In part one of the discussion on plotting, we said the more obstacles Protag overcomes through tenacity and ingenuity–traits readers identify with–the more intense will be their desire to see Protag to succeed. But everything, all the difficulties and successes, must play as real life. (Protag short for out protagonist)
We’ve all seen television shows where everything that possibly can go wrong, does, even to the point of nonsense. The problem with just making everything go wrong is it becomes an obvious device. Instead of building suspense, it yanks the rug from underneath it. It’s like listening to a dull sermon, while the preacher’s droning on and on while we’re thinking lunch. There is also the danger of reader fatigue setting in. Occasionally something should break in the hero’s favor.
The other thing about television shows is that even when they build up a modicum of suspense, they screw it up cliché obstacle. Have you ever seen a hero rush from one place to another or head for the airport w/o running into a traffic jam? You’ve heard of gratuitous sex? Meet gratuitous obstacles. Both rob our story of authenticity. If you’ve brought your reader into a state of suspense, don’t risk it all with a cliché traffic jam. Instead try to ratchet the main theme tighter till it crackles at the breaking point.
Let’s take an example from Dean Koontz’s Ticktock. In the climactic chapter, with a beast advancing across the livingroom to devour the hero, Koontz wants to stretch out the moment for the reader’s pleasure. Does he bring in a traffic-jam cliche? Chandelier suddenly falls in the way? Floorboards break without warning? No, Koontz does it naturally and cleverly by simply adding a few paragraphs to describe the beast in detail as it advances, the eyes, the sound it makes, the way it moves and how it smells–sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. What’s the result? One part of our mind is absorbed with the beast’s appearance while the other part is screaming for the hero to get the hell out.
What matters is not how we do it, but the finesse with which it’s done. Once the device becomes obvious, it’s as effective as a lawyer teaching ethics. A politician lecturing on truth?
Also, everything must be logical.
When our hero returns to his apartment and hears someone scurrying about inside, it might be good for our story for him to climb out a window over the balcony to catch the bad guy, but why not just call the police? Why would he put himself in jeopardy? It also might be good for our story if someone clicks on his revolver’s safety, but there ain’t no safeties on revolvers. Story line must always follow real world logic rather than trying to alter real world logic to follow story line. Once we lose credibility with our readers, they may not walk with us again.
Oooo-kay, with the preliminaries out of the way, we’re ready for Protag to tackle Plot-line Mountain which is the subject of BookMarc #11, part 3/4 of Plot.
For upcoming subjects click on Table of Contents at top of page.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated August 16, 2014