Monday, September 15, 2014


A LOT OF STORIES START OUT WITH GREAT PREMISES, but fail to answer why the created world of the story is the way it is or why characters act the way they do. In some cases, the plot and characterization are strong enough to get away that, but there is usually an underlying premise that the reader already knows or accepts, (eg., werewolves change under a full moon) so there is little confusion. When readers are left with questions, it can be that the writer knows what’s going on, but hasn’t offered enough detail. What follows are several examples of plots that fail to answer all the necessary questions, similar to what I've seen in the On Spec slush pile:
  • A young girl needs her inventor grandfather to sign a school field trip form. Although she’s been told she must never enter his workshop, she follows him into his lab. She sees something in one dark corner that involves body parts and electrical wiring, but her grandfather chases her away. Questions to be answered: What did the girl see? What is her grandfather really up to? Does this involve medical research or something more horrific? Is the protagonist at risk? It's rarely satisfying for a reader to be presented with something 'creepy' and then to be left with little more than a theme that suggests, 'life is dangerous and unexplainable' - the end.
  • A vacuum cleaner salesman is invited into the house of a weird old guy who seems to know everything about the salesman’s life. The old codger becomes more and more agitated as he relates that all of his goldfish have died. When things get a little too strange and personal, the salesman leaves in a panic. Questions to be answered:  Who is the old man, really? Is he God, an ex-spy, a nosy neighbor, or the protagonist’s unknown father? How is it that he knows everything about the salesman? Does he blame the death of his goldfish on him, and if so, why? Is this an allegory, pointing to something bigger?
  • An off-world miner steals a luxury space cruiser and decides to fly away, never to return to his old, hard life. After flying into uncharted space, he finds an uninhabited world, only to receive a distress signal from a beautiful woman waving at him for rescue. After capturing her in a tractor beam, his ship is pulled toward her, and she swallows the ship whole. Questions to be answered: How is it that a space miner can pilot a stolen ship? What is this monster woman? This victim story tries to entertain with clichés and unexplained plot twists. It's a fantastic version of 'life is dangerous and unexplainable - and then you die' - the end.
Of course, explaining too much (exposition) is almost as bad as not explaining enough. One of the tricks to writing well is to offer a protagonist who has strong motivations for doing what he does, or striving for what he wants (or doesn't want). This creates a character-driven plot that avoids the kind of scenarios above, where bad things occur by seeming happenstance. 

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