Thursday, June 21, 2012

Story Plot Lines That 
Work....And Some That Don't

Inspired Writing

Tip of the Day

Your Novel's Fresh Plot Broken Down

Plot is more important than you can possibly realize. At the beginning of The Da Vinci Code the murder victim used his own blood to leave the police a message:

Remember to pick up butter
Extra starch at the dry cleaners
Get the BMW serviced

Actually, that’s not what Jacques Sauniere wrote, but considering the rest of the plot, it might as well have been. The funny thing about this book and Angels & Demons, also by Dan Brown, is that they don’t seem so bad until you step back and look at the story with a more critical eye.

Then they just seem dumb.

In Angels & Demons, a vial of anti-matter is smuggled into the Vatican and hidden - creating a race in which Robert Langdon and his ridiculous haircut must find it. Do you have any idea how difficult it would be to produce even a teeney tiny amount of anti-matter? Or the fact that transporting it anywhere is a virtual impossibility? I was willing to suspend belief for Da Vinci, but not that load of crap.

What I did like about Da Vinci Code was the sheer amount of history you learn following along in the story. That made the conspiracies - and that Jesus had some rugrats - easier to swallow.

I think it’s okay to be a fan and a critic.

I believe this has helped me become a better writer. I both enjoyed and hated Da Vinci Code. At the same time it also reaffirmed my belief - due to Da Vinci sales - that people will line up in droves to buy a novel with nothing in it that represents a coherent story.

Go figure.

Enough of That Crap

Let’s say that, overall, your plot is sound. Your hero must complete a quest, fight a villain and win against horrible odds, betrayed at every turn. Your novel can still be ruined, if you are not careful with the plot points contained in your story.
Absurd situations embedded in your plot can destroy your book. It can have the same affect on your reader as turning off a light switch. As a reader, it has certainly happened to me…and I don’t holler or lash out. I just write off the time wasted and move on with my life. And like many other readers, I place a checkmark next to the author’s name and make a mental note to never read one of that writer’s books again.

This is a bad thing.

I’m going to give you a movie example of something totally absurd, just to share the absurdity. Let me rephrase that…I’ve seen this three times, and this isn’t about plot so much as it is about the writing in the plot.
In Face Off, Live Free or Die Hard and The Losers - a car or motorcycle has been used as a bullet…to stop an aircraft in flight.

Think about that for a moment.

The hero uses a car to stop a plane….in flight. A couple of screenwriters sat in a room somewhere and came up with this gem.

Now, that was a good idea

Screenwriters meeting:

“Okay, Bob, in this tunnel scene, McClane is out of bullets but the bad guys are still shooting at him from a helicopter.”
“Oh, hells yeah! I can totally see that, Larry.”
“So…what does McClane do?’
“Ummm…I got it! He throws a police car at them?”
“By gosh, that works perfectly!”

Sigh. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that not only does your plot need to be realistic; things happening in your plot should be realistic as well.

White House meeting:

“Mr. Secretary, aliens have kidnapped the president!”
“What are their demands?”
“They want all the toy Hess trucks produced between 1974 and 1988.”
“That’s impossible! Call McClane…and give him a police car to throw at them!”

In both Goldfinger and True Lies, the hero swims underwater in a wetsuit and aqualung for miles, infiltrating a highly secure location. The hero rigs explosives, takes out guards, then slips out of his wetsuit to reveal….a perfectly tailored tuxedo. Sigh.

Do you know what readers - such as myself - do when we come upon plot points that seem outlandish and trite? We roll our eyes, close the book and find something else to read.

There is an author that I have a soft spot for, though. Sometimes his victims die in completely absurd ways, his main characters aren’t connected with reality, and his villains don’t seem believable. But I love his writing and his stories anyway.
His name is John Burdette, a British crime novelist. His main character is a Thai cop named Sonchai Jitpleecheep - found in Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts.
Jitpleecheep, along with his mother and the chief of police, own a whorehouse in Bangkok. I think that Burdette’s corrupt hero Jitpleecheep, with his constant internal meditation and insane ability to justify truly disgusting crimes, make up for the plot inconsistencies. 

Check out at least one of his books if you don’t believe me.

Plots We Care About

“Well, my story is about a heroic child training a dragon in…..”

I’m sorry. Nodded off for a moment there. What were you saying?

What is the most important aspect of a plot that works? That is actually rather easy to answer. The reader must care. It’s that simple, if your reader doesn’t care that your hero wins at the end, what does it matter? They probably won’t get that far.

Now, getting a reader to care can be a combination of engaging characters and well-written scenes, as well as an intriguing plot. But if you throw yet another tired, overused ‘White House conspiracy’ plot at your reader…or another ‘young boy saves the endangered whale’ story, you’ve lost the battle before it began.

I can’t emphasize it enough, same old equals boring. If you have a new take on a tested-and-tried formula, terrific…run with that. If, however, you plan on taking a Harry Potter plot and simply telling in a different way, then you possibly need to rethink your strategy.
This is where you step up with something fresh.

Remember my soft spot for John Burdette? His books are - in a nutshell - a story of ‘cop solves mysterious crime’. Burdette upped the ante, though, making his story ‘Thai cop solves mysterious crime while skirting unbelievable Third-World corruption’.
At the very least, his take on these storylines are fresh. And that’s what sold me.

Break down your plot on paper and take a good, hard look at it. Don’t shy away if something similar has been done before….that’s not the end of the world.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to sit down with a really, really smart and imaginative friend, someone that shares the same literary interests as you, and force two or three bottles of wine down his/her throat. As a side-note, I shovel the good wine into my friend at first, then, when they’re tipsy, I switch to the crap I made in the bathtub. Cheaper that way.

After your pal is good and truly sloshed, they can’t drive home….and now you have a captive audience. Yayyy!

Talk about your book ideas, as well as your misgivings, and hit up your friend for great advice they won’t remember the next day. That way, anything the two of you come up with will be yours and yours alone. Yayyy!

Do you have a fresh take now? Okay, it is time for the hard-hitting questions. Has the basic story been done a gazillion times? Do the characters seem fresh? Do the sub-plots sound plausible? Would you buy something like your book idea in the bookstore?
These are the kind of questions you need to be asking yourself. After, of course, your friend is safely home sleeping it off.

I think that the best possible advice I could possibly give you here is this: Give your reader a plot they don’t see coming.

By that I mean, provide a floor-plan of a plot, then sprinkle in a few twists, and give your reader a story where they have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next, what characters will still be breathing in the end and if the world itself - indeed - is still spinning on its axis at the conclusion.

What storylines have you enjoyed the most?

Next Time: Sub-plots examined

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