Posts Tagged ‘plot points’

We’ve all seen it. The nick-of-time rescue. The bomb diffused with one second left. The suspect bolting when the cops show up, resulting in a parkour-style chase around the city. These, and many others, are standard tropes in film and television. Sadly, they and their ilk show up a lot in fiction writing as well. I’ve even poked fun at some of them before (“Attack of the Killer Clichés”, “Return of the Killer Clichés”).

It’s time for them to die. Really. NOW.

They used to have their place on (rare) occasion. But speaking as someone who watches a lot of streaming video while playing with string, I’m sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. And, with the crush of indie publishing, fan fic, and writer’s “critique” sites, I’m seeing it more and more in fiction as well.

That’s just lazy writing, people.

Not that I haven’t done my fair share of tropes and stereotypes. Part of my reason for doing this piece is to remind myself of all the bad writing habits I have, and possibly figure out how to fix/avoid them. As opposed to just avoiding my writing all together…


Minion tea[4]

…and dark chocolate…


So, why do we have such tropes in the first place? One word: drama. We’re trying to up the drama quotient. For a story to be successful we need to have tension and consequences and challenges for our characters to wade through. If there’s no risk for the character(s), there’s no reward for the reader(s).

But there’s a bazillion ways to cause trouble for our characters. It’s time to get inventive. We writers are really evil geniuses channeling our Dr. No selves onto the page, so let loose your inner demons and give the world you’ve created something to REALLY worry about. And I don’t mean turning that bomb they’ll need to diffuse at the last second into a dirty bomb, or a bio-bomb. Been there, done that, played the video game.

No, if you need to blow shit up, do it metaphorically instead of literally. If your characters are well developed (see “It’s Made of People”), it should be easy to come up with stuff to throw in their way. What’s the worse possible thing (or person) that could happen to them? Why does it need to happen? How will it advance the story or the character’s development? Everything you do on the page needs to keep things moving forward, in some fashion, for the overall arc of your writing.

That doesn’t mean leaving out things that can add depth to the world you’re creating, though, just because it doesn’t directly affect what’s happening. Black-clad mercenaries are a dime-a-dozen. But mercenaries who collect butterflies and read Harry Potter are something else again. Now you have some depth you can dive into. Will any of that be pertinent to your story later? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, though, it gives me-the-reader something interesting about your character I can latch on to. There’s more there than black leather and a gun. That could mean there’s more to your story than the usual revenge/redemption/killer rampage most mercenaries inhabit.


Dominatrix Minion

That’s not the kind of black leather I meant. Now I need the eye bleach…


But what if I REALLY want to blow something up?

Then blow it the fuck up. Make it spectacular. Make it a surprise. Make it heart-rending. Make it anything but the usual. I don’t want to see your hero rushing in at the last second, huffing about how the bomb squad won’t get there in time and is it the red wire or the blue wire as he bites through both with his teeth to save the day. I want to see him crushed by defeat because he DIDN’T get there in time. Or horrified because he didn’t know the bomb even existed. Or secretly elated because now he has the perfect excuse to go on a murderous rampage.

Okay, yeah, that’s another trope, too. Sorry.

The point is, do something DIFFERENT. If you’re finding yourself falling into the same old comfortable ruts for plot points and character development, get out. Pretend it’s Opposite Day and you’re playing a game of Calvinball. Be wicked. Be absurd. Be outrageous. Kill the hero, because he’s not really the hero, his female sidekick is – psych! Don’t kill anybody, because the bomb was really a dud! The bomb DOES go off, but the entire city is coated in glitter! Anything but the usual.

And how do you know if it’s the usual? Just ask yourself: have I seen/read/heard this before? If you have, how important is it to keep it “normal?” What happens if you do THIS instead? If the ticking time bomb is integral to your story, what are you doing around that to make your characters and story different?



Read a book, they said. It’ll be fun, they said…


There are occasions when we depend on tropes and stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for the reader. It can make for less explanation/exposition, and allow us to get on with the real reason this story needs to be told. But we should never depend on them. The world is comforted by formula – the tried and true (see Hollywood) – but we writers need to constantly rail against the expected, the normal, the usual, and really dig into exploring our worlds to the fullest. Whatever your genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, we want the reader to be entertained, enthralled, surprised – not bored or disappointed. Give them predictable and they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Writing is lonely enough – we don’t need to chase off any readers in the process.

Turn the formulae on their heads. Find the peculiar, the wretched, the dangerous, and let us have it. Always challenge yourself. You’ll be a better writer, and I’ll have more cool things to read.

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Friday, November 1st begins the fourteenth annual creative frenzy known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Founded in 1999 by a couple crazy kids in San Francisco, it has grown to be a world wide phenomenon, with over 166,000 aspiring novelists already signed up to participate in this year’s marathon. If you’ve been a writer of any kind for any length of time, you probably already know what it’s about, so I won’t bore you with any more details. Or you could go visit their site, which is infinitely more giving of their time and attention than I am.

At any rate, many of you will be nose-to-keyboard come Friday, so I thought I’d offer you some hopefully helpful tips to get you through. Many of these are gleamed from a series of articles I did for Examiner.com in November 2010. No, that’s not cheating – it’s retreading an old wheel instead of inventing a new one. Writers do it all the time. You’ll see for yourself soon enough.

I wrote a little bit last week about characters (“It’s Made of People”) and how I try to develop them. Chuck Wendig (a seriously deranged, yet amazingly talented individual), lent his take on it with “The Zero-Fuckery Quick-Create Guide To Kick-Ass Characters,” a much better explanation (but not at all suitable for work, children, the Amish, or people with weak hearts) of what you need to do for your characters. Without decent characters, you might as well be adrift at sea in a bathtub, so if you do nothing else to prepare for the Great American Write-athon, at least write some notes on who will be dancing across your pages.

The other thing you’ll be sweating over is the plot. You want a slick, interesting, page-turning story to keep your reader hooked until the very end, but sometimes what you want and what you get are two very different things. NaNoWriMo writing isn’t slick – it’s guerrilla warfare writing. It’s slamming words on the page as fast as you can so you can get something, ANYTHING in writing toward your goal. Write now, edit later. But you’ll get stuck. You’ll find you’ve written yourself into a hole, or that your characters are wandering aimlessly without a purpose. Time to shake things up. Try some random plot points from The Future is Fiction, and see just what your characters can do.

There will be plenty of other reasons you get stuck, too. Mainly because you’ve allowed yourself to get caught up in what you perceive to be a negative aspect of your ability. Don’t just circle the drain on the way to giving up. Take your excuses head-on and find a work around.

(1)                   Story line is lame: We don’t need War and Peace here. One of the writing teachers at the American Film Institute said that all stories can be distilled down to one of three main themes: man vs. himself, man vs. nature and man vs. man. Pick one and go for it. Details can come later.

(2)                   Dialogue is lousy: go watch a few science fiction films from the 1950’s, and then we’ll talk about lousy dialogue. Dialogue exists to allow the characters to connect to each other and to give the reader information or descriptions. Listen to the people around you in the real world, watch how they interact and converse, and write what you hear. Keep the speech of your characters as natural as possible, and even the simplest of dialogue will keep the pages turning.

(3)                   Can’t describe things: not everybody needs to be Steinbeck. It’s okay to write, “It was a beautiful sunset” and move on, instead of lapsing rhapsodic for three pages about every nuance of the sunset. Sometimes simpler is better, because now your reader can remember their own beautiful sunset, putting their own personal touch on your story, and thereby being more invested.

You can also substitute one of your strengths for a weakness. If you just can’t get your dialogue to work, but you’re great at descriptions, put it into prose. Describe what your characters are doing and saying, give the reader the feelings behind the scene, and let the dialogue be imagined. If you’re still struggling with your descriptions, but you have strong dialogue, go ahead and let your characters fill in the blanks with their conversations. In the strict confines of NaNoWriMo, you don’t have time to angst about what “should” be on the page. Just get it there in whatever form works best for you.

But even after all that, you may still find yourself struggling to meet that 1,667 words a day output. Stressing about it only makes it worse.

(1)                   Walk away: sometimes you just need to take a break, whether it be just getting something to drink, or walking the dog, or taking a weekend at the beach. Focus on giving yourself a few minutes every hour to get away from your writing, stretch out, have a cup of tea, read the paper, or look at the flowers. Getting your mind off the task at hand, even for a few minutes, may be just enough to snap you back into your story. And ergonomic specialists everywhere will be pleased.

(2)                   Write anything: jot a note to your mother, pen an editorial, scribe an outline for your blog, whatever. Just the mere act of writing outside of the confines of your novel can get the creative juices flowing. A variation on this theme is to write what you already know about your novel and your characters, even if it isn’t in what you think will be the final order. The point is to get your ideas on the page, even if only in their most raw forms. Dressing them up can come later.

(3)                   Write with others: meet up with a friend or group of fellow writers and bounce ideas of each other. Often a writer’s block comes about because we’re stuck on something in particular and our brain gets trapped in a Mobius loop. Trading off with other novelists can often bring you a solution you would never have imagined. Many NaNoWriMo participants are part of a regional group that offers “write ins” through out the month. Hook up with your local group and see what happens.

Since I’m already hip deep in my current novel, I’m not officially participating this year. But I have decided to play along the side lines, so if my entries over the next few weeks are short, lame or just plain stupid, it’ll be because I’m trying to stay coherent long enough to cross that 50,000 word goal line myself. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a month, so it’ll be an interesting challenge in self-discipline. Whatever that is.

Writers, start your keyboards…

© 2013  Cheri K. Endsley  All Rights Reserved.

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