Saturday, November 04, 2006

Two For Plot Writers

I recommend two books to writers who want to learn how to write plots. Both are books of short stories or novelettes; one book is comedy, the other is action-adventure. You can read one story after another and find the common denominators -- you can induce the principles of fiction.

The books are Yes, Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay and Wolf of the Steppes, the Complete Cossack Adventures, Volume One by Harold Lamb.

Yes, Minister is a fiction adaptation of the BBC comedy series. Lovers of free market economics will get a special kick from the series as it satirizes welfare state politics. In every story the conservative Minister for the Department of Administrative Affairs tries to cut the size of government, but the civil servants always defeat him and end up increasing the budget.

I call the plot principle I induced from these stories “adding a complication.” It goes like this: you get your hero in a bind, then instead of getting him out, you make things worse; the second complication ends up solving the first. This is especially good in comedy because it can be funny how the two complications come together and solve themselves at the end.

To give a serious, if banal, example, let’s say your hero is in a gunfight. He is shooting at a villain across the street. Suddenly, a second villain appears behind him -- added complication, more tension! Then the hero ducks and the two villains shoot each other. The added complication turned out to be the solution to the first problem, but before you get to the solution you increase the conflict. Don’t let your hero off the hook -- make things even worse!

Wolf of the Steppes, which I have not yet finished reading, is pulp fiction from the early 20th century. In Adventure Magazine Harold Lamb wrote stories of Khlit the Cossack, set in Central Asia of the late 16th century. Lamb was one of Robert E. Howard’s favorite writers and you can see the influence of Lamb’s crafty swordsman in Conan the Barbarian.

Lamb was a master plot writer. In these clever stories the hero gets in a terrible bind that you KNOW he cannot get out of -- then he gets out because he had a plan all along. Only on the last page or so does it all come together and you see the plan the hero had the whole time. This technique, "hiding the hero's plan," is fundamental to action-adventure writing. If the reader knows the plan too soon, or knows that the hero even has a plan, then the suspense is killed. It's good to make it look like the hero is putting himself in an impossible position because he is compelled by the pursuit of values, whether rational or irrational -- honor, love, revenge, wealth -- then you see in the end that he was pursuing a rational plan.

Lamb's stories are not deep, but their thematic shallowness helps you see the plot techniques. You could call this book Adventure Writing 101.

No comments: