January 23rd 2013
Avoiding the Convenient Plot Point
I work with a writing student, who is in the midst of working on a compelling project that I know will turn out very well. Right now, though, she is struggling with some plotting, in a way that all of us who write, either as a hobby or as a profession, have encountered now and then. Specifically, she is confronting the realization that plot points that are convenient for her as a writer, are not always appropriate in the context of character, setting, or background. Does this sound familiar? Then read on.
This is certainly a problem that I have faced often in my career, particularly with my early books. There were times when I had in mind a scene or set of scenes that worked perfectly with what I wanted to accomplish with my narrative. I wrote the scenes quickly, knowing that they were coming out just as I had envisioned them. Imagine my surprise, then, when my editor told me in his revision notes that the scenes needed to be reworked.
“It’s too easy,” he said. “It’s too convenient. I know that it fits in with the rest of your plotting, but what your character is doing there is totally at odds with what he should be doing, with what he would want to do given this part of his personality or that moment in his history.” I remember the conversations vividly, in large part because I have recently had almost the exact same exchanges with my student (though I was the one speaking my editor’s lines).
And it’s not as though my student and I are the only ones who have struggled with this. Don’t believe me? Remember the ending of the first Star Wars movie (not Episode 1, but the first movie made — Luke Skywalker and Han Solo)? It was very convenient for the Rebel Alliance — not to mention George Lucas — that the Empire had to wait thirty minutes for the planet to get out of their way before they could blow up the Rebel base. But it made absolutely no sense. They had a weapon that was designed specifically to blow up planets. That was its entire purpose! Why would they have to wait for the planet to get out of their way?!
Or how about in the Harry Potter series — in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione uses a time turner to take a few more classes at Hogwarts, and also to save the life of Buckbeak, the Hippogriff. Oh, yes, and also to keep Sirius from being sent back to prison. But somehow, Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, and the rest, never think to use a time turner to, I don’t know, keep Voldemort from coming back?! Really?!
Convenient? Yes. Logical? Believable? I don’t think so.
So, how do we avoid this pitfall? How do we keep ourselves from taking the easy road and thus undermining the narrative integrity of our stories and books? And does it even matter if we do? It’s not as though Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban didn’t make boatloads of money despite their plot holes, right?
Well, answering the last question, first, I’d like to think that it does matter, if for no other reason than because we, as authors, ought to care about the quality and internal consistency of our own work.
As to how we avoid the problem, the solution is both deceptively simple and maddeningly difficult. It’s simple because the key lies in work that we have already done. We know our characters — we know them as well as we know our closest friends and members of our families. We also know our worlds, our magic systems or technological innovations, our histories, the physical settings in which we’ve placed our stories, etc. We understand all of this stuff, and so ought to be able to see when we are straying onto narrative paths that will lead us into questionable territory. Understanding the fundamentals of our stories is the easiest way to avoid doing things that will undermine those same fundamentals.
But what makes this so difficult is that sometimes we take the wrong paths anyway, despite this intimate knowledge of the story elements. It’s not as Lucas and Rowling didn’t know their stories. But sometimes the siren song of the easy plot point is too powerful to ignore. Sometimes, we make this mistake in spite of everything we know.
This is why we have editors and beta readers. Because sometimes we are so close to the story that we can’t see that one part of our creation (the plotting) does not mesh with another part (character or worldbuilding). Often it takes a fresh set of eyes to see the problem. This is why I needed my editor to set me straight; it’s why my student needs me.
But if you don’t have an editor or a set of beta readers, all is not lost. I can find these sorts of problems in my own work now; I can anticipate my editor’s objections. (At least I can most of the time.) I do it by being vigilant in the questioning of my own decisions. I ask myself questions all the time: If Ethan does this, what are the consequences? What will Sephira do? What will the Crown authorities do? Where will that leave them all? If a plot point seems just so perfect, I am particularly dubious. I look at it — I hope — from every possible perspective. Sometimes I still miss something, although that happens far less often than it used to.
In asking myself these questions, in holding every plot turn and twist up to the light, I can usually find those places where I’m allowing convenience to trump logic. Between my own careful analysis of my narrative choices, and the critical reading of my beta readers, I have managed (in large part) to remove the convenient plot point from my writing.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com
David B. Coe
David B. Coe is the author of eleven fantasy novels, including the books of the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands. He has also written the novelization for the Ridley Scott production of ROBIN HOOD, starring Russell Crowe, that is due out in May 2010. In 1999 he received the Crawford Fantasy Award, given annually by the IAFA to the best new author in fantasy. He has a Ph.D. in United States environmental history and lives on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee with his wife and daughters. Visit site.
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