How to get a credible story plot and avoid the dumb ones

One of the challenges of NaNoWriMo – or, indeed, of writing any novel – is plotting out a credible story.

Wright_Books2Unless you’re writing comedy – and trust me, comedy is one of the hardest genres to do – it’s far too easy to end up with something that’s too melodramatic, too absurd or just plain dumb.

One of the best examples I’ve ever read where a plot has been made deliberately absurd is Robert A Heinlein’s last ‘juvenile’ novel, Have Spacesuit – Will Travel of 1958. This was a brilliant riff on the sci-fi movies of the day – including what, on the face of it, seemed to be a monolithically stupid plot featuring bug-eyed monsters out to conquer Earth, space-cops from Vega and a panorama of other silliness. But it worked –  and worked well. Heinlein was a genius: he took all the tropes, turned them on their heads – and came up with storytelling gold.

James Blish did something similar in Welcome to Mars, in which teen genius Dolph Haertel invents antigravity, builds a spaceship out of a packing crate, and flies to Mars – hotly pursued by his girlfriend, who’s in her own packing-case spaceship. Dumb squared? Sounds it. But it wasn’t. It was a brilliant survival story.

Both books worked. Why? Mainly because although the subject matter of both plots was silly, both authors knew exactly what they were doing; they were top writers at the top of their games.  They had the right plot elements in the right places, the stories were properly paced, and the books did everything book plots need to do.

But the other issue was that plot is only one element of a good story. The others are character – and especially dialogue – and credibility of setting. Both are devices for suspending disbelief – and, if disbelief is properly suspended, even deliberately dumb plots become, well, good.

That doesn’t mean authors have license to create any old rubbish, of course. A deliberately dumb plot is not the same as a plot that’s dumb because the author either doesn’t know what they’re doing – or has gone too far with a gimmick. I remember reading one of the licensed Niven/Kzin stories. I forget the author, however the plot had been directly lifted from Casablanca (1943). And it showed. I guess the author thought of it as homage, but to me it destroyed the suspension of disbelief in a flash – killed it stone dead.

I mean, of all the stories and all the books in the world, that plot had to walk into this one.

The lesson is that plot is only a part of the whole story. But the plot – even if it’s knowingly dumb – still has to be done right.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “How to get a credible story plot and avoid the dumb ones

  1. I think the key is confidence and intent. Guardians of the Galaxy got away with a talking raccoon, yet Jupiter Ascending got mocked for putting Channing Tatum in wolfy makeup. James Gunn knew exactly what he wanted to pull off in GoTG. He had a clear purpose, and he knew he was achieving it well. The audience could sense that. Jupiter, on the other hand, often seemed flaily, like it wasn’t sure what tone it wanted to have. It wasn’t sure if it wanted to be goofy and fun, or serious melodrama. It didn’t know what audience it was going for. It was just very…meek. And therefore, everyone thought it was super dumb despite GOTG being way more “dumb” in plot elements.

    1. The difference between ‘intentionally cleverly dumb’ and ‘incompetently dumb’ I suspect, though I know a lot of these movies are more committee driven than we might suppose, and there is no faster way to writing mediocrity than to have many fingers in the pie (as it were).

  2. I suspect intentionally dumb plots suffer from contrivance. I’ve often been tempted to create twists and turns in things I’m writing, but always manage to stop myself because I don’t like contrivance. Would the character take this course of action? Usually no. What’s wrong with the plot if it’s forcing me to contrive some out-of-context twist? Look again and rewrite.

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