work at a stable. Why? She loves horses. Why? Her grandparents had horses when she was growing up. So why doesn’t she give up the job she hates and work with horses for a living?

Vacations or business destinations: Are these places MC is excited to visit or is dreading? If it’s a vacation, why would MC dread it? Because he has to share a house on the beach with his in-laws. Why doesn’t he like his in-laws?

The more why questions I ask, the deeper I dig into plot.

What settings to you favor in your writing? How do settings thicken your plot?

 

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What’s the Plot?

feetw-1868670_1280What opening lines would you write about this photo for a mystery story?

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part I

pumpkin-soupw-61105_1280Like I said last week, I think plotting is my weakest writing skill. But writing short stories has helped my game in this area and provided me with several insights. One of those is to use my greatest writing strength to bolster my weakest one. For me, that means allowing my characters to inspire plots.

I have to see my main characters in my head as clearly as I do people in reality. I have to understand their personalities as well as my kids’. When I have that strong of a grasp on my characters, plot points pop up.

After I wrote the basic storyline of my first published short story “Debt to Pay”, I felt I needed more tension in the confrontation scene. In my story, a teenage boy and his older brother find a millionaire who crashed his plane near their remote home in Wayne National Forest. The millionaire begs the brothers to hide him because he knows his plane was sabotaged but has know idea who wants to kill him.

During the confrontation scene, the millionaire’s wife and her boyfriend come to the cabin and discover their plot to kill the millionaire has failed. What does the wife do? How could her decision add tension?

I considered the character of the wife. She is greedy. So greedy that she married for money. So greedy that she plotted to murder her husband and inherit his money. So what would a greedy person do? Assume others are as motivated by money as she is. The wife offers the brothers money to kill the millionaire right then and there.

When I realized this was the wife’s motivation, I was stunned at how logically the scene worked itself out. It seemed like my characters had wrested the story from me and developed the plot on their own.

Character Traits=Plot

Here are some personality types that can help lead you to plot points:

  • Curiosity or nosiness. This character is likely to discover something he shouldn’t know. Depending on his sense of morality, he can use this knowledge to help others or take advantage of it to help himself.
  • Bad temper or caustic tongue. This character hurts others by losing her temper easily or with cutting remarks. She can either be unaware of her affect on others or well aware and enjoys inflicting abuse. Either way, other characters will have a strong reaction to her.
  • Impulsive. This is a great trait for causing trouble. Or saving the day.
  • Patience. A character can endure tremendous hardship with this trait. Or wait a long time to enact the perfect revenge.
  • Control. Almost no one likes a person who wants to control others. Like the bad-tempered or sharp-tongued character, the controlling character will spark strong feelings and reactions from others. The lengths to which a controlling character tries to maintain control will lead to all sorts of plot points.

How do characters inspire your plots?

 

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