Thursday, December 15, 2011

Knowing the Future: Avoiding Predictable Plots Through Plot Exposure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?


  1. Neat! I've never seen The Closer- that was a cool plot. I like trying to spot little clues like that in movies too, although sometimes I think I overanalyze.

  2. I've realized that in the past two years since I've been writing seriously, I ALWAYS seem to spot the red herrings in novels, movies, and TV shows. Part of me finds it fun, but other times I just wish I were able to turn it off and be surprised with the rest of the world! But you're right, it does make you really appreciate a well-constructed plot.

  3. And I suppose it's worthwhile to mention that I've always been an avid TV fan (I get so addicted to shows!), so writing more just honed my prediction skills!

  4. It's amazing how it works. It's like having a huge pool of people putting plots in boxes to see which are common.

  5. I remembered this fascinating post just now when I watched the first episode of Lie to Me. I got a warm glow of satisfaction from calling several plot twists in advance. :)

    For example (spoilers, obviously):

    * 60ish congressman is visiting the same young female hooker every Friday night.
    * She has warm fuzzy feelings of happiness about him.
    * BUT they're not having sex.

    Yup, she's the congressman's secret baby! Sounds like a Harlequin title.

  6. LOL it does! I bet if you Googled that you'd find a title somewhere.

  7. This makes me feel better about watching the TV that I do :) Thankfully none of it is the plotless reality junk though.

    But one thing I have found to really help me with my plotting is to write flash fiction. It's under 1000 words, so to write one and polish one doesn't take a lot of time. But if you can hit all the plot points of a story in that frame, then you just got a ton of practice in with plotting for minimal effort.

    Great post.

  8. Fantastic post, Janice. You always get me thinking!

  9. Love this! I have actually been forbidden to speak during movies/shows because of my "spoiler" powers. *evil laugh* My fave part of your post was the "plot devices every show uses" love that!

  10. My husband is brilliant at figuring out plot lines before the end. I'm not so good at it. But I never quite looked at it this way before. I'll never watch tv the same way again! :) e

  11. Hopping over after two commenters on my blog mentioned your site. (Laura Barnes and Catyork)

    I always like to find writing sites that deliver that something extra - good content.

  12. I don't watch a lot of TV, but I do have small children, and I won't admit how many times I've seen Toy Story 2 or Kiki's Delivery Service. Seeing the same movie over and over has helped me analyze its structure, which I do think helps me with plotting books.

  13. elizabeth dunn12/15/2011 11:48 AM

    The TV miniseries Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet was a great example for me of tension in every scene relentlessly driving the story forward. I took note of the writers so I could Google and stalk them for writer tidbits!

  14. Like Ashes, I am forbidden to comment when I watch a TV show or movie with friends and family. It's a rare show where I can't figure out the majority of the plot by the first commercial. Sometimes, just looking at the guest list tells me who done it.

    Most TV shows take the easy way out with plots, etc., and by no means should they be used for factual information. My brother and I once caught over a dozen real-world mistakes in the first five minutes of a mystery show from the workings of the brakes on a big rig to the way trained guard dogs behave.

    Novels have a much higher bar of plot and research honesty so they are a better study for a newer novelist.

    On TV right now, the best show for plotting and cleverness is CASTLE. I'm always amused, never feel like I've been cheated on, and the plot takes nice turns in unexpected directions.

    If you have lots of time to waste, you should check out where all those tropes are laid out in their spectacular banality.

  15. Yeah, I remember figuring out that episode pretty quickly too, using many of the same clues you mentioned. I would have missed them before I began learning how to write, but now I spot these little clues all the time on TV and the movies.

    I'm not altogether sure I'm happy with this newfound ability. I think I'd rather be surprised every once in a while. Still, I learn a lot about foreshadowing and misdirection from these shows.

    Nice post.

  16. These days, I'm developing my genre savvyness more and more.

    For example, while reading Alex Rider the other day (SPOILER!) I thought near the beginning "Hmm...what if Alex's godfather is actually a member of Scorpia?" Soon enough...

    Unfortunately, my alpha readers had already guess the mid-point plot twist on seeing the character involved the first time. (She's a psychic). How do I fix that?

  17. It is so true that working on shorter stories or watching shorter stories shows the plot.

    I just took a TV writing course as part of my grad program. TV also has to have tighter structure than feature films and novels because of the commercials.
    The turn-around time on TV episodes doesn't let TV writers go too deep though - or have all the facts right. Although we hope we do.

    @Marilynn: CASTLE is so fun. I grew up on mysteries, and I like the creative bookish feel to the show.

  18. Great post! I'll have to backtrack myself with the advice I received as a much younger writer: An author told me to "turn off the television." I now realize this means--"Don't get cable and Netflix the shows with good scripts."

  19. Michael, that's a great idea. You have so little to work with in flash fiction every word has to count.

    Thanks Vicky!

    Ashes, I have moments when I have to keep my mouth shut to. :)

    Elizabeth, sometimes it's a curse because you can't just enjoy a show. Once in a while I can turn my brain off though.

    DG, welcome to the blog! Good to have you. And thanks, I do try :)

    MK, that totally would. And kid's movies have to work harder to keep attention, so you probably learn a lot there.

    Elizabeth D, I've never seen that but I might have to look it up now.

    Marilynn, I find it interesting that I'll forgive gaffs in a movie or TV show that I wouldn't in a book. I think books are held to higher standards that way. But there are shows where they get things wrong so often my hubby and I decide they live in their own universe where the rules work differently :) It's become a running joke. I love CASTLE. They do tend to surprise me. TVtropes is a GREAT site! I can lose hours there.

    Chemist Ken, it's tough, and it does steal the fun out of shows sometimes.

    Chihuahua0, ooo, well, you might try asking where they saw the clues to guess it and see if there's anything you can do there to distract readers. What made them think that. Or, now that you know what they're thinking, is there a way to change the mid-point to something unexpected? Vary it at all?

    Kaitlin, I bet writing for TV would be an interesting learning experience. Different format., but you'd learn different skills.

    Writer Librarian, TV can be distracting, and it can also promote some bad habits if that's ALL you use to better your storytelling skills. If you base things on what you've seen on TV< odds are you'll get info wrong or do things that have been done to death. But it can be a valuable resource in learning what the common cliches are. Of course, you don't have to if you're not a TV Person :) Just one more tool at your disposal.