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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pointless Plot Elements, Convenience, and Fantasy

I was reading something the other day and one of the things that I disliked about it was how the author had gone about plotting his or her novel. Each element to the plot (each action and reaction) seemed too convenient, as if the author had intentionally done those things just so he or she would have an excuse to put two characters together by chapter four. While this may occur quite often in fantasy or any sort of fiction with a discernible plot, what bothered me the most was how obvious the story was about its convenience. This seems like a problem that is very common in fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, science fiction). Too many writers seem to rely on convenience rather than logic or intelligent plotting. For the record, I do not profess to be an expert on how to plot, but am speaking here primarily as a reader; and, as a writer, it is making me very aware of my own novels and stories, so much so that I have started to wonder whether or not there are elements of convenience in my own work (there are).

I can't say I know how to deal with such issues, but it seems to me that the reasonable thing to do is to avoid moments where it is obvious that you are plotting by convenience. If you say "Oh, well if I just do this, then I can put these characters together, and then everything I want to do can be done," then it seems to me that you're dealing with convenience. Worst yet, it makes no sense to a reader why you wouldn't just put those characters together in the first place if you wanted them there anyway. There are factors that make all this obvious; rapidity is one of them. The quicker you try to make your plot happen, the more clear it is to the reader that that is what you are trying to do. The nasty critical side of me wants to point out that this is amateurish; I've done it, and where I see it I know that I have done something terrible.

Having said all of this, I have no advice whatsoever on how to avoid it. Like I said, I still do it from time to time. The only thing I can think to do is to ask yourself at every plot turn if you're using convenience rather than logic. If you are, then you probably should think of something else. If you know that someone is going to say "this is terribly convenient," then it doesn't make sense to continue going in that direction.

But, I want your opinions on this. How many of you have experience this either in your reading or your writing? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. I think one useful way of getting around those problems is to either present a problem simultaneously with a solution, or to circumvent detailing the 'easy' bits.

    For example, if there's a major problem for your characters in that they need to get to point B from A, perhaps the journey could be difficult / expensive / dangerous because of weather / distance / location etc. This makes the 'get your characters together so they can start the plot proper' exercise, normally wearisome, into a time when we can learn about how characters react to stressors and deal with each other.

    Another (cheaty!) way of circumventing the problem is to summarise it.
    "After that, it was just a fight scene."
    "Dirk handled the delicate affairs of bribing the guard, they paid off the hostlers, and the group hauled their baggage into the inn by hand."

  2. Those are certainly ways to do it, but it seems like no matter what you do, you'll have a difficult time working around the convenient plot devices if your'e not careful...

  3. Oh, and thanks for the comment, Pip! I appreciate it!

  4. The problem with convenience is that it's different to each writer/reader. As the writer, we are in complete control of our characters, so we sometimes forget how to make the events in their life realistic.

    When it comes right down to it, all events in a story are conveniences to further the plot. I think the difference between feeling like something is convenient and feeling like it is a part of the story is the skill of the writer.

  5. Mikal: Yes and no. Even an unskilled writer can weed out obvious convenience. But, yeah, generally I agree.