Plot Extinction

Since the days of antiquity, since before the alphabet and written literature, story plots in western civilization have been linear in design.

Meaning, they have a beginning, a middle, and an ending whereby the hero struggles against forces of antagonism, nearly fails, but prevails through sacrifice and heroism. The hero is changed by the experience, and as a result, the closing lines of the story point to this individual living a better life in future.

This basic template is founded on the structure of mythological tales. We respond to it as instinctively as we do anything that starts with “Once upon a time …”

However, in the last decade the linear plot has fallen out of fashion. Editors sometimes reject it in favor of a nonlinear storyline. Writers are told that readers are now web-thinkers (and we ain’t talking spiders).

A while back, I lost what would have been a very lucrative book deal because I was offering a story that was “too linear.” At first, I tried to make rocket science out of this new plotting concept. Then I figured out that all editors want are multiple viewpoints, cross-cutting, and lots of flashbacks mixed with a blistering-fast pace.

Not so revolutionary, after all. Thriller writers have been employing strategic viewpoint shifts and cross-cutting between subplots for years.

However, the trendy push is to employ these web-like plots to all genres, especially those for young readers. So far, fine.

But what I’ve been noticing lately is a more disturbing result of this trend–in plots that are increasingly frenetic and chaotic. They’re fast. They jump about with forward progress counter-balanced with flashbacks. They feature a lot of characters, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to tell who exactly is the protagonist. At their best, they’re lively, engaging, intriguing, and complex. At their worst–and I’m seeing more and more of the worst–they’re impossible to follow, confusing, and boring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a novel–the latest in a long-running and fairly successful series. In this author’s books, the characters and their backstories are emphasized over the plots, which are simple and small in scope. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I enjoy a book that’s more character-driven. But this particular novel had no plot. It featured instead a situation: a reunion of characters. The characters could barely speak to each other without us flowing into reverse for long flashbacks culled from past novels. The novel was short, but it took me forever to finish it.

Normally I would toss it aside with a shrug, chalking it up to a writer temporarily out of ideas who had to meet a contractual deadline.

Except that recently I read another novel that rambled around. It was a genre book, not mainstream at all. It should have had a plot. But it couldn’t seem to get going. Reading it was like trying to drive with a clutch for the first time. Jerky starts. Lurching stops. Stalled.

Normally I would say, new writer lacking in experience. But it wasn’t. This author has written many novels.

Television is on a similar trajectory, perhaps even more so than novels. Once upon a time, a TV show was episodic, meaning each weekly episode served a complete story. It had a beginning, middle, and end. The problem was resolved; the star saved the day; we knew that on the following week there would be a new story problem and new guest stars to see.

Of course, TV–in a rather odd development–now moves along a novel-type structure with each weekly segment of the show contributing to a continuing storyline. The entire season comprises the story arc. If you miss an episode of these dramas–let’s call it instead a weekly chapter–you’re in trouble. Still, that’s what DVDs are for. You can settle down with your popcorn in your living room and watch the entire season in one weekend marathon.

But even TV’s grip on plot is slipping more and more as it attempts to juggle the novel structure of linked weekly installments with the trend of web-like plots.

In September 2013, I sat down in excited anticipation to watch the season opener of PERSON OF INTEREST. Normally this is a well-written, intriguing show. The flashbacks feeding backstory on various characters takes some getting used to, but generally it goes well.

Not the season opener. I couldn’t follow it. Was I experiencing the onset of senile dementia? Or was I trying to watch a mish-mash of too much cross-cutting and references to past events from prior seasons? It’s TV. I shouldn’t have to work that hard to watch an episode. I shouldn’t have to have watched every second of multiple seasons in order to follow the plot. Granted, if I had done so I might have gotten all the nuances written into the script, but I should be able to click on, understand the gist of the story, and reach the closing credits without saying, “Huh?”

Okay, it’s supposed to be intelligent and complex. But this season has been a mix of shows that made sense and were very satisfying and shows that made me say, “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but compare it to another popular program, BURN NOTICE. Splashy, colorful, action-driven. A lot of plots and subplots woven through the seasons. However, I could miss half of a season, click on and pick up easily. The episodes made sense, even if I didn’t recognize a new character that had been on for several weeks during my absence.

Over this weekend, I came across a Dr. Who episode. It began with a great hook. The sets and costumes were a marvelous steampunk montage. Alien lizard girls in Victorian dresses–YES! The modern Dr. Who shows have better budgets, better set design, and better makeup departments than the low-budget versions of the past. Woo-hoo!I thought. Let’s watch this!

What I saw began well, shoved great concepts at me, and failed to deliver. The script hopped here and there among the characters, tried to handle more characters and subplots than the writer evidently could manage, cross-cut with all the reckless abandon of a drunken driver veering down a highway, and grew increasingly chaotic, fast-paced, and pointless. By the finish, I’d moved on from “Huh?” to “Who cares?”

Now, if someone wanted to defend this program, he might mutter to me about my having seen only the conclusion of that particular plot segment. Doesn’t matter. I should still be able to follow the story.

I’ll contrast it with another modern Dr. Who episode that I saw a couple of years ago. Different doctor as the star. It, too, was the concluding episode of a plot segment. The setting was Venice and some girls’ school where all the young maidens were vampires. Evil aliens were about to conquer Earth. (The Whosians out there will probably recognize this one.) In three minutes–I was up to speed. I could follow the story, and I didn’t have to strain to do it. The script made sense. It clearly wrapped up all the threads in the storyline. It served a satisfying conclusion with the little trademark twist of the program. Terrific and fun.

So what’s my point besides a rant about how plotting is falling into the decay of anarchy?

Plotting is falling victim to anarchy.

It doesn’t have to, of course. But writers have to stand fast against sloppy plotting, weak storylines, and the mistaken notion that chaos equals complexity, that speedy pace alone guarantees reader/viewer involvement, and that giving all the characters equal attention delivers satisfaction.

Methods of storytelling evolve with changing times. But the linear plot works well, if you’ll let it. Complexity is desirable, if we don’t unleash it like kudzu and let it smother the forward progress of the story.

Balance and control. Managing the story so that it unfolds quickly and unpredictably, intriguing our audience while holding them enthralled. That’s a writer’s job. That’s a writer’s responsibility. Trends come and go, but effective story design has to be preserved … and delivered to our readers.

Maybe I’m just an alarmist, paranoid enough to see the fall of civilization based on a few badly written books and teleplays. And maybe I’m an individual who grew up reading every novel I could get my hands on, watching television written by people trained in the old studio systems to deliver solid plots week after week. I’m not satisfied with the drivel of reality shows and book plots that crumble like cupcakes baked without eggs. I want more than that, and so should you.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Plot Extinction

  1. This is such a fascinating blog post! I have noticed the linear design of western writing, but you explain it so fully. I have a literary blog as well. Great post!

  2. I nod as I read your piece. I saw what you describe last night on Downton Abbey. Yes, a web, and some of it confusing, yet still, it does hang together. As for Person of Interest, I stopped last year. Just too confusing to me, and as if all they wanted was angst and violence. The actors deserve better writing.

    • Exactly! Shows like DOWNTON ABBEY feature so many characters that it does become a web. I can’t remember the past situation clouding the new lady’s maid, but the show provided me with enough reaction from the butler and housekeeper for me to think, “okay, she caused trouble in the past and will cause trouble in the future.” And I can still follow what’s happening.

      I think I’m done with PERSON OF INTEREST, too. I like the characters and the concept, but it gets darker and more violent as it goes. The events that occurred before Christmas were enough for me. I think you can push too close to the line of no return, and it has.

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