Plot Devices and Other Narrative Thickeners

Average Everygirl #94

We’ve all been there. One minute you’re minding your own business, and the next, a dangerous and coveted plot device tumbles into your hands. And then it’s off to Mt. Doom or Alderaan or the Marshes of Morva to figure out just what to do with the blasted thing.

Much to your chagrin.

The Inherent Joys of Plot Devices

But everyone loves plot devices, and for good reason. Without them, literature would consist entirely of people remarking on their surroundings while they aimlessly wander the countryside.

Also known as the Collected Works of William Wordsworth.

(Sorry, not sorry.)

Plot devices come in many shapes and sizes. They trigger the story arc and drive it forward. The best of them hold the key to solving everything. They are the bread and butter of every writer worth his snuff.

(Yes, I’m giving you the side-eye, Wordsworth. You know what you did.)

But, of course, not all plot devices are created equal.

The Dreaded MacGuffin

Although Alfred Hitchcock gets credit for the term (spelled “MacGuffin” or “McGuffin,” depending on your preference), the concept of the MacGuffin existed before he put that term to use. It refers to an object that everybody in the story wants but that has no special attribute beyond that.

Classic examples abound.

  • The Golden Fleece? MacGuffin
  • Helen of Troy? MacGuffin
  • The Holy Grail? MacGuffin

All of these items have the same draw for those who seek them: “There’s this thing, see? And everyone’s after it, but we’re going to get it.”

*cue prematurely triumphant laughter*

MacGuffins typically cause more trouble than they’re worth, and they have no real benefits beyond some vague blessing or prestige that comes with ownership. Thus their narrative value lies only in how well they can drive an interesting plot.

(I’d give first place in this category to Helen of Troy, but the Apple of Discord is the instigating MacGuffin there. I mean, really? “Look, I need that piece of gold produce. Everyone knows that imitation-fruit trophies are the highest authority in determining one’s worth and value.”)

As with any trope, the application governs its merit. “MacGuffin” is more of a fun term than a derogatory one. Some MacGuffins are superfluous, but others are downright essential.

The Cellini Venus in How to Steal a Million (1966), for example, does nothing and is literally worth nothing, but it makes for a superbly entertaining plot.

Heist and mystery story lines frequently rely on MacGuffins to spur their heroes. You don’t expect a box of jewels or a priceless Van Gogh to have properties beyond “expensive” and “coveted.”

Quests and epics, on the other hand, can wade into forbidden territory. Long story short, if you introduce an artifact into your fantasy adventure, it better do something more than look pretty.

Further MacGuffin Reading

For more examples of MacGuffins, TvTropes.org provides an extensive list, including dozens of trope variations. Do you have a favorite? Leave it in the comments!

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Dear Readers, I come bearing gifts.

Well, just one gift, actually. And I made it myself, and it’s not a cat sweater.

It is a writing tool extraordinaire (if I do say so myself), dedicated to my dear friend Jen and offered to all. I’ve worked on this thing off and on since May, and there’s a backstory that inspired it, but in the interest of brevity (too late), I’ll let the graphic speak for itself.

May you enjoy it, but never put it to practical use.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

DISCLAIMER #1: I do not write modern romance. This is satire, and any resemblance to any existing modern romance heroine or tag line is purely coincidental. (That sometimes happens when you’re playing with clichés, haha.)

DISCLAIMER #2: This graphic is BIG, and I am not tech-savvy. I muddled over the best way to present it but decided just to toss it up on this post. Good luck. (Protip: Click on the picture to get at the larger version, Mom. It should open in a new screen.)

DISCLAIMER #3: I do have a PDF version, if anyone is silly enough to want a physical copy of this. Sized for A2 paper. (Closest American equivalent is 18″ x 24″.) It cost me $20 to get a draft copy, but the result was delightful. Uhh… leave a comment if you’re interested?

 

‘Tis the Season

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I wrote this whole long post about my 2016 NaNoWriMo experience, but I let it sit for a day and then decided that I didn’t like it. So, I offer you this silly tidbit instead, along with my apologies for my twisted sense of humor.

My brother’s family is doing homemade Christmas gifts this year. I think that’s a lovely endeavor, but it does require advanced planning, and you can probably guess what sort of gifts I might give if I had to make them myself.

(My artisanal cat sweater would be very tasteful, mind you. Not that I would recommend tasting it.)

Whatever your traditions this holiday season, may you feel the love of God in your life and reflect that love upon others. A little kindness goes a long way.

Literary Influences: Tower of God by SIU

Confession: In the grand scheme of media—print, film, and digital—I actively follow only one series. I used to follow many, but over the years they’ve all gotten the boot, except this One. It must be something extraordinary, right?

Oh yes, my friends, it is.

Tower of God is a Korean webtoon written and illustrated by SIU (a pseudonym that stands for “Slave In Utero,” which is strikingly macabre). It chronicles the adventures of a motley collection of characters as they ascend a sprawling tower in pursuit of ultimate glory.

What, you say?

I came across this webtoon circa 2010 (probably 4-6 months after it started its current incarnation), and I’ve been hooked ever since.

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

How can you not love such an epic title plate?

What Makes This Series Great

#1: The Characters

We’ll start with the main trifecta, Bam, Khun, and Rak.

The Twenty-Fifth Bam (aka Bam, black turtle, et al.): our innocent, enigmatic hero has no clue how the tower works because he has spent most of his life in darkness and isolation. He’s an irregular irregular: although he opens the tower doors himself instead of being chosen to climb, he doesn’t have the monster-like strength or skills of the other irregulars that have forced their way in. Except that he sometimes does, which is superb fun.

Favorite Bam moment: all of ’em. I freaking love this kid.

Khun Aguero Agnes (aka Mr. Khun, blue turtle, A.A., et al.): crafty, cunning, and self-serving, Khun sabotaged his own sister and raided his father’s treasure trove before starting his journey up the tower. He’s determined to win in every situation he encounters, and he’s not above using shady means. In fact, “shady means” is his preferred method.

Favorite Khun moment: pretty much any time he takes control, but his first appearance in Season 2 makes me giddy with joy every time I read it. He owns that ridiculous outfit like no one else could.

Rak Wraithraiser (aka Rak, crocodile, et al.): a giant reptilian warrior who hunts those with strength so he can fight them and get stronger. Rak is, delightfully, the comic relief. He refers to everyone else as “turtles,” and has quite the collection of specific names. He is the “leader” of the Bam/Khun/Rak trifecta (although Khun is usually the orchestrator).

Favorite Rak moment: “This turtle is his wife.” I’m not even going to explain. Imma just leave it at that.

On the powerful, confident female side of the character spectrum, we have the following:

Ha Yuri Jahad: a high-ranker and a princess of the tower’s ruler, Jahad. Yuri encounters Bam on the bottom floor just after he enters, and she ensures that he gets a fair shot at his initial challenge.

Favorite Yuri moment: Her foot-to-the-face greeting makes for a dynamic first entrance; her battle on the Hell Train is pretty epic too.

Androssi Jahad: another princess of Jahad, Androssi enters the Floor of Test at roughly the same time Bam does. Her status makes her a pop-culture icon as she progresses upward.  (Note: she’s “Endorsi Jahad” in the official English translations; I have a soft spot for the fan-translated “Androssi.”)

Favorite Androssi moment: She’s referred to as a “tank” on more than one occasion, and it makes me laugh because she looks like a delicate girl but she’ll legit mess you up.

Hwa Ryun: a one-eyed, redheaded guide; or, well, she doesn’t start off one-eyed, but there’s this incident, and she pretty much rocks her eyepatch in the aftermath.

Favorite Hwa Ryun moment: “Pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig, pig.”

Describing all the other great characters would balloon this post to an easy 10K words. Each has their own personality and traits, and as they become more familiar, they become more beloved.

With one exception. There is one character that pretty much every last fan of this series wants to die in a horrible, grisly, face-mangling death. But disclosing who it is would be such a massive spoiler that it would destroy half the fun. Ha ha.

(Like, it takes some serious talent to create someone so universally and violently despised. I’d hate for you to miss out on any of that joy.)

#2: The Themes

Friendship. Loyalty. Ingenuity. Betrayal.

So much betrayal.

And yet, alongside that betrayal run the dual themes of forgiveness and redemption. Characters must constantly choose between honor and self-interest, but even those who make the selfish choice have innate value, and they are worthy of redemption.

(Except the Unnamed Hated One, I mean. Every rule has its exception.)

At some point in the series, I realized that I approach each new chapter with my heart in my hands. Every gut-wrenching cliffhanger sets my brain a-frenzy. And yet, like a masochist, I keep returning.

The good guys don’t always win. Sometimes they suffer horrible, devastating setbacks. They weather physical and mental anguish. They fall in with the bad guys for a season.

And that, ultimately, is why I list Tower of God as a “literary influence.” Right now, it’s my benchmark for high stakes and reader engagement. It makes me ask, “Am I letting my characters suffer enough? What if I twisted my plots just a little bit more?”

It’s wonderful, this literary trauma.

Some Caveats

If you start this series, I will warn you:

  1. The beginning art is a bit shaky. Cut those early chapters some slack, though, because the later visuals are phenomenal.
  2. The plot can feel nebulous. It gets clearer as you go, but in some respects, its nebulousness is a plus, because it makes for some exhilarating revelations.
  3. The text has a lot of grammatical errors. But it was originally written in Korean. Any of us not blessed to read Hangul are lucky for what we get. (Seriously, if you get hung up on the grammar, this series will be wasted on you. Just let it slide.)

As of last Monday, Tower of God is 300 episodes long, with the next one soon to drop. You can find its official English translation HERE.

Enjoy!

2016 State of Kate

This post is 100% self-indulgent. If you’re coming to the table hoping to learn anything linguistic, move along, little bronco.

If, on the other hand, you’d like a little insight into the resident author’s neurosis, pull up a chair.

(Sadly, I’m not being cute with that comment.)

The Year in Review

I have semi-jokingly referred to 2016 as my “sabbatical year.” My original goal when I started indie publishing was to put out a book a year, and from 2010 to 2015 I did exactly that. At the end of last year, I looked at my work, saw that it was good, and thought it might be nice to take a rest.

Clouds, because I can. (Also, light and shadow in beautiful interplay.)

Clouds, because I can. (Also, light and shadow in beautiful interplay.)

Not that I actually rested, mind you.

The real issue going into 2016 was that, although I had several completed manuscript drafts, I didn’t have any I was aching to publish without first performing major surgery on their plots and/or structure. And I couldn’t make up my mind, and I was busy with a million other things, and I’d already absolved myself of my usual June deadline.

So.

First Quarter

I was blogging three times a week—which I knew was unsustainable, but when you have a demon to exorcise, you get that sucker out rather than scheduling its extraction forward into measured deadlines—and I was participating in two weekly critique groups, in addition to twice-weekly volunteering and two separate duty-heavy leadership positions. Plus, you know, the occasional freelance job and four active book projects.

The nervous breakdown hit me sometime in March, as best I can recall. It disrupted my sleep, affected my health, and rendered me constantly on the verge of an anxiety attack. I was Lucy trying to keep up with the accelerating assembly line of chocolates, and falling short in my efforts.

So, I “cut back.” I withdrew from one of my critique groups and saw my doctor to confirm that there wasn’t anything chemical going on.

(There wasn’t. My body just reeeeally doesn’t respond well to stress.)

Second Quarter

On my mother’s advice, I put all of my book monsters back in their cages, with the rule that I would only take one out at a time. I semi-broke the rule by keeping a second and sometimes third project window open in Scrivener, but I didn’t look at them… often. I continued forward with my single project and single critique group and scheduled a break in my thrice-weekly blogging near the end of the quarter, so that I could do a formal project inventory and maybe get my bearings.

The project inventory came back with this result: “Kate, you have way too many active projects to be blogging three times a week.”

Unfortunately, it seems that if I don’t keep to a rigorously insane schedule, I don’t keep to any schedule at all. Hence the sporadic posts since that inventory. (Sorry, but not really, haha. Sanity first, guys.)

In June, as my two-week hiatus was coming to a close, my grandmother died. This event was 100% expected, as she had entered the end-of-life care phase at the start of the year. She has lived down the street from me since I was a teenager, and was mentally sound until the end. My sainted mother basically moved in with her and acted as a primary caregiver to allow her to pass within the comfort of her own home.

My inheritance, purchased at the family estate sale. Because what better memento than an adorable blue hat?

My inheritance, purchased at the family estate sale. Because what better memento than an adorable blue hat?

If you are familiar with end-of-life care, you know it is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. My secondhand experience—trying to support my mother as she supported hers—revealed a whole slew of weaknesses and frailties within me. I wish I had been better than I was, but under the weight of all my other responsibilities, I did what I could.

My grandmother passed peacefully in her sleep, a blessing for her and for all of us. She wanted a concert instead of a funeral, so we gave it to her. She is now hard at work on the other side, reunited with her sweetheart and countless other souls.

Death, however peacefully it may come, brings with it a somber weight of perspective for those left behind. I will shamelessly admit that I said, “Aw, screw it,” to all non-essential activities for the next six weeks.

Third Quarter

For the last two weeks of July, I holed up in my house and wrote 20K words. It was the most I had written in a long spell, and I thought I was wrapping up that project until I took it to my critique group and informed them that I only had five chapters left in the draft.

They informed me that I was wrong, and that I needed to go back to my plotting board.

I spent August dragging my feet on their well-reasoned advice.

Cosplaying as Penelope for the ANWA Writers Conference Character Gala. Costume courtesy of my amazing and talented mother.

Cosplaying as Penelope for the ANWA Writers Conference Character Gala. Costume courtesy of my amazing and talented mother.

In September I attended the ANWA Writers Conference for a third year running. The conference was phenomenal. I hit an energetic high of associating with like-minded authors and friends, I learned some lovely tips on harnessing better productivity, and I broadened my sense of the writing craft. I was extremely choosy in which classes I attended, and that worked to my benefit, anxious introvert that I am.

My one regret is that I didn’t spring for a headshot, because the photographer they had was outstanding. I am totes jelly of the beautiful profile pics some of my author friends now sport.

Fourth Quarter

October is upon us. I am still slogging away at the same project I selected back in April. My critique group is still pressuring me to refine it. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish the draft by Christmas.

(It was supposed to be done by now, if only people would let me have my crappy way with it.)

I’m on the fence about NaNoWriMo. It’ll be the first year since 2008 that I haven’t participated if I decide to forego the experience, but I’m past the point of doing things for the sake of tradition. I reached my 50K words last year, but I have yet to finish that draft (another monster waiting in its cage) and the last thing I need right now is to add to my list of unfinished projects.

They scream at me from the corners of my mind: “Work on me! You can’t leave me in this state forever!”

Mentally, I feel like I’m emerging from a fog, where I can maybe sort of manage having goals again. I still have a billion things on my plate, but by the Grace of God alone I can handle them now. Throughout this year, He has been ever patient with and watchful over me. Where He wants me to go from here is a great mystery, but it’s always fun to see His work unfold.

I can say this, though: 2017 looks to be a beautiful year. Here’s hoping I can contribute to the beauty of it.

Finding the Easy Way Out

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Anticlimactic plot twist? Guilty as charged!

The Author-Audience Contract

An unwritten contract exists between every author and their audience. The author promises to take the audience somewhere new—to greater knowledge or fantastic lands—and the audience promises to go along for the ride. The lion’s share of the work lies on the author’s side. If they fail to engage with cunning word-craft, the audience has every right to abandon ship or—worse—to remain on board and snark through the whole trip.

Which can be grossly entertaining, I’ll be the first to admit. (MST3K, anyone? Coming soon to a Netflix near you!)

Generally, though, it’s never the author’s goal to inspire rampant mockery. The author-audience relationship is meant to be cooperative: author provides story, audience is entertained. One of these days I’m going to write a whole series of posts on the linguistic principle of cooperation. For now, suffice it to say that this cooperative relationship involves a delicate balancing act on the author’s part.

The savvy reader looks at every book as a puzzle to decipher. The savvy author looks at every reader as a customer to entertain. And that is where plot twists come into play.

The Garden Path

Plot twists, plainly defined, are the punchline to a joke you didn’t know you were being told. Sometimes the joke isn’t at all funny. Sometimes it’s horrific or heart-wrenching. The punchline catches you off-guard and sends you reeling. That moment of enlightenment, of surprise and delight or despair is the ambrosia sought after by author and audience alike.

We sometimes refer to authors adept at plot twists as “leading [their audience] down the garden path.” The audience, in large part, signs up for this deception too, and if they don’t receive it, they can feel cheated in the end.

Which leads us to our worst offender…

Deus ex Machina

Literally “God from the Machine,” this infamous plot device is the cheapest ploy on the block. It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek plays where the characters would become so entangled in their dire and twisted circumstances that their only way out was through divine intervention in the form of a god lowered onto the stage via crane.

Modern versions don’t typically involve deities or pulley systems. They might lean on happenstance or good fortune that drops out of the blue to save the day. Sometimes they are simply a conflict too easily resolved: a villain that isn’t as bad as they seem, a “catastrophe” with minimal impact, or the ever-popular “it was all a dream” cop-out.

These and their ilk are the literary equivalents of expecting a decadent truffle and biting into a stale marshmallow instead.

But sometimes, from the author’s perspective, deus ex machina is oh-so-tempting. Especially in that first draft stage when you get to the point where you just want to set the whole manuscript on fire and walk away.

*cough*

It’s hard work to embroil one’s characters in turmoil and ruin. It’s harder work to get them believably back out again. For the sake of the author-audience relationship, though, plotting is always time well spent.

***

PS – Happy Birthday to Average Everygirl. Today marks a year from her Average debut, and what a long way she’s come.

 

Honing In on What Matters Most

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Last week, in the midst of procrastinating a fair number of tasks, I read a book. It was a decent story, sound in writing mechanics, pretty good dialogue, interesting plot points, and so forth, but there was one major problem: its pacing was

so

very

slow.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I kid you not, it took eight pages—eight—for the protagonist to wake up, get dressed, and go down to the kitchen for breakfast.

Eight pages.

There was backstory aplenty and introspection galore, and even a little eavesdropping on other characters Doing Things, but the end result was a narrative that dragged like a legless dog on a leash.

Which was tragic because, again, the writing was sound. This was a skilled author.

I’m not passing judgement. I’ve been there before, so deep in my character’s life that I included every minute detail and motivation and thought. To some extent, it’s part of my drafting process, to reassure myself that I know my character, that I know my plot, and that I know what’s happening at any given moment.

But the reader doesn’t need to know 90% of it and may well get annoyed at the surplus of information. We live in an age of instant gratification. No one wants to wade through eight pages of prose just to transport a main character from their bedroom to the breakfast table. Those details might make it into the first draft, but that doesn’t mean they should stay for the final one.

The Value of a Crisis Mindset

I’ve heard publication dates referred to as “book birthdays,” but I prefer to view them as another life event entirely: they are manuscript death-days. The book, once published, exits the creative process. Sure, you can make minor changes or corrections here and there, and the modern indie industry actually allows for full-blown plot overhauls and rewrites, but going forward, any drastic changes will disrupt the trust relationship between author and reader. The goal in publishing has to be a polished end-product.

The publication deadline, then, presents a crisis—an end-of-the-world scenario, if you will.

And, as with real-life crises, it gives the author cause to hone in on what is truly essential.

The drafting process, hard work as it is, has a carefree angle to it. You can create a whole cast of characters, endless gratuitous scenes, and witty dialogue that runs on for pages and pages. Eventually, through this drafting stage, everything gets cobbled together into one flowing narrative, and you type “The End” with a final flourish on the last page.

But that’s actually only the beginning. With a first draft complete, the looming crisis of publication engages. You enter the editing stage.

Some authors edit as they go along. (I do, certainly.) They get to the end of a draft and feel as though their project is complete. (Again, guilty as charged.) There is a fundamental difference between the drafting and the editing stages of writing, though:

Drafting is for the author’s benefit; editing is for the reader’s.

Pretty much any project that does not consider its audience’s needs separate from its creator’s intentions will fall short of its full potential. The purpose of the editing stage is to refine that raw material produced in the drafting stage.

This is a time to strip away all the extra descriptions, break up with the unnecessary characters, ditch the irrelevant scenes, and train a narrative’s focus upon the fundamental themes of the story. It’s a time to honor the reader by considering their expectations and ensuring that the story delivers on any promises it made.

The crisis mindset allows an author to sit down with their manuscript, acknowledge that the two will soon part ways, and to reinforce the story’s most important principles before sending that little bundle of joy out into the world to get shredded to pieces by the rabid readers that await.

(Only kidding, readers. You are mostly wonderful.)

While there’s no possible way to please 100% of an audience—and I’m not saying anyone should try—the end goal, simply, is to present the most polished story that an author can for where they are in their writing journey.

As difficult, tedious, and headache-inducing as the editing process can be, it’s nothing to bemoan. Editing is where the true craft of writing begins.

It is, in short, essential. Carefully attended, it allows an author to meet that crisis of publication with confidence and bid farewell to their lovely manuscript with no regrets.

 

A Minor Hiccup in a Hedge

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Nestled among the marked (or “dispreferred”) behaviors of discourse we find a lovely little linguistic feature known as “hedging.”

Hedging is the default refuge of anyone who doesn’t want to be held 100% accountable for what they say. The speaker tempers their words to lessen the impact of their speech, thereby creating a verbal trap door through which they can escape should the need arise.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of tiptoeing and a useful hallmark of lawyers, politicians, bloggers, and anyone else who might worry about getting caught in a lie by their own soundbites.

Shifty behavior isn’t the only factor that lends towards hedging. Politeness plays a strong part as well. You don’t want to speak in bald absolutes? There’s a hedge for that.

Modal Hedges

Modals provide a ready means of hedging. Compare the solid, reliable sense inherent in can, will, shall, and must with the weaselly, conditional sense of may, might, could, should, and would. You can almost hear the retractions formulating in a speaker’s mind:

“I told you I might help, not that I will.”

As modals, by their definition, indicate a speaker’s mood toward the statement they utter, use of the conditional models is a dead giveaway for a hedge. The speaker may follow through, but then again, they might not.

Verbal Hedges

Verbal hedges come in at least two varieties. The first is the pull-your-punch linking verbs that people like to substitute for the solid “to be”:

  • to seem; “She seems nice.” (I don’t know if she actually is, but she seems that way right now, so don’t hold me accountable if she turns out to be a massive jerk.)
  • to appear; “It appears we have an agreement.” (We have one, but I don’t want to trample on your sensibilities by declaring is so boldly, in case you’re having second thoughts.)
  • to look; “He looks angry.” (Every visual cue for anger is there, but there’s a slight chance he has one of those angry faces, so I won’t definitively label him as being angry just yet.)

The second type is a shell verb that dilutes the main verb of a sentence to allow for exceptions to the statement. For example,

  • tend to; “I tend to shriek when I’m scared.”
  • try to; “I try to obey traffic laws.”

Such hedges can be useful, but remember: the longer the verb phrase of a sentence, the weaker its effect. In strong, efficient writing, verbal hedges get the boot.

Adverbial and Adjectival Hedges

Adverbial and adjectival hedges are, as their name implies, adverbs, adjectives, or adverbial phrases that qualify another lexical part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or preposition).

Some of these hedges reflect “smallness” in their literal meaning, the better to minimize the rhetorical impact of the word or message they modify:

  • a little; “I may be a little late.” (“I won’t be there on time, but it’s nothing to get upset about.”)
  • a bit; “Your voice is a bit loud.” (“Tone it down, Brunhilda.”)
  • slight; “We’ve run into a slight snag.” (“Something’s gone wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.”)
  • at least; “I called your name at least five times.” (“I lost count after five, but there were more than that. Or I’m exaggerating to make you feel bad.”)

Others reflect “variety”:

  • kind of; “I’m kind of happy.” (“I’m happy, but saying it outright is too much.”)
  • sort of; “You’re sort of a jerk.” (“You’re totally a jerk. Mend your ways.”)

The “frequency” adverbs often and sometimes serve to temper their absolute counterparts, always and never.

My personal favorite with adverbial hedges is when they pile up on each other, à la kinda sorta (“I kinda sorta like you, Jimmy.” *blushblushblush*) or when they directly contradict the adverb they’re modifying.

Kind of really, my love, I’m looking at you. “I’m kind of really annoyed right now” actually means “I’m really, really annoyed right now, but I’m tempering one of those reallys with a kind of because I’m showing restraint, but if you don’t take the cue I might end up wringing your neck.”

Yes, in a strange twist of language, kind of really is a hedge that augments and diminishes at the same time, people.

(Which is why I love it so.)

When it comes to narrative writing, adverbial and adjectival hedges are mostly superfluous (YSWIDT, haha?) and can be edited out. A slight snag is a snag. A minor hiccup is a hiccup. And if you’re a little late, you’re late. Period. No qualifying necessary.

Except when you kind of really need to, I mean. And then it’s pretty much okay.

The Most Potent of Good-luck Charms

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Once upon a time, fictional dogs didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of surviving to the end of the story. Old YellerBristle Face, and Where the Red Fern Grows taught generations of children to weep in trauma.

Then, presumably, those children grew up and took over the entertainment industry. The canine body count had reached critical mass and the pendulum swung the opposite direction.

Particularly where disaster movies were concerned.

The ’90s boasted a series of apocalyptic films, many of them coming in thematic pairs, and most if not all of them hosting a common plot thread:

  • Volcano (1997): The dog lives.
  • Dante’s Peak (1997): The dog lives.
  • Armageddon (1998): The dog lives.

Yes, humans are dropping like flies and all mayhem abounds, but those furry, rambunctious pets somehow manage to avoid any serious injury.

Independence Day (1996) features the now-infamous scene of the family dog leaping into a concrete shelter mere seconds before a raging wall of fire sweeps past. The feel-good moment belies its context. Millions of people have just been incinerated off screen, but the audience is supposed to cheer for a dog.

(There’s also the physics-defying politeness of the flames not to flood that sheltered nook and barbecue its occupants. So kind of the inferno to magically pass by, as though fire traveling forcefully on air currents wouldn’t press into every opening it encounters.)

But, I’ll admit, the first time I saw the film, I did cheer. No one wants a fictional dog to die. (Unless it’s Cujo, I mean.)

One of the more egregious example of The Dog that Lives trope appears in the 1996 disaster flick Daylight. A group of people seek to escape a collapsed traffic tunnel beneath a river, their path immersed in darkness and slowly rising waters. The dog, which belongs to the token elderly couple of the ensemble, doesn’t make it through one of the chambers. Grandma is despondent. She can’t go on. She gives up and dies.

And the freaking dog shows up again, like, five minutes later, to make a final escape.

Hooray! Fido’s alive!

Granted, the owner who loved him so much is floating lifeless in the darkened depths below, but that’s not important. And all those people who croaked in the initial disaster and along the way, well, they’re just faceless casualties. And yeah, his appearance caused the protagonist to (stupidly) jump back into the waters to save him and subsequently get trapped again and have to find another way out.

But it was totes worth it, m’kay?

For the record, I love animals. Dogs are among the purest, most loving creatures on the earth.

But when push comes to shove in a disaster story line, they take second tier on my list of priorities. When creators bend over backwards to let the dog live while simultaneously slaughtering human characters by the dozens, I’m out.

***

PS – For a comical take on the Ill-Fated Dog trope, try No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.

The Principle of Expendable Virtue

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We’ve all seen it: two people of casual acquaintance thrown into a story line that involves instant death bearing down upon them. And suddenly, in the midst of calamity, voila! A lurrrve subplot is born!

Sure, they might grapple with a token moral dilemma—”Should we? Should we not?”—but inevitably, the qualms recede as the end draws nigh. Principles aren’t that important, you guys.

This phenomenon of expendable virtue can crop up in pretty much any impending-death scenario, but the cataclysmic doomsday genre allows it to flourish. It encourages its characters to participate in an angst-filled battle against regret and to arrive upon its “seize the day” solution.

Which is ironic, because impromptu hook-ups are more often a cause of regret rather than a means of avoiding it. But I digress.

I have issues with this subplot for several reasons, three of which I’ll here discuss.

1. It illustrates selfishness.

I get the whole “unfulfilled love” vein of regrets, but intimacy born of impulse is the opposite of love. It’s a self-serving act, and too often it comes with an “anyone will do” undertone. Person A solicits Person B to satisfy their own desires. “But Person A has always secretly loved Person B,” you might contend.

Yeah, sorry. It still rings hollow. It would hold a lot more weight for me if Person A only wanted to spend time with Person B and wasn’t angling for some action, but that’s rarely the case.

2. Characters in this subplot can come across as predatory.

This is particularly true when one of the parties involved is at all reluctant. One partner pressuring the other for intimacy creates an unequal power balance, and using impending doom as a means of coercion is a special brand of vile.

That’s something captors do to hostages. It’s what abusers do to their victims. It’s a mind game. “You don’t want to have these consequences, do you? You should obey me.”

Yuck.

3. It’s fundamentally godless.

This one is probably fine for readers with atheist or agnostic leanings. I don’t fit in that category, but I get the logic. If death is certain and there’s nothing beyond, why not engage in behavior that might otherwise be reckless or ill-advised?

Except that there’s a whole list of behaviors we should never engage in under any circumstances: arson, murder, rape, molestation, animal cruelty, and so forth. And no, I’m not drawing a parallel between consensual sex and criminal activity, but when the argument boils down to, “Let’s do this because there will be no consequences,” the line between right and wrong no longer exists. Why shouldn’t a character go on a murder spree if there won’t be any consequences?

(Incidentally, that could be a fascinating subplot for a doomsday story, and a heck of a lot more original than the Desperate Awkward Love trope.)

The moral dilemma variation to this subplot only enhances the scenario’s inherent godlessness: in the face of impending destruction, characters cast aside life-long beliefs and embrace the philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—a philosophy that only works if there’s no final reckoning in the Great Beyond.

Frankly, abandonment of faith and principles is the last thing I want to see in any character’s closing hours. That’s depressing, even more so than an Imminent Fiery Death.

I’d much rather see kindness, hope, encouragement, people being decent to one another, reconnecting with family, mending fences. A million potential regrets would loom over someone’s head in a doomsday scenario, but love—true, lasting love for family and dearest friends—dominates that list.

Our culture is obsessed with romance, though, and spur-of-the-moment intimacy marks the apex of that ideal. So, we get hackneyed subplots about gangly teens trying to fulfill their warped sense of love, validation, and lost adulthood instead.

Yay.

*gags*

Principles are not meant to be disposable. They’re supposed to remain constant regardless of external circumstances. The whole “You don’t want to die a virgin, do you?” line of persuasion should lead to one obvious answer: “Why not? That’s the way I lived.”

But there’s no drama in that, only dignity—which is one of the most underrated virtues of all.

 

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