Victims Of The Untenable Plot
“Incapable of being defended or justified (as in an argument or thesis); indefensible.”
At present, I’m writing — well, I dunno what you’d call it yet. Paranormal thriller slash crime fiction slash adventure slash who the fuck knows. All the genre conventions have their fiddly bits, and until I’m done I’m not going to worry too much about where it goes, but what I do know is that the novel’s plot is in part built off the internal plots put forth by the characters: sinister plots, malevolent plots, selfish plots.
Schemes, you might say.
One of the trickiest bits for me is ensuring that the plot — by which I mean a conflation of my plot and the character’s plots — isn’t, well, goddamn ridiculous. A plot should be tight; each little gear nestled against the other. Plots and schemes do not need bells and whistles, because bells and whistles adorn the plot with naught but barnacles that bog the whole beast down. (Bells, whistles, barnacles, bogs, beasts? What the hell? I dunno. It’s early. I’m just starting on the coffee. Move along. Nothing to see here.)
It has to be clean. The audience has to be able to suspend disbelief.
If the plot strains credibility — if their disbelief is allowed to sneak back in through an open window — then the work is now in danger of losing credibility across a number of fronts. A nonsensical or unbelievable plot throws all those other elements into a harsh light, subject to much greater scrutiny.
This, then, is The Untenable Plot.
(A good example of the Untenable Plot might be Attack of the Clones, which has a plot so bizarre and Byzantine I don’t even know if I could accurately describe it. Obi-Wan goes hunting Amidala’s sort-of-not-quite-assassin, and eventually tracks him to a planet where some long-necked motherfuckers are making a clone army mimicking that very assassin, a clone army built under what are plainly dubious orders — “Uhh, some other Jedi totally said to do this in secret halfway across the Galaxy.” And then Obi-Wan follows the assassin to that ugly bug planet, and there he finds that the assassin is in league with another really bad dude, a Sith jerk with a poopy name, and then somehow even though Obi-Wan hasn’t even gone home yet, Yoda and the rest of the Jedi asshats scoop up the clone army that Obi-Wan “discovered” — the one made under dubious circumstances and from the DNA of the very assassin who’s right there on the bug planet and is a known associate of the very Sith poopy-pants they’re trying to hunt — and nobody asks any questions or thinks to pause and say, “Gosh, I think somebody’s fucking with us.”)
The untenable plot (now scrubbed clean of needless capitalization) is one that you as the creator just can’t justify. And yet, they’re so easy to concoct because you kind of build them as you go, cobbling them together with the same clumsy uncertainty required to put together Ikea furniture (damn you, Skjarng end tables, damn you). Stuff gets slapped together and before you know it you don’t have finely-tuned clockwork, you have a pile of junk duct taped together, and it’s vibrating slightly, and it’s inching across the floor belching as it goes, and holy shit it looks hungry it’s eating the Yorkshire Terrier nooooo.
So. The untenable plot.
Whether it’s the plot (re: scheme) of a character or the plot (re: sequence of events) found within your story, the big question is: How to spot it?
Convenience and Coincidence
Any plot that relies upon convenience or coincidence to work is a plot that is untenable. If the plot is unable to move forward until an unexpected event happens, then you should flick yourself in the eye. “The plot cannot move forward until current-Kirk randomly meets alternate-Spock in an ice cave.” Or, “The villain’s bomb will not go off until the pollen count reaches a certain critical number! It’ll happen any day now!”
If momentum relies on random shit happening, then the plot is untenable.
The Stupidity Of Characters
Any plot that relies on the stupidity of characters is problematic, too. The aforementioned Attack of the Clones is a good one: the entire plot of the film demands that people you know to be intelligent (Obi-Wan, Yoda) act like slack-jawed muffinheads and totally ignore… mmm, pretty much everything going on around them. Further, that means the film’s plot relies on your stupidity, too. Not good.
A plot should assume that both the characters inside the tale and the audience watching it unfold are all of reasonable intelligence. They don’t need to be Stephen Hawking, but a plot shouldn’t rely on them having the intelligence of a sea cucumber, either.
The Multiple Personality of Characters
Similarly, if the plot demands that these characters act like different characters and do stuff they wouldn’t normally do, then you’ve got an untenable plot. If it relies on flaws they do not possess or demands that they take actions they wouldn’t normally take, then something’s gone goofy. Not only do you now possess a broken plot, but you’ve also betrayed the characters — and thus, you’ve betrayed the audience.
TV shows suffer from this one a lot. Hard to blame them. Each season is at least ten hours (likely twice that). Hard to maintain consistency. Look at Lost: a great character show a lot of the time, but other times it relied on characters doing things they’d never do.
(Uh, spoiler warning.)
When Sun and Jin effectively choose to drown together, it’s untenable. She’s trapped. Fine. But we know that Jin is excited to have a child. We know that the child was one of their main struggles — the struggle to have a safe birth, to get the child away from the island. And then at the end, it’s like, “Ehhh, fuck all that, he’d rather drown here with his wife.” Romantic, I guess, but not productive, and not really believable.
Evil For The Sake Of Evil
A short and totally sweet post awaits your eyes over at John August’s screenwriting blog:
Any plot that relies on sheer malevolence is probably an untenable plot. Selfishness, fine. Vengeance, fine. Any of the Seven Deadlies, in fact, probably play well as a motivating factor. But if the plot demands that evil be done merely for the sake of evil, then that’s a highly questionable motivation.
Villains do not believe themselves villains.
Too Many Links In The Chain
Don’t overcomplicate things. If the goal is for your antagonist to assassinate a president, then find the shortest line to that outcome. No, it won’t be a straight line, because I am confident that assassinating a president isn’t as easy as pushing the guy down a flight of stairs and then running away. But the moment you start having some Rube Goldbergian sequence of events, you should worry. “And then he has to rent a Moon Bounce, and when the sun strikes the magnifying lens just right…”
Remember: the only reason a character injects complexity into a plot is out of sheer necessity. That’s the only reason you should do it, too. If that detour is not necessary, then do not take it.
Cool For The Sake Of Cool
We all want to write cool shit. But it has to work in the plot — once more, it might be a the product of necessity rather than the product of, “Because the author thinks it sounds awesome.” You can’t help but feel that the end of Attack of the Clones (or, another Lucas-ian monstrosity, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull) that all the circle pegs have been crammed into square holes just so we can all end up at the same awesome sequence (lightsaber Jedi Clone bug battle eeee!). Nothing organic about that. Nothing natural. Not necessary. Untenable. Pbbt.
Big Gaping Holes
Boy, that’s going to get me some great searches.
If you look at your plot and there exists a… Here There Be Dragons marker, a sign of uncertain territory, then you’ve got a gap. Fill it. Or cover it. Or cut parts out until the hole is gone. Lots of untenable plots are untenable simply because nobody thought to come up with a bridge between Point A and Point C — people, it’s called Point B. Conceive of it. Figure out the who, what, where, why, when, how, etc.
Don’t let a hole just sit there like a sucking chest wound. Don’t let it vacuum the air right out of your plot.
How To Fix?
First: write everything down. Plan it out. Even if the work is done, go back and notecard that shit together, see how it looks at a distance.
Second: look for the trouble spots as noted above.
Third: simplify. No matter what, you can probably make it simpler. Cleaner. More elegant. That’s what a plot should be: elegant. Not tangled and Byzantine.
Fourth: remember that the plot is always driven by characters and not by event. Characters concoct. Characters are the gears in the machine. It’s all about character. They are the motivating factor.
Fifth: if you can’t figure it out, drink copiously, then pass out and sleep on it.
Any untenable plots you can think of?
What else goes into forming an untenable plot?
Any other good tips and tricks to fix?