Five Plot Writing Devices to Avoid
Jon Gingerich reports:
"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...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...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: [T]he 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...Deus ex machina is one of the most common fallacies out there...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...A lot of us...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...drop something so utterly implausible it may as well have come from outer space...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...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...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...Want to shock us? Write something good...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...[T]he 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...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 [more easily] 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...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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