Friday, October 28, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body, Would You Do Nothing?

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit.

I read a fair bit, although nowhere near as much as I'd like. I also read a fair number of manuscripts as part of belonging to various critique groups. So, from an avid reader to those who (like me) aspire to write well, I present:

Ulysses Plot Peeves.
These are things I keep coming across that really string my bow.

To illustrate them, I'll refer to a fictional work of fiction (uh... what?) entitled "Massive Zombie Death Parade," Starring Redd Meat.


These are the guys (and gals) who don't do anything. They're the dull eye of the storm while things happen all around them. They don't cause anything, they just suffer the effects.

Redd Meat is walking down the street (hey! A rhyme!) and he sees a zombie trying to drag a still-living victim from a car. A few minutes later, he passes an alley and attracts the attention of a zombie horde which chases him (very slowly) into an abandoned apartment building. He barricades the door and waits until the zombies lose interest. Then he leaves to see if there's any pizza left in the restaurant across the street.

So far, I find MZDP undeadly dull. As a writer, I just want to show you this cool zombie world I invented, so Redd's a tourist. He doesn't actually DO anything. He just sees and experiences a lot of stuff that's really interesting.

Except it's not.

As a reader, I don't care. I don't care about Redd because he's not interesting. I don't care about your world because my tour guide is boring. I'm not involved in anything that happens, so I'm going to put down MZDP and go read my horoscope.

It's not enough for a character to be a Reactor either. A Reactor is someone who reacts to everything. The car incident? Horrible! Redd recoils! Zombie horde? Terrifying! Redd runs! Reactors are the Scream-Queens of the literary set, without the skimpy costume. They're fun for a minute, but any story you try to build on them is going to collapse before the end of the first act.

For a character to be interesting, I believe they've got to do SOMETHING. They've got to be proactive. For them to be proactive, they've got to WANT something, and be willing to go to exciting extremes to get it in every single scene... because a story is all about the getting, or failing to get.

Let Redd want to save the car victim, the only other living being he's seen in a week. Let him want to off both the zombie and his victim/soon to be comrade because his hate of the walking dead verges on the pathological. Let him show his determination and THEN you'll pique my interest. You'll capture it by making it almost impossible for him to get what he wants. Instead of having him just wait until the zombies leave, force him to escape. There's a window, but he's on the twelfth floor, although he might be able to make it by jumping from balcony to balcony. The only other way out is crawling through the space between the drop ceiling panels and the real ceiling, right out over the milling horde.

Either way, he's going to take action, and that action is likely to be dangerous, and I'm going to keep reading even though it's three a.m. and I've got to be up for work in 4 hours.

So, summing up: Don't be dull. Give me a character who wants something and goes after it.

Next, I flog a dead (not undead) horse: Plot-Induced Stupidity.


maine character said...

I'm copying this into my notebook: I don't care about your world because my tour guide is boring.

And cool to see you reading Swain's book - it's one of my favorites.

Ulysses said...

I think it would make a great T-shirt.

So far, Swain's book is absolutely amazing. I should have picked it up WAY before now.