Plot Is a Verb – In “Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us”

Today’s writing advice comes from Thanks, But This Isn’t For Usby Jessica Morrel, author and developmental editor, another witty and fun guide in discovering the most common mistakes writers make.

In the section: Plot Is a Verb, Morrel points out some of the biggest Deal Breakers when it comes to plots. She lists quite a few, most of which you’ve surely heard before. I’ve listed out the sections below, the titles are drawn right from the book and are somewhat self-explanatory.

  1. Heavy-Handed Foreshadowing
  2. Limp Adversity
  3. Lousy Ending
  4. Excess – “when a plot is excessive, and the story meanders and becomes buried”
  5. Shadowy or Snidely Whiplash Villain
  6. Suspense that Fizzles

The one that stood out to me–and one I hadn’t heard mentioned before–was the section on Lonely Hearts.

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Lonely Hearts

“I cannot say it enough: if too many scenes in your story feature a character alone, the story won’t work. Especially if in most of the scenes a character is thinking, musing, recalling the past, or sighing. Especially sighing. It will be boxed in and lack conflict and fireworks. One memorable story featured a protagonist who spent most of the story alone weeping and despairing. In fact, when she wasn’t breaking down she mostly whined throughout the story. I don’t know about you, but I cannot handle histrionics and self-pity in real life, so I’m not going to pay $24.95 to read about.

Instead, imagine the drama as a play acted out on a stage–if a character is alone on the stage, usually within moments another character arrives to mix things up. Now, I realize that one-man plays are performed all the time, but for most writers a character hanging out alone is static and dull as dishwater.

In The Old Man and the Sea,  Santiago is mostly alone in the wide waters of the Gulf of Mexico throughout his ordeal. But the story isn’t based solely on inner conflict–he’s up against the villagers, who believe he’s an unlucky has-been; the sea; the marlin; the brutal, hungry sharks; and the dwindling capabilities of his aging, ravaged body. This means readers feel the pain of his scarred hands and cramped muscles, and worry about his survival. This means that even though Santiago is mostly alone, the conflict is staged and we can watch him fighting for his last chance. The solution here is that the conflict–your protagonist’s worries and doubts and struggles–must be staged and the adversary visible whenever possible. Put anguish into action and readers will care.

End quote

My thoughts

What I like about this advice (and really, this entire book) is that Morrell does a decent job fleshing out her pain points, and following it up with real-life examples and/or exceptions. In the section above, she basically says “I don’t like reading a book where the character is completely alone,” but here’s a great book where the character is completely alone…and I liked it because…

Sigh.

To be fair, when it comes to the exception, she does a good job explaining why it works for that particular novel. What I took away from this advice was to be mindful of how much alone time my characters have in each scene/chapter and if they are all by their lonesome, what’s happening in that scene to build suspense and help move the story along?

Let me know what you think. Have you heard this advice or similar advice before?

Happy reading and writing.