I hate it when I’m reading along, enjoying myself, and I realize that the writer doesn’t have a story. They have a set-up, a setting, a single character, or one cool idea, and then they pack it in a bunch of words and hope no one notices that nothing happens in their “story.” The major sign of this is that you think “Why was that one minor character so cool?” or “Why was I so interested in the numerology system?” Chances are, the author feels the same way. Sometimes the piece is short enough that it’s okay, or the prose style is so beautiful or breezy that I don’t notice until I go back and think about it. But a few of the methods for disguising a plotless plot always jump out at me.
My least favorite of these is “a magic thing happened, and then it went away.” A prime example is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Yes, I know it was nominated for a Hugo, and yes, it was well-written, sentence by sentence and even scene by scene; I pick on it partially because the full text is available online. (With all sincerity, that’s pretty cool.) But the plot is, boys go to party, talk to girl-shaped clone-type alien beings, everyone tries to put the moves on each other, boys leave party. The story ends
The streetlights came on, one by one; Vic stumbled on ahead, while I trudged down the street behind him in the dusk, my feet treading out the measure of a poem that, try as I might, I could not properly remember and would never be able to repeat.
So there is a bit about growing up, and the magic thing going away is a handy metaphor for childhood or innocence, but the boys themselves don’t get it. They don’t change. There is a wisp of understanding that dissipates and leaves me unsatisfied at the end. Most of the appeal and cleverness lies in the story saying, “Look! Neil Gaiman has literalized a metaphor about teenage boys trying to relate to the fair sex!” and I don’t buy into it.
Another non-plot I’ve run into is “Surprise! It was _______.” Much of the time, it’s “Surprise! It was child molestation” or “Surprise! It was rape.” I’m looking at you, Francesca Lia Block. Laurie Halse Anderson succeeds with a similar plot point in Speak, so it can be done, but I get exasperated when the reveal is there to radically revise everything we thought about the character in question. If the rape or molestation (or something) was such a driving force for the character, why isn’t she angry or anxious or distrusting or desperate for love (or something)? There’s a fine line between, “Argh, I already know that in about a hundred pages, it’s going to turn out that she was raped” and “What the hell? That came out of left field.”
Anderson succeeds in Speak where Block fails because, when the reveal comes, you just think, “Oh, of course—that’s why this character has been acting and thinking this way the whole time.” And the book doesn’t exist only to chase the secret. The book is about the character finding her way out of what the secret has done to her, and that’s a plot.
The third big one is “We are ______, and we do the things that ______s do. Everything goes pretty much as expected.” Even if it’s “We are vampire space ninjas, and we do the things that vampire space ninjas do,” when everything goes pretty much as expected, there’s no reason to read past the laying-out of the plan somewhere in the middle of page three. The inherent awesomeness of vampire space ninjas isn’t enough for me—or that of ice pirates in Paul Batteiger’s “A Cold Day in Hell,” or vampire-loving TV production assistants in Tanya Huff’s Smoke and Shadows.
What about you? Do you have some tropes to add to the list? Examples of the ones I’ve pointed out? Want to refute my claims?
[Image by flickr user cesarastudillo, licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons.]
Megan Messinger is a production assistant at Tor.com, and she’s picky as hell.