Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Common Plot Fails (and How We Can Fix Them)

I've talked a lot on this blog about what makes good stories. I've talked about character driven narrative and how it makes books amazing, I've talked about taking smart risks with your fiction, I've talked about tension, I've talked about plotting. Heck, all you have to do is click on the Writing label and you'll find enough Walls'o'Text about good writing to keep the Huns out of China! But while talking about how to do things well and why can be very useful, sometimes the best teachers are the failures.

A few weeks ago, I posted the following on Twitter:
In response to this, people very rightly pointed out that there are many demonstrably bad books out there that sold like hotcakes (with 50 Shades taking the top spot), and to them I can only say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Yes, those books are bad, but they clearly did something right to make readers love them so much and buy them in such numbers. That's the thing about art: it doesn't have to be technically perfect to be enjoyable. Sometimes you can slap together a terrible plot but end up with characters so wonderful that no one cares about the silliness of their actual actions.


These situations are exceptions to the rule. While it is true that extremely well done elements in fiction can overcome weaker ones, no author in their right mind willingly says "You know what? I think I'll half-ass this part of my book and just do this other thing so well that no one notices. That's a great plan!"

Obviously, if you want to write a book people are going to want to read, then you're going to try to write it to the best of your ability. You might not succeed (no one's perfect at everything), but you're going to try, and for that, it can be helpful (and hilarious) to examine some common ways authors screw things up and how we can fix them (or avoid them all together).

Writing Wednesdays: Common Plot Fails (and How We Can Fix Them)

Bad plot decisions come in all flavors and types. Some are simple failures of execution: the author knew what to do, but didn’t quite manage to do it. These are the easily fixable problems that can often be whipped back into shape with a few key edits. Sadly, though, not all fail plots are so easily fixed. This is because many of the truly horrific plotting failures aren’t just bad authorial decisions, but full-blown tropes gone horribly wrong.

The best (and least emotionally scarring) way to learn from these disasters and avoid them in our own work is to find them in someone else's. To do that, though, we need to be able to look at failed stories and pick out 1) why they’re bad, and 2) what we could change to make them good. So, as an educational exercise (and for the lulz), let’s look at some epic failure plot tropes and see what we could change to make good stories out of them.

Plot Fail #1: Deus Ex Machina 

This is probably the most famous example of bad plotting. A deus ex machina plot is one where the solution to whatever problem the heroes are facing is suddenly handed to them by an outside and completely unrelated force. 

Why is it bad? 
Of all the plot failures, deus ex machina is probably the one I hate the most. Not only is a deus ex machina plot event super cheap, it completely undermines everything the characters did before the deus ex machina occurred.

A classic example of this is HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. In this book/movie/radio drama, Earth is being annihilated by giant Martian war robots. Everything we try to stop them fails, and it looks like all of humanity is toast when, suddenly, all the Martians get sick and die from human diseases because apparently there are no viruses on Mars.

Now, I can see how this could happen logically. In real life, it makes sense that aliens coming to our planet might well be wiped out by an unforeseen circumstance, but as a story, it sucks. The threat shows up, kicks us around, and then falls over dead through no action of our own. What kind of story is that? There’s no victory, no struggle, no pay off for our emotional investment in the fate of humanity. It’s just an event that happens and some people are lucky enough to live through. 

If the story itself was about how this random and cruel event changed people’s lives, that would be different, but it isn’t. War of the Worlds is all about the aliens who show up, stomp on us, and then promptly die. The story itself is thrilling because HG Wells was fantastic at building tension, but the ending was a huge letdown even at the time, and that’s a crying shame, because the aliens in War of the Worlds are truly awesome and, quite frankly, deserved better.

How can we fix it?
In a good character driven plot, the characters are where all our investment is. They’re what we care about as readers, and therefore they need to be the ones who sacrifice and change in order to solve the plot problems. It doesn’t matter how much you foreshadow your deus ex machina, having something random happen to fix everything for them is cheap and disrespectful to your reader. Even if the random event makes sense within the context of the story, it doesn’t matter. You’re still robbing your audience of the payoff for all their emotional investment in the characters.

Fortunately, then, deus ex machina is a very easy plot problem to fix. You simply remove whatever it was—random stroke of fortune, suddenly appearing miracle, literal hand of god—that came in to solve everything for your characters and replace it with plot that has the characters figuring out how to solve the problem on their own. They can still decide to find and harness the formerly deus ex machina event, but it’s the decision that matters.
In order to achieve the dramatic, emotional pay off that is the hallmark of good, character driven fiction, your characters need to step up and take action to fix the problems in their own lives. They have to pay for their happy ending. This is impossible when a deus ex machina event comes onto the scene, so if you find yourself confronted with one, don’t hesitate—just cut that sucker out. Your plot, and your reader, will thank you.

Plot Fail #2: The Mary Sue Plot

We’re all familiar with the Mary Sue/Marty Stu character—a fictional person so wonderful and flawless and exceptional that all the other characters can’t help but love them and all readers can’t help but gag. But while Mary Sues are usually classified as characterization failures, plots are not immune to their sinister reach. In a Mary Sue plot, events occur purely for the convenience/glorification of the Mary Sue character rather than for any dramatic or even logical purpose.

Why is it bad?
At its most basic level, a Mary Sue Plot is a character driven plot gone horribly wrong. Just as she dominates the attention of every male character in the cast, the Mary Sue character will dominate her plot. Like a black hole warping gravity, Mary Sues warp all surrounding plot events to make themselves the literal center of every part of the story.

If the character in question was actually interesting, this wouldn’t be so bad. Done well, it could even be an awesome bit of truly character driven plotting. But since Mary Sue characters are terrible by default, all that happens in this case is that the novel turns into an 80,000 word infomercial showcasing all the Mary Sue’s super-special-snowflake abilities.

If you’ve ever read bad fanfiction where the ultimate villain of the series shows up for no reason other than to be won over by the author’s self-insertion character’s extraordinary charm, wit, and goodness, you’ve seen this trope in action. And probably lost all faith in humanity. 

How can we fix it?
To fix a Mary Sue Plot, you must first fix the Mary Sue at the heart of it. Mary Sue characters are cancer for good fiction. Though they might seem interesting on the surface with their unique hair and eye colors and overpowered abilities, Mary Sues by definition lack the flaws and other humanizing traits that real characters possess. They are nothing more than glittery shells built to hold the author’s power fantasies—dazzling to look at, but ultimately empty and therefore boring. 

Unfortunately, this makes fixing a Mary Sue—and therefore a Mary Sue Plot—very difficult, because the author capable of writing a Mary Sue will deny that character’s Mary Sue-ness to their grave. If you are at all worried that your character is a Mary Sue, you’re probably safe simply by virtue of having the self-awareness necessary to ask that question in the first place. 

This isn’t to say you can’t write a super powerful and charismatic character! I do it all the time. You just have to make sure that character pays for their power, and that their flaws are commiserate with their successes. 

So long as you keep an even balance sheet and the events of your plot happen for logical reasons rather than simply to showoff your character’s super special whatever, you should be safe from the dreaded Mary Sue.

Plot Fail #3: The Crazy Plot

Crazy Plots occur when otherwise normal plots go off the rails. The classic example of this is aliens appearing halfway through a book that otherwise had no mention of aliens at all.

Why is it bad?
Crazy Plots happen when the author throws what they mean to be a curveball that ends up hitting readers in the face. Most of the time, Crazy Plots stem from an author’s failure to properly manage reader expectations. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with writing an alien abduction story that starts out normal, but if you don’t warn your readers the aliens are coming and the first 50% of your book is an otherwise normal, small town Romance plot line before ZOMG! ALIENS!, you’re going to cause some reader whiplash followed by angry tossing of books across the room.

How can we fix it?
Fixing crazy plots can be done either by removing the craziness in question or by properly foreshadowing it beforehand so that, when the aliens do arrive, readers are excited and happy to see them. 

Which path you choose depends on your vision for the book and what kind of audience you’re trying to reach. If you actually wanted to write a small town Romance, and the aliens were a last minute addition because you couldn’t think of something else, it’s probably best to cut them and rewrite the ending. On the other hand, if you set out to write a first contact story and the small town Romance was just meant to be build up, then you’re going to want to start foreshadowing the super-natural mystery angle right from the beginning. This additional foreshadowing also has the added bonus of making the first half of your book way more interesting to your alien-loving audience, so yay for that!

Remember: it’s not bad to surprise your readers, but it has to be a good kind of surprise. You want readers to gasp in delight and start turning pages faster, not drop the book, roll their eyes, and write you off as a nut job.

Plot Fail #4: The Stupid Plot

Also known as lazy plots, stupid plots rely on otherwise intelligent characters suddenly acting like idiots and ignoring obvious solutions for no other reason than because the author needs to move the plot in that direction.

Why is it bad?
Of all plot fails, the Stupid Plot is probably the most insulting. If you’ve ever seen a movie where the vast majority of the problems could have been prevented by the main character doing something any other intelligent/sane person would have done in their situation, such as calling the police, then you’ve seen a Stupid Plot in action.

This isn’t to say your characters can never do dumb things. Having characters make mistakes based on their flaws that they then have to pay for is actually great character development and one of the keys to character driven plotting. But if your characters are making bad choices for no reason other than you need them to act like morons to make something you want happen, that’s a Stupid Plot. You’re sacrificing character respect and integrity to accommodate lazy plotting, and that’s never okay.

How can we fix it?
This fix is an easy one. If part of your plot hinges on your characters doing something no smart person would otherwise do—such as entering an abandoned insane asylum at night or making out with someone they know is evil just to make their significant other jealous—then all you have to do is figure out how to make their decision to do that dumb thing make sense within the context of the story. 

My favorite way to do this is to have my characters make a decision they know is dumb, but doing it anyway because of various internal and external reasons. We do this all the time in real life (where it's called self sabotaging), and when played up correctly, these dumb decisions made for terrible reasons can become great character development moments. If you can set up a situation to harness that, you can easily turn a Stupid Plot moment into a story about characters succumbing to (and hopefully overcoming) human flaws, which isn’t stupid at all.  

Plot Fail #5: The “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” Plot

Characterized by a near-schizophrenic lack of focus, the “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” plot occurs when an author has way too many ideas and tries to fit all of them into a single story.

Why is it bad?
The “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” plot is a tricky beast, because it’s not always a bad idea. There are several popular authors such as William Gibson, China Mieville, and Jeff VanderMeer for whom this type of frenetic onslaught of non-stop amazing ideas is a big selling point. That stated, this style of storytelling is EXTREMELY hard to pull off, and isn't everyone's cup of tea even when done flawlessly.

The vast majority of Kitchen Sink plots are the book equivalent of an over-designed dress. Sure each piece might be nice on its own, but with three different kind of buttons, ruffles, random zippers, and an asymmetrical neckline layered on top of sheer printed mesh, they’re just too much going on to appreciate any of it. In the hands of a master designer, all those various elements might come together to form a new and unique whole. In most cases, though, it’s just going to end up a chaotic, confusing, overwrought mess that no one wants to wear.

How can we fix it?
The main problem with “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” plots is that there’s just too much going on for readers to keep up with. Our brains naturally try to find order and purpose, and if things are too chaotic for us to do that, we often give up in frustration. To fix this problem, an author can either remove some plot elements to lower the complexity and shift the focus back to the main story, or they can do something super clever to tie all of it into one giant, inter-connected work of art.

Obviously, one of these solutions is much easier than the other, but just because there’s a steep execution challenge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If you’re the sort of author who is boiling over with amazing ideas, and you’re willing to put in the work and creativity necessary to making a “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” plot readable, I say go for it. You could do far, far worse than following in the footsteps of any of the authors I mentioned above.  

Plot Fail #6: The Meandering Plot

This plot has lots of threads and characters, but doesn’t actually go anywhere. If it does come to a climax, many issues are left unresolved.

Why is it bad?
For me, the Meandering Plot is the most frustrating failure on this list. Meandering Plots often start as potentially good plots, but, for whatever reason, never actually come together. Usually this is because the writer isn’t following proper Three Act Structure, leaving the book flabby and unfocused as a result.

Meandering Plots aren’t always terrible, but they’re never good. They’re a bit like deflated balloons. Characters drift from one scene to the next, but these events are rarely connected and often don’t build on each other, leaving the story shapeless and limp. Because of this critical lack of build up, the Meandering Plot’s ending often feels abrupt. The book will just end, leaving the reader wondering why they bothered.

How can we fix it?
Since Meandering Plots are caused by failure to apply structure, the fix is to do just that. Sometimes you don’t even have to change the scenes, you just have to tie them together properly to create the escalating ramp of tension the Three Act Structure provides. Once you’ve got that, your characters will have somewhere to go, snapping the Meandering Plot out of its wandering and back on course to be an actually good book.

I hope you've enjoyed this trip down Plot Fail Lane! If you'd like me to do a full post on any of these, or their fixes (for example, a proper post on Three Act Structure), let me know in the comments below! If you enjoyed this blog, please consider following me on social media (Twitter / Facebook / Tumblr / Google+). I do new writing posts every Wednesday and tons of publishing business/fun stuff in between, so don't miss out!

Thank you very much for reading, and as always, keep writing!


Kessie said...

Yep. Seen all those. Paid money for some, and shredded others mercilessly in various critique groups (and had mine shredded in return!) This is why I think all writers should start out in fan fiction, to get the horrible cliches and Mary Sues out of their systems. I see lots of debut authors doing things that newbie fanfic authors do (she's a Mary Sue but she's terribly clumsy! That's her flaw!)

On stupid characters, another of my pet peeves are when a minor character is jumping up and down going, "Oh! Oh! I know where the monster's lair is!" And the heroes go, "Shut up, kid, we have a plot to do here."

Nick Green said...

I think you do H G Wells a disservice there. With the end of WOTW he is making a very calculated reference to colonialism and the hubris of European civilisation. Just as our bacteria wiped out much of America's native peoples, so might another invisible, unforeseen threat destroy us. WE are the Martians in that book. It's a parable about ourselves, a warning against believing we are all powerful. That's what that ending means.


Veronica Sicoe said...

Even if it was the most awesome metaphor for something or other, the ending of WOTW sucked from a tension point of view. It felt clever, but not rewarding. "Clever" isn't always smart.

I love the post, Rachel! I'd like you to expand on ALL of those problems. :D AND on the three act structure. And on how to outline a story by bringing together the character arc with the actual plot (events happening in logical order). *grin*

Jimney said...

Oh lovely post. I used to put waaay to many ideas into a single book when I started. Nowadays I'm way more relaxed. There's plenty of books. The first book isn't (and wasn't) the Holy Grail. Not everything needs to go into that single book. :)

Nick Green said...

@Veronica, surely the lesson to take from WOTW is that sometimes seemingly obvious rules (like 'no Deus Ex Machina' can be bent or broken if the writer is skilled enough. H G Wells is the grandfather of science fiction, alongside Jules Verne - I think it's a bit unwise of us to dismiss his ending by saying 'it sucked' without asking why he wrote it that way.

He wasn't some novice, he wasn't an unskilled writer (though there have been better), and he was obviously very well read. Are we meant to suppose he didn't know what he was doing? That he couldn't have invented another way to end his book? A 'humans save the day!' climax? Of course a man of his imagination could have come up with a thousand such plots.

But he chose not to. And that decision not to go with that plot is significant. Because it tells us something very important. Which is: sometimes you're not in control. Sometimes there is no way. Sometimes it's just blind luck. And if it can happen to the Martians, it can happen to us.

WOTW remains a parable for any age - these days, you could read it as a warning of climate change, or terrorism, or any threat we can't control.

Make no mistake, I do agree with the basic point that novice writers need to avoid destroying tension by resolving plots by lucky accidents. But I don't agree H G Wells is a good example to cite. If he wrote it that way it was for a reason.

B. Malengier said...

Hey, Crazy plot can be great! Or don't you like 'From_Dusk_till_Dawn'?

Veronica Sicoe said...

@Nick: I'm not claiming Wells had no talent or no idea what he was doing. I'm just saying the ending of WOTW was lacking for me, despite its deep philosophical lesson that we're as much victims to chance as we are to superior alien invaders. I just don't derive as much enjoyment from fiction that aims to exemplify fatalism, as I do from fiction that exemplifies the things we can achieve if we make the right choices, and the elements we have power over if we better ourselves.

And just as a side note, brilliant authors--even universally acclaimed ones--are not infallible.

Nick Green said...

@Veronica - yes, it's perfectly okay for anyone to say they don't enjoy a particular book (for the record, I was pretty 'meh' about WOTW myself, much as I love the delightfully camp Jeff Wayne version). I don't count myself a Wells fan as such. I'm just emphasising that it's not a good example of a bad use of Deus Ex Machina, because a bad usage (by definition) is one where the author couldn't think of another way to do it, or was just lazy. Neither of which could be the case in this instance. Wells certainly wasn't infallible, but neither was he capable of messing up on that kind of scale.

Here's a challenge: we need a better example of Deus Ex Machina. I've tried to think of one but I have to go now...

B. Malengier said...

@Nick Green
Better Deus Ex Machina: Peter F. Hamilton, The Naked God.
Ok, it was somewhat announced at the end of volume 2, but a singularity fixing everything?? In 'The Naked God', you know they search something, but you keep on believing they have to come up with a solution. But no, not needed. Here comes the Naked God. Story Ends.

Janeen Ippolito said...

Nice list! Really helpful. Plotting was one of my weakest parts of writing, so I've applied myself to learning a lot about satisfying structure. Before that? I would make up fantastic characters who spoke clever dialogue and...never did anything significant. Complete meandering. I posted one online a while ago and had a reader ask "is this story actually going anywhere?" Comes from the background in play by post role-playing! :-p

Another fail? Not having the protagonist actually in the climax or solving their own problem. Just recently did this one because I had a pushy supporting character who managed to nudge their way in and take over! And I didn't want the pushy character as the protag, so I had to give my protag more muchness and tweak a few things.