Thursday, December 15, 2011
Knowing the Future: Avoiding Predictable Plots Through Plot Exposure
Both my husband and I love stories. We read a lot of books, watch a lot of TV, and see a lot of movies. Even the most creative book, show, or movie borrows occasionally from time-honored devices or ideas, so it's hard to stay fresh and unpredictable all the time.
We watched an episode of The Closer once where we figured out the resolution before the first commercial break. Even though we caught on fast, they did a great job of hiding the clues that suggested this resolution. We figure plots out a lot, so this is nothing new, nor is it anything special. We just see a lot of plots every week.
I think this is why I've always found plotting easy. I don't come up with great plots every time, but I'm rarely stuck on them. I have some writer friends who find plotting a challenge. They're brilliant and beautiful writers, but this is an area in which they struggle. Thinking back, I'm pretty sure every one of them mentioned they don't watch a lot of TV or see a lot of movies, even though they do read a lot.
I think there's a connection.
If you're constantly exposed to stories, especially stories that unfold so quickly you can see the pieces, you recognize what goes into creating them. You also get to see the ones that don't try so hard to be original, and even the "clever twists" aren't so clever when you can name six shows that have also done it in the past year.
I think this is why you'll have writers with what they feel is a great twist to their stories, yet they still can't sell it. To them, it's a wonderful unexpected plot, but to an agent or editor who sees 150 ideas a day, it's obvious. (or even common). The Closer had a great plot twist, and for a moment even had me thinking maybe I was wrong (but then I remembered a clue that cleared the red herring).
Reading books in our genre is a must, but I don't think it's all we have to do to stay on top of plot ideas. My fantasy plots also have an element of mystery to them, but if I never exposed myself to any mystery plots, how would I know what was fresh and what had been done a million times. I think it's important for writers to read books in other genres, see movies of all types, and yes, even watch TV. That's where the stories come from. And the folks who are pushed to write every week sometimes have to rely on old favorites, so you get a very good sense of what the common plots of that genre are. Or any genre.
Every show at some point does certain plots. Someone will lose their memory. Someone will have a huge secret from their past come back to haunt them. If they're in law enforcement, a serial killer will taunt them, and then later, escape to taunt them again. There will be a "time travel" episode, where the story takes place in the past (or another reality or dream) often with the regular characters playing different roles. A good guy will go bad. A bad guy will turn out to secretly be good.
That doesn't make any of these plots bad. There are only so many plots out there and we all recycle them. What makes our ploys unique is how we handle them, and the story we put around those plot ideas.
So even though your parents said watching too much TV will rot your brain, it's actually a good thing for writers (the TV watching, not the brain rot). Because that's where we can see a multitude of plots on a regular basic, boiled down to their main elements. When we're faced with what to do next in our stories, we won't grab for the most common solution, because we'll know what the most common solution is.
As for The Closer, here are the things that tipped us off right away:
A man was found dead, having been shot to death after he'd been dragged by a car for a while. One of the detective recognizes him as a murder suspect from over a decade before, who was never prosecuted because they didn't have enough evidence. He says he'll call the original detective, now retired, because he'd be happy to know the scumbag is dead.
--Right here, my husband and I turned to each other and said "The retired detective did it." This scene is the opening scene by the way.
Later, the retired detective shows up (the delightful Tom Skerrit) and someone makes a comment about how he looks good, that he lost weight.
--Right here we say, "He's dying, probably cancer. That's why he picked now to kill the guy he never caught and bring peace to the families."
Later, the retired detective is joking with another detective about his prostate, and how he no longer has to worry about it.
--Right here we know it's prostate cancer killing him.
Later, the retired detective is sucking down Pepto Bismal and saying his stomach is upset.
--This one wasn't as obvious (morphine makes you sick if the show's facts are right), but it was another clue the man was sick if you hadn't picked up on the earlier ones.
Sure enough, the retired detective had been hounding the killer for years, trying to find out where the bodies were buried so the families can finally have closure. He only had a few months left to live (cancer) so he grabbed the killer, dragged him behind the car to torture him into revealing where he'd buried the bodies, them shot him and dumped him where the bodies had been buried. Case closed.
Most of these are tiny clues. Small things smoothly woven into the show in ways that fit what was going on in the scene. A lot of shows are obvious about this stuff, but The Closer did it beautifully. Trouble was, we've seen this plot device a bunch of times, so we caught on right away.
It's true that everything has been done, but knowing your genre will help you know what's been done in that genre. What's likely been seen by fans of that genre. Look for new twists and keep your readers guessing.
Do you expose yourself to a lot of different plots? How good are you at guessing plots? Do you find that helps you with your own plotting?