Writing Reflections: When Plots Go Bad
Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!
When Plots Go Bad
I confess, I love reading bad books almost as much as I love watching bad movies. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I do know that they tend to make me laugh a great deal, and like most people I love things that make me laugh. But quite apart from their humour value, I also think they have a lot to teach me as a writer, specifically about what not to do when you’re writing a story.
One of my favourite memories is from one of the first disaster movies I ever saw. I can’t remember what it was called, or what it was about, but it must have had something to do with an earthquake because I distinctly recall one scene in which a very tall, very thin building was about to fall down on some hapless pedestrian, who was, of course, running to avoid it. Why I remember this scene in particular is because the guy in the movie was running straight ahead, with the building falling down in a straight line behind him. And I remember thinking, quite irritatedly, why doesn’t he just run to the left or right? Then at least he’d have a chance. But no. He just kept on running straight down the center of the road, and got killed almost immediately.
What did I learn from this? Aside from the fact that characters in disaster movies tend inevitably towards stupidity, I learned something very important: don’t get so caught up in the plot – in demonstrating the power of that earthquake – that you forget to think. Not only is it possible that there’s a better route out there, it’s entirely too easy for a writer to be so limited by their own vision of what the story should be that they fail to account for the way their characters would (or could) act in a given situation. That’s when you get wooden characters with inconsistent personalities, or worse, when your characters make choices for reasons that are paper-thin or virtually non-existent. How many times have you told that girl in the horror movie to just call the police? How many times have you been irritated by characters who make stupid choices because it serves the plot?
Engaging with a text I don’t consider to be well written forces me to think about what I don’t like in a novel (or a movie), and what can go wrong in spite of a writer’s best intentions. In addition, through understanding more keenly what I don’t like, I learn not only to appreciate those things I do like, but also to examine my own stories more critically. It’s so easy to get caught up in what you think is happening, or pay so much attention to the smaller details that you don’t see the bigger picture, just like that poor cannon fodder guy running from a falling building. It always pays to consider other options. To keep thinking. To keep asking why. If you keep running straight ahead, that building is gonna squash you flat. If you don’t weigh up your characters choices and provide adequate motivation for them, even if they ultimately end up making the “wrong” decision, your plot’s gonna be flat too.