Our final FiYoShiMo day of plot probably could have come sooner in the list, but I’m happy with it here, since it’s a good segue into what we’re talking about next week with world-building.
Today we’re talking plot crutches, which are all the things we fall back on, over and over, when we’re talking about plot construction. (There are character crutches too, I just didn’t talk about them this month.)
Sometimes we don’t even see them until they get pointed out to us. This is something that happens amid editing passes where I make some remark to a writer like, “You know you’ve started the last three paragraphs off with ‘He and a verb’, right?” then there’s sort of this light bulb moment that marks a shift in how they write.
I’m going to talk about three different crutches today, and I want to stress that you might not realize you’re doing them, and you might not think they’re a problem. I guess we should talk about why they’re a problem.
When a plot crutches on the same elements over and over, particularly in a series, you’re not pushing yourself as a writer, and you can very quickly get tired of churning out identical or nearly identical stories. You should be pushing yourself as a writer, even in a series. Try new constructions, test your assumptions that you can or can’t write a compelling X or Y or Z, try stepping out of your comfortable bubble to a new genre or new point of view.
Crutching risks readers. My best example for this is in video games, particularly the sports ones. Year after year, a new edition is produced, and on the whole, not much changes. They update the rosters, maybe they add one or two animations, but for the most part, it’s the same game with a new paint job. To mix it up, every few games they revamp something substantial, adding a new camera angle or a new mode of play, but it’s still the same sports game, because they tout it “still having the experience you’ve come to know and love.”
For many years I was a devoted purchaser of Madden games. Every year, new game. Every year my brother and I played the snot out of them. This was back when you could shuffle up the personnel on every team, and we’d try to build exciting fantasy teams to beat each other. Then after a while, we stopped buying it. We found other games, other ways to spend our money and our time. Only recently have we come back to the series, after a long absence, and have found the new games to be improved over the old, but hardly the game we need to be playing every weekend. Swap “Madden” for your book, and swap “my brother and I” for readers, and you’ll see the point I’m making.
The first crutch I’m going to point out is the broadest of the three.
Crutch of writer comfort
Let’s say you’ve been writing more than … six weeks. I just picked that number , but really any stretch of time more than a few days would work. You’ve written in school, you wrote when you were younger, you still write now. Or you’ve always wanted to write, and now as an adult you get that opportunity.
You grab pen and paper or laptop or tablet or whatever, and you go write. You write idea after idea. You write this thing or that thing. Maybe you finish things and endure the publication process.
And you do this over and over. Maybe sometimes you’re successful, however you define success. Maybe sometimes you’re not. But no matter what, you’re still writing. In the big picture sense, this is great. This is the sort of will and discipline that turns writing into something rewarding.
Then someone points out to you that you’re only writing a certain type of story. That you’re only writing one kind of character. That you’re only making one kind of plot. Sure, in story 3 you’ve got them doing a plot on Mars instead of the Moon, but it’s still the same plot. How many times are you going to put the weary protagonist and her rebellious royal lover into political situations in between sex parties?
We build ourselves comfort zones, where we feel safe while we do something, where we can work without fear of judgment. We shut doors, we sit in coffee shops with headphones on, we silence phones. We limit our distractions, and do our best to give our full attention to what we’re doing, because in this comfort zone it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to be doing this stuff. We’ve set up these boundaries, and we’re the gatekeepers, we have control.
But after a while, you need to either expand that zone, or leave it and go make a new zone elsewhere. Yes, you can have more than one comfort zone, if you don’t want to expand your current one. Think of all the things you do in a day: interact with people, write, relax, read, whatever – these are activities and skills different enough from each other that sometimes their only unifying quality is that you’re involved. And that’s okay. Here’s your permission slip.
Comfort zones can eventually become limitations because we realize how comfortable we’ve become and how scary the not-comfortable appears. We forget that at some point where we are now was scary, and after a while we tamed it. And if we did it once, we could do it again. Maybe the issue isn’t the fear, but the projected time and effort that would take? Does that sound a little lazy and/or fearful to anyone else?
Push yourself. Step out onto that branch and try flapping. You flew before. Do it again. You can always come back to the nest. But try.
Crutch of conformity
Okay, you’ve decided to take the bold move of trying something new. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first ever to do a thing, or if it’s just new to you, it’s new.
When writer decide to try their hand at a new genre (remember our discussion of genre at the start of the month?), they usually go find work in that genre and start reading. They start looking for examples of work, or templates of writers to follow, or anything to get a sense of the ingredients for their new work.
And they look at source after source. Over time, this develops a sense that in genre X you have certain components, because you’re seeing them time and again. Yes, genres have components specific to them, that if you omit them, your story doesn’t work or isn’t satisfying, but the specifics of what those components are need to be varied.
I cite romance for this a lot, that people take a female protagonist and partner her with some kind of supernatural important figure who not only has the power physically (there aren’t many romances with dudes like me in them), but also socially, since these supernatural dudes are princes or kings of the hot-guy-who’s-really-an-animal kingdom.
Sure, each writer picks a different animal, or a different mythology as a baseline, but it’s still pick-an-animal-pick-a-mythology-make-the-guy-super-hot-go-bang-him.
In science fiction, many people grab onto Campbell as the mold for storytelling. Gotta have that mentor, gotta exit the cave, gotta have your transformation. Yes, it works, but how much variation do you have? Oh, your protagonist isn’t a space farmboy, they’re the half-robot orphan in a cyberpunk dystopia? And instead of a leather trenchcoat, they wear a leather Nehru jacket? Wow. Bold moves, intrepid writer.
Just because there exists a group of people and they’re all packaging material the same way does not mean that you need to follow suit. I’m not talking about how your story can skimp on a setting or a plot and that will make your story standout, I mean that as a complete story, there has to be enough differentiate it from all the other stories in it’s field.
The example I learned in school about this was stores at the mall. You can buy clothes at lots of places, but why specifically go to The Gap or Nordstrom’s? They all sell shirts. What’s making each store (your book) in the mall (all the other books in your genre) worth my (the reader) time and energy and money?
Crutch of syntax
Presentation of your plot, of what you’re trying to say, might be the hardest crutch to recognize, but once you do, you see it everywhere. We all use certain patterns of words in regular intervals, as part of our linguistic identity.
Our word choice is a fingerprint, it’s a clue to who made a thing, and a signpost as to what you can expect within that thing.
Here’s one of my crutches in blogging. I use a lot of “So,” especially as a sentence starter. I don’t know where or when I developed the habit, but I do it, and it’s been pretty difficult to make sure I haven’t used “so” until the previous sentence.
I do it because it helps me move thoughts along, and it’s a “word of agreement”, a word where I’m assuming the reader not only sees the point I’m making, but inherently agrees with it, and then I can lead them further down the logic chain. Using it and other words like it suggest a sense of apprehension, a sense that if I don’t get you agreeable first, you’re going to stop reading and stop coming to the blog, which is a lot of my professional insecurity around my usefulness.
When I speak, I tag “, right?” or “, yeah?” onto sentences for the same reason, I want to make sure people agree with me so that I can keep talking to/at them. So that I’m not alone. Again, more insecurity.
It’s all habit. It’s all attempts to sate thoughts and feelings and worries. It’s all efforts to take control and calm uncertainty. You learned how to do it, you can unlearn it, though it might not be as easy as writing different words. The psychology underneath also warrants examination, and that can uncomfortable. And that perception of possible discomfort sends us right back into our comfort zones, where we can use these crutches without fear of judgment or reprisal. We’re back to where we started.
To find your crutches, rely on other people. Editors are trained in finding these things. Careful readers can see it too, though their varying objectivity might mean they shrug it off. You won’t see your crutches the first time, and you shouldn’t be expected to.
The tricky bit is after you spot it, when you have that moment where you can choose to beat yourself up about it or not. It’s hard to avoid the self-beating, but it’s worth it. Kicking your ass over syntactical issues when there’s still story to produce is a great way to turn yourself off from wanting to write the story. Don’t beat, go write.
Tomorrow we’re going to start the last leg of our FiYoShiMo triangle: world building.
See you then.