Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Plot Improbabilities

Recently a secular organization asked me to address their annual conference, on how to write effectively. (You can see the link to the video of the presentation – and the handout I provided to the participants -- here. Small enticement: The handout is a kind of resource list/crash course for effective writing and publishing.)

My two latest books are controversial, and that’s why this organization wanted to hear what I had to say about handling touchy subject matter. In addressing others who might want to write on something controversial, I shared with them the most important element of persuasive writing.

It is this: The first task of a persuasive writer is to anticipate, and address, the objections of the reader – before those objections arise in the reader’s mind.

What does that have to do with writing fiction, you may ask?

Everything. Because, more than any other kind of writer, the fiction writer must convince the reader to care about people who don’t actually exist, in predicaments wholly invented by the writer. Now, that’s persuasive writing!

Here’s an exercise to help you do that.

Choose either the plot of your WIP or an extended section of it. Now, imagine three people you know who just won’t put up with illogical or unbelievable plots. (We’re not talking about the writing, just the plot at this point.) Ah, there’s your snotty Aunt Eunice who points out plot holes in Murder She Wrote reruns. And your teenage son who rolls his eyes when something improbable happens at a movie and groans so loudly that you duck down in your theater seat. And don’t forget your spouse who throws across the room any book with too many coincidences.

Imagine them at their worst. Allow them to morph into avatars. Let them hold court on the plot of your novel. Let them be ruthless. Reason out what they would object to.

Then fix it. Every plot hole, improbable coincidence, silly sequence, gratuitous artifice.

Then ship those three avatar plot critics off to a Siberian prison that swirls in the middle of a perpetual ice storm forever, because they have nothing more to say.

Then take lung-deep, ah!-bright-wings breaths.

And write.

Lavishly, recklessly, write.


Kristen Torres-Toro said...

"Then ship those three avatar plot critics off to a Siberian prison that swirls in the middle of a perpetual ice storm forever, because they have nothing more to say."

That's the part I keep forgetting! Thanks for the permission to tell these mental tormenters to shut up. My polite southern upbringing has never allowed me to do that before--even to the scoffers in my head! I'm ready to recklessly write.

Steve G said...

As a pastor I have to envision them sitting in front of me every Sunday... and regardless of how often I ship them off, they keep coming back week after week... that may be a good thing!

I like what you ended with:

"And write.
Lavishly, recklessly, write."

That's how I want to live life, or love:

And love.
Lavishly, recklessly, love.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for the great advice! It's so much easier to deal with avatars. (They can't write bad reviews!)

Judy Gann said...

Great post, Latayne! I have what could be too much of a coincidence in my WIP. Are there questions I should ask myself or things to consider or keep in mind as I write the novel to keep this major plot point (that novelists who've crititiqued my work encourage me to keep) from becoming too coincidental? I realize it may be hard for you to give me a general answer without knowing specifics.

Thank you!

Latayne C Scott said...

Hey Kristen: Absolution granted, and you're welcome. Steve and Debbie, thanks for the comments. In the original draft of the post I did tell people to ship their aunts, kids and spouses off to Siberia. The avatar bit took the edge off that.

Judy, sweet Judy. I would love to answer your question! (Sound of hands rubbing together in happiness.) The trick with something that's improbable is to prepare your reader for it. One way of doing that is with foreshadowing. You can foreshadow with 1) images or 2) some similar event. An example of foreshadowing with a tactile image is in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Richard Dreyfuss character has an image in his mind that is so pervasive that he begins looking for it in the "real" world.

For Christian literature, a way to do this can even be with a godly premonition. I'm using that term to cover a broad spectrum of things in which the Spirit can indicate something to a character which would later find fulfillment, again in the "real" world.

Anyone else have some ideas for Judy?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Hey Judy, when I submitted Tuesday Night at Mount Hermon, I was told by an editor that the plot could happen in real life, but not in fiction. Turned out that he was the only one who objected. So I guess a little assumed coincidence is okay.

Judy Gann said...

Thank you, Latayne and Debbie! I appreciate your help. You've given me some things to think about.

I think I need to watch how I develop the relationship between the two key characters in my book.

Thanks, Ladies!

Kathleen Popa said...

Back in the last century when I was in college, my writing professor explained that a writer could use a coincidence to create the hero's problem, but not to solve it. The first is bad lick, the second is cheating.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, readers (and veiwers of movies) tend to allow themselves to accept quite a number of improbabilities and coincindences, as long as they are small and insignificant to the main plot. But once our tolerance level has been reached we ruthlessly tear the piece apart. It would be nice to assume that there would be nothing illogical in a story, but there always is to someone's way of thinking. Filling as many gaps as possible is always a good plan as glaring issues will make the reader screw up their nose.
I like Kathleen's comment. Coincidence does account for quite a few dilemmas, but then we expect logic to solve them.
Thanks for a great post. Very thought provoking.

Miriam Cheney said...

Thanks for alerting me to the fact that, come to think of it, I might have a too-convenient coincidence ... hrmmph.
Good, practical fixes, Latayne--a foreshadowing with images or events. Thank you! I appreciate practical suggestions in this oh-so-very abstract work we do.
"Then take lung-deep, ah!-bright-wings breaths. And write. Lavishly, recklessly, write."

Love this! Amen! Why not lavishly and recklessly, since we must do it, anyway?

Latayne C Scott said...

Katie and Debbie, I knew that you could help with some very practical advice. That's why your writing is so good, and so believable.

Judy, CassandraJade and Miriam -- we're all in the same boat, so to speak. We all have the same very difficult task of not letting a stimulating plot get in the way of the "willing suspension of disbelief" that we request of our readers.

And thanks for all the supportive comments you all give to us here at NovelMatters. Your iron sharpens ours, and we are so grateful.