Today I wanted to talk about plot, and specifically, what makes a plot boring. What makes a plot fail to engage. What things an author should keep in mind when developing plot: whether through an outline or by figuring out the story as she writes it.
Plot is a funny thing…. in some ways it is the most important aspect of a story. It is the story. In certain cases, though, plot takes a backseat to other issues: political points, philosophical points, character, or something else depending on the author and the story.
HEMINGWAY AND “THE SUN ALSO RISES”
Have you ever read a book that you just hated, because it bored you, because you felt that “nothing happened?”
For me, that book was “The Sun Also Rises,” which I read senior year of high school for English class. Also, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
No doubt about it, Hemingway was a literary genius. I know tons of people who love “The Sun Also Rises,” and actually, I adore Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (mainly because of my passion for Spanish literature and Spanish history, and the Spanish Civil War in particular.)
My intent here is not to slam Hemingway. I don’t think his acclaim is undeserved, and I’m glad I read every thing he wrote that I’ve happened to read. I’m just saying, two particular books of his did not appeal to me.
They bored me silly. I felt as though I could boil down the plot of “The Old Man and the Sea,” a novella of some 80 or 100 pages, to a single sentence. The story is more of a character study, and a philosophy, than a story.
And as far as “The Sun Also Rises”….
“The Sun Also Rises” is about the roaring twenties. It’s about a group of people visiting Spain and shows how they are wasting their lives. As they are busy wasting their lives, nothing of substance occurs in the novel (at least, in my opinion). The characters go fly fishing and attend bull fights. And that’s pretty much it, as far as I remember.
For me, fly fishing and attending bull fights is not a plot. Those activities led to no character development of the type I wanted, and that frustrated me to no end.
The thing is, I could tell I was supposed to feel frustrated. I was supposed to want to knock the characters upside the head and tell them to stop being so smug, complacent, selfish, and basically leech-like.
“The Sun Also Rises” is brilliant because its whole point is that NOTHING HAPPENS. That was an intentional authorial choice, and I respect that. I just didn’t enjoy reading the book on the level of plot.
This leads to my first point about plot:
WHAT CONSTITUTES PLOT IS LARGELY DEPENDENT ON GENRE.
In the past, I’ve written a post about how genre determines what constitutes action and adventure in plot, so I don’t want to say too crazy much here. I do want to recap one or two major points.
Keep in mind, what works as a functional and interesting plot in one genre won’t in another. A high-school drama full of teenage angst will work for a young adult novel or maybe a rom-com. But if that angst doesn’t lead to murders, chases, and maybe someone trying to prove his innocence or save his and his girlfriend’s life, don’t market that book as a thriller.
If you’re marketing your fantasy as epic fantasy, the fate of an entire world, or at least a large kingdom or huge city, better be at stake from a magical threat. That’s the kind of action that genre requires.
Basically, whether your plot bores your readers–or better, whether it meets reader expectation for an exciting and engaging story–depends on whether your plot falls within the bounds of genre expectations.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS FOR WRITING A GOOD PLOT
Genre aside, there are other things the majority of “good” plots have in common.
- They are character-driven. This is something I’m always saying. Character drives plot, not the other way around. Plot develops from the decisions your characters make when faced with a difficult and/or dangerous situation. That’s how plot begins: with a situation. (Thanks for that revelation, Stephen King and “On Writing”!)
- The situation is “big” enough (genre-wise) so that the story doesn’t feel cheap. Something has to be at stake, something that has real value. In romance novels, that might be a romantic relationship. In Christian fiction, it might be salvation at risk. In classic whodunits, a killer might go free and might theoretically kill again. In epic fantasy, it might be the annihilation of a race or a kingdom. But something real and important has to be in peril if you want to interest readers. Readers have to understand what is at risk, and why that is a big deal.
- The situation is legitimately “big,” not an overreaction or the result of a character being melodramatic. Now, some characters, even some great characters, are melodramatic. Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” is a great example. Her story works because the narrator understands that she is petulant and melodramatic. The narration doesn’t condone her attitudes or act as though they’re appropriate. When every aspect of a story builds up melodrama and passes it off as an appropriate reaction, an appropriate building up of a silly situation, that’s bad.
- Plot twists shouldn’t come out of absolutely nowhere. What does this mean? It means that even when a plot twist is a huge and wonderful surprise, it needs to make logical sense. It has to fit the characters, and readers need to be able to look back and identify one or two ways you set them up for the development. That’s GOOD storytelling.
- Subplots should intertwine to some degree, or at least touch each other thematically. Unless you particularly want to write a mosaic of a novel, one that doesn’t really connect and is more like a series of short stories than a “novel,” each subplot should relate in some way to your main plot and even to other subplots. That connection between subplots can be thematic, of course: it can be more philosophical than on the level of basic story.
So, what are your thoughts about “boring” plots? What books have you found boring, and why was that the case? What makes a book exciting and fun for you?
This post was requested of me on Facebook, which gives me an opportunity to say that if you ever have a topic you’d like me to weigh in on, you can request it on my Facebook page, through a comment on the blog, or even through an email from the contact page above. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to dedicate a post to the topic, but I’ll respond to you either way.
If you enjoyed this post, or found it helpful, you might want to check out my other posts on plot.
And make sure you stop by for my next post: I want to expand upon ways subplots can connect with each other.