Friday, February 12, 2010

Messinger on Least-Favorite Plots

Meagan Messinger, a production assistant at, ticks off her least-favorite plots. Excerpts:
I hate it when I'm reading along, enjoying myself, and I realize that the writer doesn't have a story. They have a set-up, a setting, a single character, or one cool idea, and then they pack it in a bunch of words and hope no one notices that nothing happens in their "story." The major sign of this is that you think "Why was that one minor character so cool?" or "Why was I so interested in the numerology system?" Chances are, the author feels the same way. Sometimes the piece is short enough that it's okay, or the prose style is so beautiful or breezy that I don't notice until I go back and think about it. But a few of the methods for disguising a plotless plot always jump out at me.
Read the whole thing. Messinger blasts big-name authors for relying too much on surprise twists, high-concept characters and the loss-of-innocence motif. (Even the inimitable Neil Gaiman gets rightfully dinged over his narcolepsy-inducing short "How to Talk to Girls at Parties.") She also directs us back to the fundamentals, reminding us that the tinsel and ornaments may be shiny, but we can't forget to purchase the tree. Things must happen. Characters must change. It all has to flow, to be so well integrated you never see the seams. And I'd like to add another supposition, if I may: It needs a modicum of originality. Yes, I know there's nothing new under the sun and narrative arcs tend to fall into recognizable patterns. But we've all read the borrowed story, the one where only the clothing changes. Hollywood goes in big for them, propping up its CGI extravaganzas with the same old rickety framework. We ought to aim for more than pretty lights.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Unknown said...

I dunno. To haul out Zelazny again, he wrote once about the Three Basic Plots - Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and A Man Learns a Lesson - and how inverting them - Boy Fails to Get the Girl, The Odds Overcome the Hero, and A Man Fails to Learn a Lesson - can also create an effect. To whit, I don't know that the characters need to change per se so much as the change needs to be visible and visibly lost. I think Gaiman's story wasn't the best example, because it outlines what a successful attempt would have looked like, even if the actual characters fail to achieve it.

The Via Negativa you mentioned a while back can apply elsewhere; sometimes, nothing can happen in a very particular way.

Loren Eaton said...

The monomyth may be a good way to describe what you're saying about change. A person can fall from a high to low state because his personal character doesn't change; that's still a certain sort of change, I guess.

I agree with you about Zelazny's inversion of plots. They just have to be fully realized, more than a clever idea. Did you listen to "Another End of the Empire" on PodCastle a couple weeks ago? The short nailed the balance.

For the record, I hate criticizing Neil Gaiman because he's so much more talented than I'll even be. But I really disliked "HTTTGAP" (to get all acronym-y).