Six impossible things

Plot, development, stakes, and patterns

One final word about what’s at stake: the real stakes, the thing that is of greatest ultimate importance to the main character, not only are not necessarily connected to the perceived stakes, they don’t have anything whatever to do with the type of story you are writing. In other words, you can write an action-centered plot in which the ultimate stakes are internal and emotional; you can write a mostly internal, emotion-and-character-centered plot in which the ultimate stakes are external and action-oriented. Lois Bujold’s Memory has a strong action plot – figuring out whodunnit and how – but I think that the thing that is of greatest importance, the thing that’s really at stake, has to do with the main character’s identity. I’ve argued before that the true climax of the book is the scene in which Miles is alone in his room, wrestling with temptation and deciding just what kind of person he is going to be for the rest of his life; the action climax that follows is the validation, and could not have occurred at all in the way it did if the internal, emotional, man-learns-lesson plot had not already been wrapped up.

Which brings me to my next point about plots, to wit, very few SF/F books these days are all one thing or another. However central the action-adventure plot is, there’s still an emotional thread tied to it; however character-centered the story, there’s still something going on at the action level.

This has interesting implications for the way one develops the plot, as well as for the way one wraps it up at the end. There are two basic cases: first, the type of story and the type of stakes are congruent (the writer has an action-adventure plot, and the real, ultimate stakes at the end are action-adventure stakes, like Saving The World or killing the dragon); second, the type of story and stakes are not congruent (that is, the story has an action-adventure plot, but the thing that is of ultimate importance is emotional or internal – the hero’s integrity, or sanity, or ultimate happiness). Each type has its own pluses and minuses.

Plots are patterns of events, and human beings are very good at finding patterns in things. Patterns are, however, not lots and lots of the same thing. Patterns need contrast. The rug in my office is red; the patterns on it are made of dark blue, green, and white. One could make a red rug with a pattern in darker reds and lighter reds, but the pattern would be much more subtle, possibly even invisible if the different reds were too close together. If all you have is 200,000 bits of yarn that are exactly the same length and color, you can’t make them into a patterned rug.

Thus, if the ultimate stakes are congruent to the kind of story the writer is telling, the writer often has trouble building and maintaining tension, because there’s  not enoug contrast in the build-up to form a satisfying patten. Romance novels whose plots involve one angst-ridden choice after another often have a hard time holding the reader’s interest after a while because all the ramp-up is emotional. It’s an all-red pattern: the only way to increase the tension is to increase the importance of what appears to be at stake, and the reader adjusts much too quickly to the new level because it’s so similar to the old one.

This is one of the reasons why, in an angst-ridden Romance, one frequently finds a physical threat of some sort cropping up halfway through – someone is kidnapped, or there’s a robbery or murder, or a building burns down, or an espionage plot is uncovered (without uncovering the spy). Because one of the ways to build and maintain tension in a story is by introducing some contrasting problems that the main character needs to solve in order to get to their primary goal. This works just as well in a story that is primarily action-adventure, though in that case it’s generally a romantic or lesson-learning subplot that shows up, rather than yet another action element.

Personally, I think it is frequently more effective to introduce a contrasting-element subplot early in the story, as this allows the author more flexibility. If the first couple of chapters reveal that Our Hero has a complex background and lots of trust issues, it’s a lot easier to work that into various action incidents, where it can boost tension or lower it depending on how that aspect is played. In one scene, Our Hero may be worried that a companion will betray everyone before the rescue can be completed, upping the tension in the early part of the scene and lowering it farther when it turns out the companion stuck with them. In another place, Our Hero may successfully break into the villain’s hideout and retrieve the magical doohicky, only to discover, along with it, a note that seems to prove somebody else’s betrayal, thus adding some new tension in spite of the apparent tension-relieving success of the mission. In fact, one of the most effective ways to get a riveting climax is to give the character an action goal and an emotional or identity goal of equal personal importance, and then arrange things so that it looks as if the two are in conflict and the protagonist can only achieve one at the expense of the other.

For stories where the type of plot is one thing but the stakes are another – like the action-adventure plot in which what’s really at stake is the heroine’s integrity or Romance plot in which what’s really at stake is who rules the kingdom – there is usually plenty of contrast built in. The difficulty arises in keeping things balanced. It’s often easy for the writer to get carried away by the surface plot and forget what’s really at stake, which tends to lead to an unsatisfying climax that only solves half the problem…and not the half most readers were expecting.

A slightly different way of looking at plot development is the frog-in-boiling-water analogy. (Supposedly, if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out, but if you put it in cold water and then slowly heat it up, it will sit there til it boils to death.) If Gandalf had told Frodo straight off “Hey, you have to take this Ring to Mordor, sneak past thousands of orcs who will torture you if they get their hands on you, and drop it in a volcano,” I very much doubt that Frodo would have returned a positive answer. But that’s not what happened; first, Frodo just has to keep the ring safe and secret for fifty years or so, then he has to take it to Bree where Gandalf is supposed to meet him. Once he gets to Bree and Gandalf doesn’t show up, it’s a lot easier to make the decision to push on to Rivendell than it would have been if he’d been expecting to trek all that way on his own, right from the start.

In other words, most stories don’t start at a peak of tension. Instead, they start with a small problem, which leads to a larger one, which leads to a larger one, easing the main character into things until, by the time it becomes clear just how hard it is going to be to finish all this, the main character has a) got too much invested and/or is too involved to be able to turn back (by the time Frodo gets to Rivendell, Sauron and the Black Riders will be happy to kill him whether he still has the Ring or not), and/or b) has grown in strength and/or skill and/or intestinal fortitude enough that they’re willing to take on the Big Final Problem, even if they wouldn’t have been at the start of their journey, and/or c) has collected various things that will allow him/her to ultimately achieve that final goal.

A story that opens with Frodo at the Cracks of Doom or Andromeda tied to the rock is 1) not starting in the correct place for that story, as the only way for either of them to get out of the situation is via what looks like a deus ex machina because Gollum and Perseus haven’t been established, or 2) depending on the reader knowing about Gollum or Perseus from their other reading, which limits the audience for whom the story would be effective, or 3) the beginning of a completely different story than the one we are expecting, which could be anything from a monolog depicting the character’s internal struggle in their final moments to an entirely different plot that starts with the destruction of the Ring or Andromeda’s rescue and goes off in an unexpected direction. If the writer wants to avoid this, he/she has to 1) start in a place that allows for proper setup of the rescuers, or 2) accept that the story will only work for a limited number of people, or 3) write the totally different story. There really aren’t a lot of other options.

  1. Hm… this reminds me of the auto-biography “A boy called It”. Its a horribly dark story, but it STARTS with the rescue by Child Services. Then backtracks to remember the horribleness because some things need to be remembered so they are not repeated. Same reason why the Holocaust memorials are built. When the hero is trapped too hard to get out on his/her own… then a rescue MUST be by an outside source. Doesn’t mean that rescuer then has to take over the story. Or that your character doesn’t “deserve” to be the main because they were not able to solve their own problems.

  2. I’ve argued before that the true climax of the book is the scene in which Miles is alone in his room, wrestling with temptation and deciding just what kind of person he is going to be for the rest of his life…

    Totally agree. Yes! (Love that book!)

    A story that opens with Frodo at the Cracks of Doom or Andromeda tied to the rock… If the writer wants to avoid this, he/she has to 1) start in a place that allows for proper setup of the rescuers, or 2) accept that the story will only work for a limited number of people, or 3) write the totally different story.

    Thank you for that analysis and summation! I’ve been mulling over the Andromeda problem brought up by Deep Lurker, feeling confused as to what the answer might be, and really wanting a solution. I couldn’t get clear in my own mind, and I wanted to find that clarity. Now you’ve given it to me. Much appreciated!

  3. This makes me think that my spy novel which is mainly character-centered but ends with car chases and gun battles may not be a horrible bait-and-switch to the reader, as I occasionally fear. That’s nice.

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