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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Thin Line Between Love & Hate

May 18, 2010

Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star/Fox Sports is one of my favorite columnists about sports and race relations.  Movies…not so much.  Earlier this year he made some negative comments about the Oscar-nominated film “Up in the Air” and on his Twitter feed linked to a negative review.  (I wish I’d saved the link.)  In that review, the author sounded completely clueless as to how stories work, lamenting that things happened when they needed to in order to achieve the desired result.

Of course they did!  That’s how fiction works!  The claims the reviewer made could have applied to Shakespeare, Dickens, right on up through Stephanie Meyer.  The basic structure of storytelling is to arrange characters and events in order to convey the desired message.  Storytelling is not designed to mimic real life, because time constraints mean you have to filter out all the chaos and boring crap of normal life.  I discussed this previously in my blog entry about what is TRUE fiction.

So as a given all stories manipulate events.  The problem that can crop up in writing is when events are manipulated too much.  Then you get into Convenient Plot Devices.  These go a step beyond the typical coincidences that allow fiction plots to work, into the realm of the unbelievable.  The easiest way to think of it is to think of the old Batman TV show with Adam West where no matter what happened (being chained up, gassed, attacked by a plastic shark, etc.) the solution would always be in his utility belt.  Or like how in the movies “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” and “2012” the government just so happens to have advanced space craft lying around capable of saving the day.  If you want to go way back to mythology it’s like how the gods just so happened to give Perseus gifts he needed to defeat the gorgon and so forth.

It really is a thin line though between a convenient coincidence and a Convenient Plot Device.  In almost every story you’re bound to have some coincidence to bring characters together.  You know the kind of thing like Bob just so happens to stumble and spill coffee on Mary at the Starbucks and this leads to them getting to know each other.  Or like in “Great Expectations” where Pip just so happens to be at the cemetery to visit his dead parents when he meets the convict who later helps him.  In real life these things probably wouldn’t happen, or if they did, Mary would probably slap Bob and the convict would probably kill Pip.  As the reader, though, we accept these convenient coincidences though they aren’t that likely to happen in real life.  It’s the concept of suspending disbelief.

The reader can suspend disbelief about all kinds of things depending on the genre.  We can accept that an alien can crash land on Earth and because of the yellow sun fly, deflect bullets, and shoot heat rays from his eyes.  We can accept that a proper woman and a scoundrel can fall in love.  Vampires, zombies, dragons, and so forth we can all buy into those even though they don’t actually exist and aren’t likely to ever exist.

But our suspension of disbelief isn’t infinite.  That’s where we get into the territory of the Convenient Plot Device and the deus-ex-machina ending.  The latter I discussed previously concerning a book called Next where an ordinary guy going through a midlife crisis just happened to be blown up in a terrorist attack in Austin, Texas during a job interview.  That was the kind of ending that had me shaking my head and saying, “Oh, come on.  You expect me to buy that?”

See, what I want as the reader is for the protagonist to be clever enough to solve his/her problems with some amount of cleverness and intelligence.  I don’t want the author to solve the problem for the hero by killing him/her indiscriminately or providing an easy way out like shark repellent or a magic sword or a spacecraft that just happened to be invented yesterday.  The author can engineer all the coincidences he/she wants to create the crisis, but it should be up to the hero to solve it.  So really, if you’re at that point in writing a story where you think you have to have to give your hero a magic sword or experimental spacecraft or shark repellent, you need to stop and let your character solve the dilemma him/herself.

Thursday is the last original entry of the month on giving books a second chance.


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  1. your older brother permalink

    There’s nothing worse than something that happens to either take you out of the story because it’s so unbelievable or something that just doesn’t square with the rest of the universe/movie setting/whatnot.

  2. After 30+ years of editing, I am highly sensitive to a related problem in narrative—the untrue or unconvincing detail.

    As I read a book (or especially watch a movie) and I notice something that isn’t true (or persuasive) to character or life as it is experienced, an editorial siren goes on. Flaw! Flaw! Flaw! it wails.

    Sometimes, I can overlook these. But if the flaw is necessary for the narrative to take a certain direction, well, then it bugs me and I can’t let it go. Then, I feel like the writer just didn’t, for whatever reason, make the effort to create something plausible.

    Thereafter, particularly if flaw builds on flaw, the narrative just seems arbitrary to me and actually disrespectful of its audience, which is assumed to be too stupid to notice or care.

    For me, such flaws even exist in cartoons or movies with magical-realism type plots. After all, these have their integrity as well and flaws–inconsistencies in narratives or characters–strike me as laziness, second-rate work, or a dis.

    I suppose a Deus-Ex-Machina is the worst flaw of all. But the little guys drive this unforgiving consumer of narratives batty and I wonder why I’m wasting my time. Life is too short…

  3. I can only imagine how many Flaws! were in my book. 😉

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