Thursday, March 12, 2009

Potted Plots

We've all heard that there are no new plots under the sun. That may or may not be true (how does that concept explain J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series?) but assuming it's true doesn't mean writers shouldn't avoid situational plot cliches.

In Don't Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden offers up this advice:

A cliched plot won't cause the immediate death of your submission, because plot defects don't show up right away. Still, to round out our discussion of triteness, we ought to take a look at some cliched situations.

  • the wrongly accused who is saved by the arrival of a long-lost twin;
  • the sole witness for the prosecution who decides to walk her dog the night before she testifies and is not seen again (though Buster is found in a dumpster);
  • the prostitute who will quit the profession as soon as she saves enough to become a real mom to the baby she gave up years ago;
She includes a few more, including the urgent telephone call to the sleuth requesting a clandestine meeting, and well . . . you get the idea.

Unless it's a parody, you should create something new and fresh. If the cliche is useful to your plot, acknowledge it as a cliche so readers don't think you've created this blatant bungle by accident and they should no longer trust you as an author.

While we're talking about situational cliches, don't forget those red herrings, suspenseful foreshadowing elements, and plot twists. As readers become more sophisticated, these tricks of the trade become more difficult to successfully pull off in a story. The tendency can be to pile one on top of another -- we've all read books like this. Sometimes, less is more -- especially if it's the right one.

As you plant your plot situations, make sure they're indigenous. Mixing tropical with desert in one pot is usually not a good idea. (Okay, give me some leeway here. I liked my title and had to come up with a tie-in. Cliche?)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.


CR: Still working on The Chameleon's Shadow, and pulling together an ever increasing list of books I want to look into downloading on my Kindle. Too bad I'm such a slow reader . . .

It's all better with friends.

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