It’s time for me to continue my thoughts on cheap storytelling. If you missed the last blog centered on character gimmicks, I hope you will give it a read as I lay the foundation for what cheap storytelling is there. This time, I will be listing out the top nine plot gimmicks that make me crazy. These are hacks that result from a lazy writer that wants to keep his or her story interesting or raise the stakes with as little effort as possible. You’ve seen these all before, and you will continue to see them because, in all honesty, they can work. Good, successful authors use them. That does not mean they are quality or anything worth aspiring to. If you catch yourself using one of these gimmicks, I hope it will give you pause and make you rethink that course of action for your story. Work harder. Make your story the best it can be.
Let’s do this.
I have a great idea for a story, but the backstory to set it up is longer than the Bible. Well, shoot. How about I just throw in a few pages of exposition right at the beginning? Maybe I’ll even call it the prologue. Then I can start the good part. The News can take many forms. In movies, I often see it as the voice-over narration that isn’t as necessary as everyone thinks it is. Many futuristic movies like to start with a literal news montage (Edge of Tomorrow, World War Z). Many fantasy books will lay out an entire history of their world in the first few pages. A book one of the Embers Igniting staff read decided to dish out the protagonist’s backstory by saying, “If my life was a news article, it would read…” and listed out past events as if they were headlines. All of these methods may seem clever, but when it comes down to it, they are tactless and sloppy. Consider only giving the reader what they need to know and show them the rest incrementally. Make the backstory part of the journey. Or perhaps rethink where your story begins. If you’ve read The Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch, you’ll know that three of the projected seven books in the series have come out. But did you know that the first book he wrote was actually book four? The author realized he had too much backstory and started the series three books earlier. If your backstory is just as interesting as your main story, throwing it in a news headline is a disastrous waste.
I really need to move my story along, but I don’t know how to get my characters to the next plot point. What to do, what to do… How about a ridiculous coincidence? The Handy-Dandy is happening to overhear a conversation (A.K.A. every Harry Potter book ever), bumping into the exact person you needed to see, a random character saying something that solves a completely unrelated problem the protagonist is dealing with, turning on the TV to see the news reporting something involving your character. The list goes on. Coincidences kill your suspension of disbelief, and it can often be a sign that you either haven’t plotted out your story well enough or your characters are too passive.
The Dead Battery
In line with coincidences, you know that pivotal point in your story where your character is stranded in the middle of nowhere? Then you realize the problem that they could just whip out their phone and call for help? Oh, what do you know! The battery is dead! Technology is wonderfully convenient, but that sometimes poses a problem when we want our crisis to not be solved easily. The Dead Battery is any form of technical malfunction. Your car runs out of gas or breaks down or won’t start, the power goes out, the computer is going really, really, really slow. Basically, technology is awesome…until it’s not. The only time I will let this kind of thing slide is if it’s set up earlier in the story. The character is frustrated because she forgot to bring her phone charger, or the storm that killed the power was forecasted. Otherwise, it’s forcing something to happen, forcing suspense that is unreasonable.
The Hocus Pocus
This is the opposite of the Dead Battery. You know when you have a problem that’s really not critical to the story, but it’s an obstacle to your plot if you can’t resolve it? Just use that device that magically opens all doors. Or call up your hacker friend who can just bang on his keyboard and hack into the defense mainframe of insert high-tech facility name here. Or if your story has magic, just use that one magical object/spell/ability that I just thought of off the top of my head. How convenient, and, again, not well thought out.
I wanted to call this The Katniss Everdeen, but I’ll be merciful. What do you do when you have a lot of exciting action going on, but you really have no idea how to write it? Or maybe you’re just too lazy to. Simple. Just have your character black out. They can wake up later and have another character explain what happened in thoughtless exposition. Don’t cheat your readers out of something exciting just because you won’t go to the effort of figuring it out. Don’t let your protagonists take a back seat to everything as helpless, knocked out bystanders.
The Choose Me, Babe
Look, I’m not going to enrage every reader of romance out there and say love triangles are completely taboo. Generally, they’re not my cup of tea, but if they are done well, I can be convinced of their worth. If the love triangle takes sudden precedence above the over-arching story or if it is done simply to amp up the drama, then it’s a cheap trick. I think that The Choose Me, Babe is one of the cheapest tricks there is. Everyone knows that people get emotionally invested in relationships. If you are reading a book and you realize that the only reason you are continuing to turn the pages is because you want to know who the character ends up with, you’ve fallen for their trick. Everything else in the story should be just as interesting as that love triangle.
The End of the World
I understand that a story worth telling must be exciting. That being said, they should also have a level of realism. Some stories take every event and make it an absolute catastrophe. Everything is extreme. I see this often as an unrealistic writer who has not done enough research to understand how things work. Take every firefighter story known to man. Every time there is a house fire, it’s an enormous blaze with twenty people trapped inside, and oh, by the way, of course the firefighter’s best friend dies saving someone. Everyone also needs CPR for everything. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge, and sometimes it’s just a need to be dramatic. But if every situation you create is as extreme as it can be, how are you going to continue to raise the stakes? Are you really going to top it every single time? That kind of unrealism gets noticed. You can create suspense without making everything the ultimate disaster.
It always happens at the moment of crisis, doesn’t it? As if things weren’t bad enough, now the protagonist has to get into an obscure argument for no reason other than the writer wants to raise the stakes. I hate to see this between a romantic relationship because the author never resolves the issue behind the fight at the end. It’s like, “Hey, I know we had a fight because you’re controlling and don’t respect me, but now that we’ve saved the world, I’m actually totally okay with that.” What a disrespect to the characters that their issues aren’t actually resolved. They were just used to make things more exciting.
Of all the tricks I have discussed thus far, I suspect this is the one people will disagree with me on the most. That’s all right, but for the moment at least consider it. The Sacrifice is when a character is killed off to further someone else’s story. I hear that excuse a lot. “This character had to die so that my protagonist could move on to do her heroic blah blah blah.” This is done so often, that I don’t think many people realize how cheap it is to create a character purely for the sake of killing them off. Yes, a character’s death must be justified, but your character is pretty lame if the only thing that can call them to action is the death of a character they care about.
What do you think? Do you disagree? Are there others you can think of that I missed? I’m going to be wrapping up this series next time by talking about endings.
By Rachelle Clifford