Written on 2004-10-15; Read the original post on LiveJournal
It’s unfortunate that so many people understand ‘plot’ only as battles and romance… Oh, and sometimes showing how Special and Mistreated the character is, too. But those are obvious to see, with the author usually not shirking to describe the action of a battle or the lingering moments of a kiss (sometimes for far too long) or to paint in broad strokes exactly how creative and imaginative and clever and OMG mistreated the protagonist is. Smaller advancements to plot are usually neglected.
Yet action can happen through them, often in subtler and more shining ways than through the “major” plot points.
1) Use characters’ expression and gestures to advance the plot. There are some fantasy authors who think they have a handle on this, by making the villain “smirk” whenever he has a plan brewing, or making the heroine flush when she sees the hero naked. These are also obvious, sometimes groan-inducingly so.
Because such fantasy authors rarely describe the expressions or gestures otherwise.
This is one advantage to description of gestures and expressions that usually gets ignored. Put the “dramatic” ones in a sea of similar ones, and the reader won’t be able to guess as easily where you’re going with the plot, especially if the description isn’t happening from the POV of the character smiling or smirking or flushing or flinging up a warding hand or whatever.
I can think of at least four other advantages:
a) It gives the author something to describe about their characters besides the endless, lengthy love poems to eye and hair colors.
b) It provides a framework that may make sense only in retrospect. Have your hero fumble after words, and perhaps he’s embarrassed at the heroine’s beauty, but he may also be figuring out the best way to present an awkward truth, or concealing a secret, or choking on air, or thinking about something else and having to bring his mind back to the conversation. Reading the book a second time, the reader may know exactly which of those explanations is true, but the first time, it adds to a sense of mystery and excitement.
c) It sets up a sense of ordinary life. People shouldn’t only use their faces and hands when the author wants them to give away a secret or make an ironic point. Their bodies and faces should be in constant motion, and describing them can make them seem to be more present, more real.
d) It avoids the need for stupid dialogue tags like “said angrily,” “said happily,” “he jerked out,” or “she pontificated haughtily.” Show us the character smiling, and it’s a good bet that he’s happy.
Use them some more.
2) Use conversations to do something besides dump backstory. I complained about Long Conversations in the first post like this, but that doesn’t mean that talk has no place in a fantasy. It just means that it should help in other ways besides explaining the whole history of the Back of Beyond to the protagonist.
Some of the tensest, most exciting scenes I’ve written have been conversation scenes. When two characters get steadily angrier at each other, they’ll probably erupt when they finally spiral into confrontation, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be trying to hit each other over the head with chairs or kill each other with swords. They may be different people than that, they may have no reason to actually hurt each other, or they may be people not expected to fight (two women in a traditional medieval society, for example, though the number of conversations between two female characters in fantasy is shockingly small compared to the number of conversations between men and women, or two men). Some verbal blows hurt worse than any physical blows. There are people who know this and will resort to those blows.
Also, consider what happens if one character has a secret. Threatening to reveal that secret, or the scene in which the petty villain blackmails the character who has it, is scary, and can’t always be stopped with a sword through the gut, the situation that too many fantasy authors resort to. (Too many fantasy scenes in general are set up to end with violence or magic, I think, and ignore other means of negotiating differences or expressing anger or whatever the conflict is).
So conversation scenes can be good. The trick is not to turn them into infodumps or “As you know, Bob…” scenes, where one character tells something to another character who already knows it. Advance the plot through them instead.
3) Use ordinary things as well as the machinations of enemies to kick plots into motion. Surely you know this rhyme:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of the horse, the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail!
It applies to fantasy, too. Perhaps it applies with special force to fantasy, where there are kingdoms to lose, and yet writers prefer to portray everything as conspiracy or “destiny,” without ever resorting to those small happenings.
This is another situation where simply remembering that people and objects and animals other than the heroes exist is extremely beneficial. They’re probably riding horses, right? Those horses probably need to rest and sleep and eat and drink, right? This is more true, not less, if the heroes are running them ragged by galloping away from enemies. Just once, kill a horse from the exhaustion that would necessarily pile on top of it after all that exercise, or have it get a stone in its hoof and limp, or have it die from any other method than the dastardly enemies shooting arrows into it. This gives your heroes an inconvenience that doesn’t depend on the “villain double standard”—the enemies being very powerful when the plot requires it, and then absurdly easy to defeat when the dramatic conclusion comes.
Likewise, say the heroes’ caravan is climbing a mountain trail, and encounters a path blocked off by stones. They have to turn back and go the other way around, and so lose half a day, and so miss the people they were supposed to meet in the next village—and that screws everything else up. On the other hand, perhaps they’ll meet someone in the village who can help them, who they wouldn’t have met if they had left with the people they originally came there to meet.
Instead of applying enemies or people who hate your hero to the story, apply Murphy’s Law. This can function in numerous ways, but some of the most useful in the typical fantasy story would be:
-weather (even snow and rain can slow travel, stop travel, ruin crops, kill people and animals, and cause secondary disasters, like mudslides).
-pre-existing political factions and rivalries (thus the hero can be stepping into a hornet’s nest that has nothing to do with him).
-waterskins (springing leaks, getting filled with dirty water and having to be thrown out, having an unnoticed rip or tear so that the leak is slow).
-food (it can spoil, it can attract insects, it can already be full of insects, it can run out, it can poison someone accidentally, it can cause an allergic reaction).
-animals (messenger birds that never appear, dogs that run off at the wrong moment, cats who are lurking about and making the hero trip over them, wandering animals like skunks or bears who get into the food. And do you know how fragile horses are?)
-time (this may make bridges unstable, cause houses to fall down, make paths through the wilderness unrecognizable, or block certain passages with things like spring floods from the snowmelt).
-money (it runs out, it gets lost, it provides a tempting target for thieves).
4) Recognize some of the more common plot devices and exorcise them. I’m talking specifically about fantasy here. Fantasy novels are different from each other in interesting ways—they had better be, or why else would I continue to read the genre?—but sometimes it seems as if a template exists:
-hero escapes from some danger that kills his entire family/village/guardian.
-hero is told of his mysterious heritage or destiny in a Long Conversation.
-hero gets “chosen” by a talking sword/talking animal/god/prophecy/other race/invisible floating balloon alien.
-hero learns, if he hasn’t already, that this makes him the Key to Everything.
-hero is hunted by dark enemies, and attacked by increasingly powerful antagonists (I have never, ever read a fantasy where the Dark Lord captures the hero right away and successfully brainwashes him, though I think this would be more interesting), and manages to defeat them all.
-hero trains, and of course turns out to be better than his mentor (yawn).
-hero gets persecuted by peers and bullies and parents who don’t understand his choices or are jealous of him (if that didn’t already happen back in the village, or his parents are still alive).
whines soliloquizes about his torment.
-hero accepts his burden.
-hero defeats the ultimate enemy.
Get rid of all of these, if you can. You can have an ordinary person who is not the Key to Everything; it would be different, since so much fantasy is about OMG the Speshulness. You can have a hero who is not Chosen. You can have a Dark Lord who is creative and intelligent as well as powerful, or a story with no villain at all, just competing viewpoint characters. You can have a character who suffers but doesn’t whine (just ask Carol Berg!) You can have a character who has serious conflicts with other people that aren’t about “misunderstandings” or “jealousy.” And I know it sounds radical, but you can even have protagonists whose parents are both still alive and have relatively good relationships with them. All of these would help the plot advance, because they mean the author can’t just fall back on clichés.
Clichés can sometimes be revived. I think it actually takes more effort to write things like, oh, a hero with a telepathic cat companion and do it with any originality than to come up with a plot that doesn’t follow the template up there. On the other hand, the reason it’s so hard, and failed at so often, is because a lot of fantasy authors don’t make the effort, or think they’re being completely original when they’re just enacting a very slightly different spin (a telepathic hawk instead of a telepathic cat, or a heroine who’s persecuted for her healing magic instead of her elemental magic) that isn’t enough to overcome the deadening effect of the teenage soap opera.
…I’m sorry. Looking at that template again, it’s an insult to both soap operas and teenagers. Let’s call it a pseudo-soap opera.