Monday, June 28, 2010
And Now, My Pretty, I have you in my Power...
I've been re-reading a Mary Stewart book. I used to adore her when I was a teenager. Now I found her plot annoyingly improbable. Evil Nazi wants man dead so sends his mistress to marry him, make it look as if he killed his best friend and then to be hanged for it. Wouldn't it have been easier to hire a sharp shooter and finish him off through the window of his car?
I feel the same way when a brutal killer locks up the heroine, keeping her alive for no real reason other than that the book would finish earlier and less satisfactorily if he killed her. I think I have become less tolerant of illogical plots since I became a mystery writer. Ditto weak motives for murder. It would take something pretty terrible to make me kill--protecting my child, revenging my child maybe. I don't think I'd kill if a bad secret about me was about to be revealed--I suppose it depends how bad. I certainly wouldn't kill to get my hands on money, or someone else's husband. And certainly not to let my daughter make the cheerleading squad as some woman did in Texas.
I suppose we writers have to examine our plots in such meticulous detail that we're now aware of the flaws in others. For example although I adore Harry Potter I can see so many inconsistencies. For example characters can aspirate to move instantly from place to place, yet when the Order of the Phoenix members come to rescue Harry, they use broomsticks--surely a more dangerous way to escape. And why can't Harry point his wand at himself and improve his eyesight so that he doesn't have to wear glasses? Isn't there a "reparo" spell for shortsightedness? The point is that if it is a magic universe, then magic should be able to take care of everything, shouldn't it?
There are the obviously dumb plot twists, of course... the heroine going down to the basement, carrying a candle, in the middle of the night, when the phone lines are out in a storm... because she hears a noise... and there's a serial killer in the neighborhood. I hope I've never written anything like that. Please shoot me if I have.
Do other writers find that they get annoyed with illogical plots or plot inconsistencies, or can you overlook them if the story is good otherwise? And what about motives? I think the motive for murder is the first thing I come up with when I'm toying with a book idea--before deciding who my killer or victim might be.
HANK: I'll come back and write more when I stop laughing after thinking about why Harry can't fix his eyesight. OCULOSO!
HALLIE: Laughing too, about Harry Potter. Aspirate? What a lovely transposition of the term she uses, which I think is apparate (and its converse, disapparate). LOVE the Harry Potter vocabulary. Rowlings rivals the best of Roald Dahl (anyone remember 'frobscottle' in "The BFG? It's a fizzy drink with bubbles that float DOWN instead of up resulting in surfeit of 'whizzpopping.' Or disgusting snozzcumbers?)
Being a mystery writer sure takes the fun out of reading, with that little critic sniping away in my head. Illogical plot twists and dumb characters drive me nuts, not to mention stuff that only authors notice like sliding viewpoint. But oh, what pleasure when a book delivers!
RO: Can't weigh in on Harry Potter - haven't read and haven't seen.
Yes and no. A lot of us write amateur sleuths so our characters are by definition not going to do what a regular person would do. I hope I haven't ventured into TSTL territory (too stupid to live)but I'm not writing about myself so my character can and must be more adventurous. Simply calling the cops is not an option. I'm not going to have her take on a gang of bikers with only a weed whacker and a set of keys (oh, wait, she may have done that in book two...)but within reason she can get in and out of trouble.
It did bother me in one chapter of a recent read, but the rest of the book was so good I gave the author a bye. I'm still pretty new so perhaps I'm more forgiving. And I rarely finish mysteries I don't like, so perhaps it just doesn't come up that much for me.
Personally I'm relieved to learn it would take a lot to drive you to murder - some of my characters are not so well-adjusted.
JAN: So if we are being completely honest.....the answer is no. If the book is written in a realistic style, I can't forgive an illogical plot twist. I'm a total witch about it. (Comedic or stylistic books are a different story.)
This is one of the real reasons I don't read many thrillers, particularly male-written thrillers. They tend to start out brilliantly with a really interesting, fast action and logical plot. Then, at the end, as if there's some sort of ongoing contest these writers have to outdo each other, they go for ONE LAST PLOT TWIST. And frankly, I always find them preposterous.
Examples? I don't want to get too specific, or I'll ruin the books for anyone who hasn't read it. But since this one has already been made into the movie and widely seen... . I'll say that I absolutely loved Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, with its rich and brilliantly written characters until....The end. I found the final plot twist and motivation for the kidnapping, not just stupid, but preposterous. So illogical and unrealistic -- in a book written in a realistic style -- that It ruined the book for me. (My son saw the movie, and without us discussing the book first, came home with the exact same reaction.)
The worst part is that the final, irrational plot twist is usually completely unnecessary, just tagged on at the end. This has happened to me in at three other thrillers, each by a different best-selling male author.
HANK: Just chiming in--yes, the endings are so difficult! Because something BIG has to happen. And the proof of the difficulty is that so often the ending is outrageous. The worst ever: Angels and Demons. Sorry ,Dan. But you can't jump out of a...oh, I don't want to ruin it for anywone who hasn't read it. But trust me, it CANNOT happen.
ROBERTA: That "go down in the basement" thing is very hard to resist, though, especially with amateur sleuths as Ro points out. My agent is currently circulating a new book in which exactly that happens. But my character is a Realtor and someone left a light on in her client's basement. She HAS to go! the key may be building the character up clearly enough so that her motivation for doing something ridiculous hangs together and doesn't pull the reader out of the story.
I would say that I'm a pretty forgiving reader. I love Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series but the plots have become more and more preposterous. But I read them anyway because I'm crazy about Doc.
RHYS: Sorry about the 'aspirate' versus apparate mix up. I have just blogged on my solo blog (www.rhysbowen.blogspot.com) that my brain and hands don't always coordinate which results in horrible typing bloopers. Example in point "she shook her fish at him."
I think the problem wish so many thrillers is that the writer comes up with a brilliant concept--wouldn't it be great if... but it's not thought through to a logical ending. Maybe there isn't a satisfactory outcome for the particular concept so you wind up with unbelievable endings.
So friends--how tolerant are you of improbably plot twists?