Western literature’s oldest critic tells us why critique partners help us avoid the idiot plot… .
I finished revising The Last Omen last week, and have moved on to trying a new approach to short story writing. The novel came up in conversation with my wife two nights ago and I discovered, yet again, that telling the events of the story does wonders for ironing out the plot.
My wife is not a fantasy reader, in fact, she reads very little fiction, and since discovering audiobooks has gotten most of her “literature” from Audible. She does love a good supernatural story, but mostly in contemporary form, and on TV or a movie. I think fantasy readers are especially forgiving when it comes to certain elements of plot as long as there is cool stuff going on. As an example of this attitude, Brandon Sanderson’s most important law of magic is “err on the side of awesome.” We write and read fantasy because it’s fun, and because it satisfies our craving for the stupendous, but someone really into that side of things is not the best critic when it comes to plot.
Dr. Adamson is not willing to let stuff go for the sake of awesomeness, especially when it comes to human relations. If I was telling her about a “magic system” or the behavior of dragons, she would just tune out, but plot relies on the motivation of characters and a good imitation of how real people relate to each other. As a family doctor, human motivation is largely her area of expertise: it’s an understanding she has to use with her patients all day long, and she’s really tuned into it.
I got to telling her the end of Act I, the “inciting incident” where things really get going, and she stopped me.
“She wouldn’t do that,” she said, meaning Alyatha, the main character.
I went along telling the story, but Megan kept going back to the crucial point where the main character believed the word of another character she would naturally distrust.
“There’s no way she would trust that woman,” she said again and again.
It became clear that I had, at least at this crucial point, an “idiot plot” where the main character gets into danger because of a stupid decision readers are not going to buy.
Imagine if I’d given the manuscript in a final edited form to beta readers and none of them noticed this problem? Those beta readers would be fantasy fans, they would be wowed by my incredible grasp of Jungian psychology, my mind-blowing interpretation of the Hero’s Journey, and my amazing narrative strength (right, I wish) and might have (maybe) missed this “idiot plot” element. Don’t believe me? Pick up a book: “idiot plot” gets published all the time. I recently read a new fantasy work, and it happened three times in rapid succession, but I didn’t notice it until the third time. Why? Cool world-building. I’m a history and culture buff, and story can slip right by sometimes.
What’s the problem here? Have you ever left a movie, and retold yourself the plot, and noticed a huge problem that didn’t bother you while the credits rolled? Have you ever heard someone else do this and been really annoyed because you really liked Event Horizon anyway, Mike, so who cares about a little plot inconsistency? The Matrix was still a good movie, right?
But it could have been better. How can we find these problems efficiently and eliminate them? Aristotle’s Poetics helps us see the events of the story are what’s crucial to the audience’s engagement. Telling your story out loud, in summary, i.e. just the events, is crucial to the critique process.
You can find Aristotle’s Poetics on Project Gutenberg and LibriVox, where the audio recording is not professional, but still a good place to start (incidentally, for those of you who don’t know about Gutenberg and Librivox, there are tons of great stories on both sites, including Leigh Brackett and Robert E. Howard, two of my favorites, whose books are professionally narrated).
In the philosophical style all our rhetoric is based on, Aristotle lays out what makes a good tragedy or not. Our modern-day heroic tales (i.e. fantasy and science fiction novels) are not strictly tragedy, but the same rules still apply to making a good story. Sadly Aristotle’s work on comedy is only known from fragments. Now I’ll never be funny.
Aristotle really covers all the bases, and I’m not surprised David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin refer back to Poetics as a bible of storytelling. Two of the most valuable insights are about the nature of conflict and the nature of the story itself: I will cover conflict in another post, but basically “good guys v. bad guys” is not enough for a compelling story. You need an element of good guys v. good guys.
How does Aristotle encourage us to pitch our work in summarized form?
Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents. (Book XIV)
In other words, the events of the story itself, and not how the story is told, determine the “tragic effect” of the story. The key part is in the third sentence, where The Philosopher states the story ought to be built so by a simple telling of events we are moved to say “oh, that sucks.” If I just tell you what happens in Oedipus Rex, you’ll cringe.
…the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place…
Therefore, if you can summarize the events of the story, and tell them without allowing the reader to be wowed by your wordcraft or your worldbuilding, then they are much more likely to say “Hmmm…I don’t quite buy it” at the times when they shouldn’t buy it.
To put it another way, we need to distinguish between story versus execution, its content versus style. Every story has a set of events in succession, with a beginning, middle, and end. These events need to cascade after one another guided by the motivation of a character (or cast of characters). It doesn’t matter if you tell the story just as a fireside yarn, a ballet dance, an abstract film, a Greek play, an Elizabethan play (although this is much more fun), or a fantasy novel. The characters and events can be the same in every case. This is why there are adaptations. This can be galling, especially if you love British history, and don’t care for modernized stagings of Shakespeare plays.
Once the manuscript is finished and the story has enough material to work with, telling the story out loud in Hollywood writing room fashion is the best way I’ve found to get at plot problems. Writing groups and workshops spend most of their time focusing on content in this way. Once people are done reading a sample, the discussion quickly turns to
Critique partner: Soooo…why did Sharon disconnect the phone?
Writer: Because her father…oh wait a minute, let me back up…
Having critique partners who will read for style and overall form is important too, but it’s less likely plot inconsistencies will slip by when you just tell the story. I let a lot of things go while enjoying a particular author’s words, and the idiot plot can slip past a lot of editing. If nothing else, if you read Aristotle’s little pamphlet, you will be a lot more “classically educated” than most writers out there. Give it a try.