plotting

Verisimilitude: A Most Essential Plot Element

Average and Nerdly discuss the newest plot element
NOTE: In case anyone’s forgotten my generic characters’ names, “Totally” refers to “Totally Everyguy,” Average’s male counterpart. (I add this note because my own mother said, “Wait, who?” Hahaha. I’m sure he would do wonders with this latest plot element.)

The Science of a Good Plot Element

So, it’s been at least 15 years since I studied any of the natural sciences. I had CP Chem in high school and a semester of Physical Science in college that included a chemistry unit. I don’t remember a ton about them (because that was half a lifetime ago, y’know), but one thing that did impress me was the solid truth of the periodic table.

Like, “These are the elements, and because of how atoms work, these elements are set in stone.”

(We’re not getting into isotopes or any of that complicated stuff, m’kay?)

The result is that any time I come across a fictional work where characters utter something akin to “This is a non-earth element,” my BS detector pings off the chart.

Because, as far as I understand, the periodic table has defined every possible element in existence, with the exception of a handful of man-made elements appended at the end. And all of those are extremely unstable and thus unlikely to exist anywhere outside the laboratory in which they are (briefly) created.

Am I wrong? Maybe I’m wrong. If so, my apologies. (And please leave an explanation for why I’m wrong in the comments. References much appreciated.)

It’s Not “Just a Story”

The realms of fiction exist to take us beyond the natural world. Even so, they have to follow natural laws or else they destroy verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude: The semblance of truth. The term indicates the degree to which a work creates the appearance of the truth. (Harmon & Holman, A Handbook to Literature, p. 538)

This oh-so-useful term doesn’t apply only to realistic fiction. For me, it’s a defining feature that separates good writing from bad across the spectrum of literature. This “semblance of truth” allows us to slip into the story, to feel alongside the characters, to agonize over plot twists and rejoice at happily ever afters.

When it breaks, we jolt out of that fictional world, and we’re generally none too happy about it. (This ties back to the unspoken Author-Audience Contract. We want a story to fool us, but without verisimilitude, it can’t.)

Verisimilitude is a tricky beast. It allows the same person to accept Tolkien’s mithril wholesale while they give the squinty side-eye to Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. In the Star Wars franchise, it simultaneously invokes the adoration of millions and the scorn of physics teachers everywhere.

(Or maybe it was only my physics teacher. My class once got a lecture on the properties of outer space thanks to someone mentioning Star Wars.)

It is, in short, subjective according to an individual’s understanding of Truth.

Fantasy at an Advantage

When it comes to verisimilitude, the fantasy genre holds a distinct advantage: the reader comes to the story with their sense of realism already disengaged.

No one fact-checks J.K. Rowling on the existence of magic. Nor do they chide C. S. Lewis on the implausibility of an inter-dimentional portal at the back of a wardrobe. A plot element need not be anchored in reality to resonate truth. It need only resonate truth within its fictional domain.

Because fantasy storylines exist outside of the normal, explainable world, many patterns of truth fall instead to characters, relationships, and personal growth.

But this doesn’t let a fantasy writer off the hook when it comes to rules. If Harry Potter suddenly created a portal to another dimension by playing a song on a flute, for example, the reader would likely object. (The HP universe requires wands for working magic, and Harry’s more of a jock than a musician. Not that he couldn’t be both, but he isn’t.)

Those who write fantasy engage in a boatload of world-building for this very reason. If they skip this step and change rules to accommodate their plot, they’ll undermine the story’s verisimilitude.

And this goes double for the author who writes in a “real world” setting. If that’s your bread and butter, beware the errant plot element.

Ultimately, you see, all fiction is fantasy. Some is simply more upfront about it.

***

Citation: Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature, 8th Ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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!

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.

 

Exhausting All Your Options

AverageEverygirl086Long ago in my disaffected youth, I found great solace in the music of The Wallflowers. Fronted by singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan, this alt-rock band rose to fame when their album Bringing Down the Horse (1996) went mainstream.

That album is now 20 years old, and I suddenly feel ancient.

But I digress.

Hidden in their discography—on Red Letter Days (2002), to be specific—is a gem of a song called “Three Ways.” My brother introduced me to it (because he bought the CD before I could), and we both had a good laugh at the plot twist in the lyrics.

Silly and simple as it was, that plot twist has stuck with me through the years. Amid mellow harmonies and soothing vocals comes a rather unexpected message:

There’s three ways out of every box
Fall out the bottom or you crawl out the top
There’s three ways out of every, every box

And if you can’t find your way out
Then you just burn it to the ground
And then you’ll disappear
Like smoke into the clouds

~The Wallflowers, “Three Ways”

I’m not going to wade into the weeds on what Dylan might have meant when he penned those words. I’m sure there are multiple interpretations. Mine is very straightforward: every problem has at least three possible solutions. Two of them are fairly obvious.

As a writer, this pattern plays an invaluable role in my creative process. Whenever a narrative problem perplexes me, I stop and ask myself, “Okay, what’s the third option here?”

The song’s example of being stuck in a box provides a template:

  1. “Fall out the bottom,” i.e., be acted upon. If a character bides their time, something will change without them having to do anything; the problem will resolve itself.
  2. “Crawl out the top,” i.e., act. A character exerts strength and determination to extricate him- or herself; they are the problem-solver.
  3. “Burn it to the ground,” i.e., act, but in a way that shifts the paradigm. In this third option, the character destroys the construct of the problem itself and moves into a different frame of understanding.

It’s easy to assume that our only options are “this one or that one.” When you stand at a fork in the road, you have to choose one path or the other if you want to move forward, right?

Wrong. You can leave the road altogether and head into the bush. Your constraints to stay on the path are, ultimately, self-imposed.

Option #3 is not always the correct choice, and it’s certainly not always the smartest one, but even the simple act of identifying it brings the other two choices into better focus. And when it comes to characters and plotting, it’s always worth consideration.

So, if you’re ever stuck muddling between uninspiring Options #1 and #2, go ahead and ask yourself, “What’s my third option here?”

The enlightenment that follows might surprise you.

The Man to Trust When the World Falls Apart

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Here’s what I don’t understand. If someone majorly screws up, why is that same someone trusted to correct the massive error? You may be as well-meaning as a nun, O Clumsy Protagonist, but I instinctively want you far, far away from anything and everything regarding the conflict you just caused.

But of course, the protagonist must prove his worth. And, as the Narrative Fates would often have it, he pretty much ends up being the only one capable of correcting the mistake.

Because contrived plot.

Or not. In justifying this trope, I’ve come up with some possible reasons a bumbling protagonist might be let back into the action.

Nepotism

The protagonist is related to the person in charge, who may or may not be competent. Assuming the relative of higher status is competent, one of the following conditions may apply:

  1. The relative has a soft spot for the bumbling protagonist and feels obligated to let them give the fix an honest try.
  2. The relative shrewdly sees the conflict as an opportunity for the bumbling protagonist to mature and develop their character.
  3. The relative hates the bumbling protagonist and sees this as an opportunity to let them die without having to actively kill them.

Note that in the first two conditions, the conflict can’t be too dire. You don’t send someone you care about into a situation that’s obviously far above their abilities, character-development opportunity or not. Such an act would tip the higher-ranked relative toward the incompetent side of the scale (which I’m not against, mind you) unless the situation is so dire that there’s absolutely no hope to overcome it.

I mean, if everyone’s going to die anyway, why not let the screw-up take a whack at solving things, amirite?

Superstition

The protagonist bears marks that indicate they are the Prophesied Hero. Whoever is in charge recognizes this and defers to that belief.

This one can readily feel like a cheap ploy, unless those prophesies are solid as all get-out. I guess my belief in this would depend heavily on the world-building and character development for the story. If either of these are shoddy, kiss the validity of this excuse goodbye.

Its near cousin, Mistaken for a Prophesied Hero, gets trotted out fairly frequently. The protagonist gets called before higher powers who think he’s a Prophesied Hero, he screws up royally (thus disproving their assumptions), and then works to fix his error. Sometimes he ends up being the true Prophesied Hero after all. Sometimes he proves that we each determine our own fate.

Subterfuge

The protagonist is forbidden from helping to fix the problem, but they defy orders. Some possibilities for this one:

  1. They stow away with the company of heroes, not discovered until it’s too late to return them.
  2. They switch places with the chosen hero, and no one discovers the switch until it’s too late.
  3. They set off on their own, perhaps with a trusted friend or animal sidekick, and no one discovers they’re missing until it’s too late.

You might have noticed a common theme. In cases involving subterfuge, timing is an essential factor. Because no one wants the protagonist anywhere near the conflict, no one can discover what they’re up to until they’re past the point of no return. Otherwise they get sent back to square one.

Long Story Short

I’m sure there are a multitude of situations that might justify a bumbling protagonist getting a second chance. The one that doesn’t fly, for me, is when they receive that second chance simply because they’re the protagonist.

“Why?” is the best question an author can ask when plotting a story. If there’s no sure answer, keep digging until you have one.