When the plot leads the horse
Last night, we watched a TV series which had us gripped … up until the point one of the main characters did something no person with half a brain would ever dream of doing. Unless you’re the sort of person who thinks sending a photo of your penis to a student who you know your wife thinks is stalking her, and may have killed the pet cat, just because she asks you to, is not going to end in disaster.
It was a classic example of plot taking over a story and murdering credibility in the process.
It happens far too often in literature and film &TV, and it drives me crazy.
Don’t the writers or scriptwriters responsible stop for a moment to consider what would someone realistically do in this scenario? The conclusion has to be they either a) don’t, or b) they don’t care, the plot they’ve dreamt up is everything and they’re sticking to it like a train to a railway track.
Two popular techniques in literature at the moment are twists and Unreliable Narrators, both of which are linked. An Unreliable Narrator generally comes hand in hand with a twist or two. For anyone who doesn’t know, an Unreliable Narrator is when the character narrating the story misleads the reader either deliberately or for some other reason; they have amnesia for example. There’s an argument that all first-hand narrators are unreliable in one way or another, but the trend is for deliberate deception, with as many twists thrown in as possible. Done well, the impact is like a blow to the solar plexus. I’ve just read a book with an Unreliable Narrator (I won’t say what as it’s one of those books the less you know about the plot, the better) where it was used to shocking effect. I didn’t even realise the narrator fell into the UN stable until I saw it referenced in a list. That’s excellent writing. The book was character-driven rather than plot-driven; the evolvement of the story felt natural and logical, unlike the TV series we watched last night.
And therein lies the problem. There are authors who write because they have a tale they feel compelled to share, and there are writers who will jump on the twist/UN bandwagon because it is popular and what agents/publishers want to see. Many of these will construct a plot which is ludicrous, but which ticks certain boxes. Characters will do what the plot requires them to do, irrespective of how unrealistic that is. I’m no fan of this sort of writing. It is mercenary and has no respect for the reader. The reader in me finds this disregard for my investment offensive. The writer in me hopes he can learn from it.
But I could be swimming against a tide. Some shocking examples have topped bestseller lists, which is why twists and UN are trendy. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is a classic example. It’s a Sunday Times #1 bestseller and its Amazon page features accolades from the likes of Stephen King and Harlan Coben. For much of the story, it is a gripping, intriguing, edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller. And then the author pulls off a stunt which completely ruins everything that has gone before. And yet lots and lots of people lapped it up.
Like writers, there are readers who feast on character-driven stories, and there are others for whom the plot, however ludicrous, is all that matters.