Five Plot Devices That Hurt Your Writing
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about some of the more predictable stories that show up in fiction workshops. This week I’d like to do something similar: I want to discuss a few popular plot devices that cause our work more harm than good.
When I say "our" I'm trying to slip a disclosure statement in here: I have committed every single one of the narrative flubs listed below, many, many times. In a few cases (more on this later) I still find myself repeating them today, despite haranguing pleas from fellow writers, former teachers, and those unfortunate enough to spend holidays indoors with me. I think it’s healthy — liberating, even — for us to revel in our mistakes, if only because being able to identify our bad habits is a sure sign we're getting better. Most of the ideas I come up with fail miserably as stories on the first draft. Sometimes there's a good idea in there somewhere, but I’ve noticed that more than anything — more than plot, more than character, more than dialogue — it’s the storytelling strategy that dooms my early drafts. Hopefully by compiling this list I can save you some trouble.
Withholding vital details will make me sound more “literary”
This one took me years to get over. A lot of beginning writers abide by this strange belief that confusion is somehow complex, that by purposefully withholding essential information from a story we can make our work sound more “literary” by default. It doesn't work that way.
In tracing my own pathology, I think I adhered to this fallacy because, even several drafts in, I often didn’t know what my story was “about.” I guess I somehow hoped readers would take a shot in the dark and assemble some thematic connection out of the clues I had unintentionally put on the page. Needless to say this never happened, and while my work produced a lot of scratched heads, I never got two people to arrive at a unanimous (let alone compelling) conclusion by accident.
The other — and, I think, more common — reason we do this is out of a general misunderstanding regarding the role negative space plays in narrative. A lot of us cut our teeth on writers like Raymond Carver, who often wrote stories that revolved around some unspoken, ostensibly “missing” element. It deserves mentioning that it’s very clear what these stories are “about.” The narrative, language and actions carefully orbit around a specific idea that, while missing from the page, can be found by tracing the characters’ actions to a central meaning that isn’t accessed through mere exposition. I think a lot of us took this lesson and somehow confused it to mean “good” storytelling is a process of deliberately making the plot fundamentals abstract. Obviously, this is a completely different concept, and a nutty one at that.
It’s my world and my characters can (conveniently) do whatever they want
I think every writer struggles with this one early on. We get to a point in our stories where we hit a snag, and the easy solution is to have our character perform a saving action that's completely divorced from his/her established characterizations, just because doing so will keep the plot moving. When this fallacy occurs in fantasy/sci-fi stories, it can have a more extreme effect: the character performs some supernatural impossibility that was never broached earlier in the story simply for the sake of getting him/her out of the bind at hand. It might get us to the next scene, but unfortunately it’s the literary equivalent of dumping the baby with the bathwater.
Yes, it's fiction writing and yes, that means you get to make things up. However, sacrificing your characters’ credibility just to get over a narrative hump has the unintended consequence of tanking the story's illusory power along with it. Sooner or later we'll get the felling that the character's entire raison d'être is a walking convenience who can be called upon to turn the plot seamlessly at your every whim, and the reader's stakes in the story will fall considerably.
The impossible twist
Deus ex machina is one of the most common fallacies out there, and for good reason: endings are damn hard to write. There’s so much pressure to tie up loose ends and catch the reader off guard, the temptation to throw in a glibly contrived solution or an implausible twist becomes palpable.
The problem, of course, is that doing either denigrates the story. Stories should conclude in ways that are unexpected yet inevitable. That is, they should surprise the reader, but should be wholly consistent with the preceding storyline and its characters' machinations. In my opinion, this is one of the toughest things a writer has to do. A lot of us — myself in particular, to this day — have a compulsion to swing for the fences with our endings, and we introduce either a climax that makes the work’s thematic connections seem heavy-handed, or we drop something so utterly implausible it may as well have come from outer space. I think both are natural byproducts of an anxiety the writer feels when trying to wrap up the story. If you’re going to throw in a surprise twist — and by all means, do — make sure it’s something that could reasonably happen in the story, make sure it’s something your character would reasonably do, and make sure it enhances the central meaning of the piece.
Have I shocked you yet? Aren't you totally shocked? How about now?
I’m going to make an admission that will irk some people: I want my stories to shock. I want my stories to challenge, I want my stories to push — no, shove — people outside of their comfort zones. I want to make things as uncomfortable for the reader as possible.
That said, I think there’s a major discord between what I find shocking in storytelling and what passes for shock in a lot of modern fiction. Barring a few exceptions, today’s self-labeled “transgressive” writer is a silly breed, a sort of literary Marilyn Manson who pounds away at the same predicable, quick-fix moral buttons in the desperate hopes that doing so will whip a hegemony of prudes into some quivering puritanical froth. We’ve all read this kind of writing before: there’s lots of shit, there’s lots of fucking, there’s people fucking shit. For most of us — the reading demographic over the age of fifteen, anyway — this kind of writing doesn't do anything aside from offer a long exercise in eye rolling.
Here’s why. Writing that relies on simply teasing the presumed mores of its audience requires an axis of prudishness on which it can revolve. In other words, the writer has taken a clichéd view of the world and its scores of vanilla squares — "watch out, sheeple!" — and then attacked their own clichéd sampling with an equally predictable, equally clichéd moral inversion of that presumed prudishness. This isn’t challenging anyone; these writers are simply taking a trope, sticking their tongues out at it, and hoping this corny dog-and-pony-show somehow allots for depth. Throughout it all, I'm still waiting to be shocked.
Here’s a quick test for you. I want you to think of the most outré, utterly grossed-out and/or disturbing scene in a modern novel you can think of. Ready? Now, I want you to think about the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell, despite the fact that we — and everyone in town and the courtroom — have been compelled by Atticus Finch’s defense to know he didn't do it, and that he's only been found guilty because he's a black man and it's easier to condemn an innocent black man than it is to accept our collective moral shortcomings as a nation and a culture. Tell me, which one is truly shocking: a scene rife with every childish attempt at transgression possible, or a scene that effectively sums up how we’ve failed as a species? If your reader is a well-balanced, reasonably adjusted adult, the former stories are not going to shock them. Trust me. You might shock a few grandmothers out there, in which case, hey, congratulations.
Want to shock us? Write something good.
But it really happened that way
Fiction critiques should never resemble a legal deposition, but if there’s one rebuttal writers will hear in workshops at one point or another, it’s this: “But it really happened that way!” It’s common for writers to borrow from their personal lives, but some confuse this to mean it somehow makes every related detail germane to the story being told, or simply because something actually occurred it lends the event a sort of storytelling immunity card. It doesn’t.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but the world of fiction and the “real world” are vastly different places. Our world is a chaotic place; there are plenty of governing physical rules, but if real life was a story it'd be the worst ever written. At any given moment, events are occurring in the “real world” without purpose, without meaning, without context. The world of fiction, however, is a place where everything that happens does so necessarily; everything that occurs, no matter how seemingly desultory, is an ordered, intentional, emphatic cog meant to serve the larger movement of the piece. In fact, one of the great paradoxes of fiction is that it investigates a character so deeply we’ll eventually know more about that person than we’ll know about our co-workers or neighbors, maybe even our own family. There’s nothing wrong with lifting events, dialogue and characters from your day-to-day, but there’s a translation process of necessity and meaning and purpose these elements must undergo if they’re going to fit within the milieu of fiction.
Years of practice and plenty of critical knocks have helped me get over some of the aforementioned speed bumps, but a few of them — the first three, to be specific — are still reoccurring problems for me. Old habits die hard. I recently read a quote from an author who said that teaching writing is actually a practice of teaching reading. It's a great point. The more critical you can become of your own work — the sooner you can ask yourself why you employed a particular strategy and how it will help you achieve a desired outcome — the easier you can identify potential weak points and stop bad habits before they poison the well. This is what revision is all about. By all means, if you know something isn't working but can't figure out how to "fix" it, put the story down, work on something else, and come back to it weeks or months later when the eyes refresh. The writer's best friend is time. Learning how to identify weak points in your writing and developing a strategy to tackle them is a sure sign that you're getting better, and in the process of producing quality work.
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