Poor Plotting: When Tragedy Becomes Comedy

I was reading a gay romance this past week that went to pieces in the final act because of poor plotting.

The main characters–would-be lovers–let’s call them Tom and Harry–were hosting the grand opening of a vintage toy shop, where not one but two villains conveniently showed up, the first, exposing Harry’s manwhore past, which ought to have been pretty obvious to everyone at that point, since Harry never ceased talking about it, and the second, exposing Harry’s criminal past, which made him appear untrustworthy to Tom. All ends well, of course, somehow without Harry in the least understanding why Tom might not want a man who throws himself at anyone who’ll have him and sees no problem with petty theft, provided its petty and unsuccessful. But never mind that.

The point I’m trying to make here is an author risks making a joke of his characters when he arranges matters too cleverly like this. The manwhore expose could–and should–have come up earlier in the story, providing a much-needed injection of drama in the rather dull middle (all stories can be rather dull in the middle, if you let them be). The evil security guard could have easily carried the scene at the party, revealing to everyone (but especially to Tom) that he was letting a crook run his business. It would have been devastating, instead of just Scene Two in a ridiculous farce.

I offer one final example of the Two Villains Two Many plot danger. Johnny Hero is about to marry Susie Darling. At their engagement party, Johnny’s supposed ex-girlfriend shows up, sporting an engagement ring on her finger. She claims she is engaged to Johnny and pregnant with his child. All is over for Johnny and Susie. Or at least at a point where it might be.

Let’s recast the scene. Johnny Hero is about to marry Susie Darling. At their engagement party, THREE of Johnny’s supposed ex-lovers show up, two lovely ladies and his former roommate from college, a friend with considerable benefits. All three have engagement rings they claim Johnny has given to them. The chaos can be well imagined, but this is no longer a tragedy. It’s too absurd for readers to do anything but laugh.

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Tired Tropes: Showmance

Today, I’m going to talk about the most tiresome of tiresome tropes, the showmance.

Johnny Hot Ass, CEO of Money-to-Burn Industries, or Duke Grab-a-Lot-of-It, Heir to an ungodly fortune, are looking for a girl to play the role of fake wife/significant other. They may or may not want to have sex with her, but a “relationship” is utterly, completely out of the question. So they say. But by the end of the book, TRUE LOVE trumps what began as purely selfish interest. They all live happily ever after.

A great reader of Victorian romance, I find it strange that today’s audiences can enjoy books like these. What these arrangements amount to is a kind of high-class prostitution–think Pretty Woman with a period piece budget. The girl getting, if not cold hard cash, at least some benefit from it other than the BENEFIT that sometimes comes with it.That the characters realize their shallowness in time to save something out of this wreck of virtue is hardly reward enough for having to spend any time with them. It’s like enduring sloppy kisses and cheek pinches from a stinky old aunt merely for the sake of the dollar she gives you for candy on her way out the door.

These stories are in bad taste, surely. But what’s worse, utterly impossible to believe. How many times, in real life, has a mercenary showmance turned into a genuine romance?

I can think of one such showmance than ended on a far sadder note. At the age of 37, England’s Queen Mary I married the far younger Prince Phillip of Spain. A politically advantageous marriage, contracted in the best interest of the parties and the countries they represented. It didn’t take long, however, for poor Mary to fall in love with her handsome husband. Sadly, he didn’t return her affections and soon found means to absent himself from her court. Probably to avoid the unpleasant necessity of performing his husbandly duty. Mary believed herself pregnant and showed symptoms of being so. But no child was born of this loveless marriage. And death mercifully dissolved it sometime later.

Though it grieves me to admit it, I don’t think showmances are going away any time soon, even if they lack credibility, because today’s readers have made their peace with marrying those you don’t love for the sake of plenty of hot sex, the sooner, the better. The older style of courtship–getting to know the man before you FUCK him–just ain’t going to cut it. Sorry!

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Small-Part Actors

In my last blog post, I talked about supporting characters and their ability to add much needed color to your stories.

Think of the lovable or not-so-loveable sidekicks from your favorites novels or films? Why do they stand out for you? What makes them memorable?

One of the best small-part actors is the ill-used dog in the Grinch who Stole Christmas. Like any loyal canine, he loves his master and sticks steadfastly at his side, even when the wicked Grinch is at his worst. Imagine the movie without the mutt. Not nearly so good, is it?

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Not-So-Helpful Helpers

Recently, I began watching Shadows in the Storm, a 1988 thriller starring Ned Beatty and Mia Sara. In a scene fairly early in the film, the main character, Thelonius Pitt, checks into a lodge to get away from it all—“it all”, being his dead-end life. The innkeeper, a very minor character, provides some very much needed comic relief in this relatively dark film about a good man who makes one irredeemably bad life choice.

In one scene, Pitt is sitting on an outdoor patio, enjoying a breakfast that he has purchased from the innkeeper. Across from him are an older couple, enjoying a lively discussion about their day’s plans, while Pitt struggles to read the book of poetry that he’s brought along. Much to his annoyance, he hasn’t quite set himself free of the annoyances that plagued his everyday life. How many of us can relate to being the captives of a conversation that doesn’t concern us in the least? Pitt asks the innkeeper if he can go inside the lodge for privacy. Eager to please—perhaps TOO eager—the innkeeper walks over to the table where the older couple is sitting, informs them that “an important Los Angeles doctor” is sitting over there, trying to read. “So shut the fuck up!” Of course, they are insulted in the extreme, and assume, wrongly, that Pitt has asked the innkeeper to speak to them in this way. “How rude!” “Why, I never!” So on, so forth. Pitt is ready to crawl in a hole with embarrassment, while the innkeeper, not in the least perturbed, demands some appreciation for service rendered.

This is a fine example of making full use of a supporting character. And in a most unexpected way. An innkeeper who doesn’t welcome his guests is playing against type. Think of Hannibal Lecter, whose elegant taste seems in complete contradiction to his reputation as a cannibal.

Think of some ho-hum supporting characters in your own stories that you can make more interesting. Give them a sufficient twist and watch them grow.

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Underutilized Plot Device: The Worthy Rival

Recently I was reading a Max Brand western called The Outlaw. The main character, Larry Lynmouth, rolls into the town of Crooked Horn with a full pardon and a pretty dirty past. Before he can bury the iron pin and tie the knot, he loses a stupid bet to a creepy gambler set on winning the heart of a girl he isn’t fit to polish the boots of. Larry spends the rest of the novel attempting to earn back the reputation he foolishly forfeited to his enemy.

One of the most interesting things about this story is the gambler’s love interest, Cherry. When Larry’s bride-to-be turns her back on him (believing the evil that everyone is spreading around the town about him), Cherry is one of the few people who still believes in Larry. She stands by him, not only in word, but in deed, risking her life several times in the story to help him. Even going so far as to bring her rival to him in the hope that her rival will convince him to give up a foolhardy rescue attempt and light out of town. At the end of novel, Larry goes off with his chosen bride to be, leaving Cherry in the lurch. Cherry suspects it’s her dark coloring that has cost her Larry’s love. Her rival is a blue-eyed blonde. Let’s hope Larry stood by his jilting bride-to-be for a better reason than that.

But this is an interesting plot device that is too rarely utilized: more than one good choice. Instead of putting an evil spouse or a wicked friend or a disapproving parent in the way of true love, why not throw in another prince? Maybe even two!

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Setting Mood Through Description

Every writer has his or her particular strength. Fantasy writer A. Merritt’s was his descriptive powers, which he employed to great effect in each and every one of his amazing stories. In The Face in the Abyss (1931), he describes an evil garden. Notice how a careful choice of words sets the mood.

At his left was a garden! A garden of evil!

There, a narrow stream ran over the floor of the cavern in curves and intricate loops. It was crimson, like a stream of sluggishly running blood. Upon its banks were great red lilies, tainted and splotched with venomous greens; orchid blooms of sullen purple veined with unclean scarlets; debauched roses; obscene thickets of what seemed to be shoots of young bamboo stained with verdigris; crouching trees from whose branches hung heart-shaped fruits of leprous white; patches of fleshy leafed plants from whose mauve centers protruded thick yellowish spikes shaped like hooded adders down whose sides slowly dripped glistening drops of some dreadful nectar.

Having established a visual, he now attacks the reader’s olfactory sense.

A little breeze eddied about him. It brought the mingled scents of that strange garden, and these were the very essence of it, distillation of its wickedness. They rocked him with blasphemous imaginings, steeped him with evil longings. The breeze lingered for a breath, seemed to laugh, then fled back to the garden and left him trembling.

He feared that garden! Yes, the fear of it was as strong as the fear of the black throne. Why did he fear it so? Evil, unknown and undreamed evil, was in it. It was living evil–ah, that was it! Vital evil! A flood of evil life pulsed and ran through every bloom, every plant and tree… evil vitality… they drew it from that stream of blood… but, ah, how strong one who fed upon their life might grow….

Writer’s challenge: Take a ho-hum description in your story and inspirit it with a mood. Describe a room in a plush hotel from the point of view of a spoiled socialite, then from the point of view of a poor orphan. Same room, two vastly different experiences!

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A Book of Blots, or Bad News is Good News

After God alone knows how many hours, your book is at last on the shelf (virtual or literal) and you are anxiously awaiting your much-deserved praise. Then someone crushes you with a bad review and you want to curl up in a ball and die.

Maybe this is only one reader’s opinion. Maybe that one reader is wrong. But maybe, just maybe, he or she is right.

What then?

Though you don’t know it, you’ve just been given a gift–the chance to improve your skill as a writer.

Remember: all great discoveries began with a problem that needed a solution. Here’s yours. Make the next book the better for the instruction you’ve been given on this one.

If failure is good for us in no other way, it’s this: it teaches us to find the strength in ourselves to get back up and try again.

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Money, It’s a Plot

Though it seems that readers can’t get enough of billionaire hotties and dukes with money to squander, your book doesn’t have to have a hero with a big wallet. A lack of money might even prove an interesting plot point, if used to your advantage. Think of all the ways that money can deform a character.

The novel, A Man Made of Money by Douglas William Jerrold, is a fantastic example of what a writer can do with this particular theme. The main character wishes he were made of money. And, by some bizarre twist of fate, his wish is granted. Over the course of the novel, his greed slowly strips him of his body, but, far worse, his soul.

What can you do with this theme?

Negative traits in relation to money: (1) avarice, (2) fraud, (3) injustice, (5) thriftlessness, (6) extravagance, and (7) improvidence.

Positive traits in relation to money: (1) generosity, (2) honesty, (3) justice, (4) self-sacrifice, (5) economy, and (6) providence.

Here’s a challenge: a wealthy main character with a positive money trait and a poor main character with a negative money trait fall in love. What sorts of combinations can you come up with?

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Nature, Study, Practice

By nature, you may be a writer, but don’t forget the other two essentials of your trade.

Study: Read a wide range of books, not just those in your genre. Any good cook knows that the perfect recipe is one with well-balanced ingredients. Too much sugar is–well, too much.

Practice: Write, revise, repeat. Write, revise, repeat. If you’re between novels, fill your blog with short stories, essays, articles, etc. Keep dipping that feather into the inkwell. The only way to be good at anything is through practice.

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Well, November is almost at an end. Have you finished your novel?

If you’re still smoothing out the rough patches on your characters (hopefully the next generation of Harry Potters), here are few tools to help you:

A – C – S – S

Action – define your character by what he does?
Conduct – define your character by how he behaves (or doesn’t)?
Self-culture – define your character by how he educates himself (or doesn’t)?
Self-control – define your character by how he manages his emotions (or doesn’t)?

To show how character is shown through all four of these tools, watch a master at work. The following excerpt is taken from Allan Quatermain by H. Rider Haggard. For those of you not familiar with this book, Allan Quartermain’s character was played by Sean Connery in the movie, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In Allan Quartermain, the eponymous character is on a quest to find a legendary white tribe. He is accompanied by several friends, including a disgraced Zulu, who has fled his village after his beloved wife betrayed him. The Zulu, Umslopogaas, serves often as the comic relief, but he is also a sword and shield on which Allan, quite an elderly man, often relies (thought Allan is no pushover himself).

Our adventurers are sucked into a whirlpool and sent hurtling down an underground river. Eventually, they are able to ground their canoe and rest a while in a gloomy cavern, which the echoes of their voices makes still unnerving. Watch how our characters, particularly Umslopogaas, deal with this development.

By the river’s edge was a little shore formed of round fragments of rock washed into this shape by the constant action of water, and giving the place the appearance of being strewn with thousands of fossil cannon balls. Evidently when the water of the underground river is high there is no beach at all, or very little, between the border of the stream and the precipitous cliffs; but now there was a space of seven or eight yards. And here, on this beach, we determined to land, in order to rest ourselves a little after all that we had gone through and to stretch our limbs. It was a dreadful place, but it would give an hour’s respite from the terrors of the river, and also allow of our repacking and arranging the canoe. Accordingly we selected what looked like a favourable spot, and with some little difficulty managed to beach the canoe and scramble out on to the round, inhospitable pebbles.

‘My word,’ called out Good, who was on shore the first, ‘what an awful place! It’s enough to give one a fit.’ And he laughed.

Instantly a thundering voice took up his words, magnifying them a hundred times. ‘_Give one a fit–Ho! ho! ho!’–‘A fit, Ho! ho! ho!_’ answered another voice in wild accents from far up the cliff–_a fit! a fit! a fit!_ chimed in voice after voice–each flinging the words to and fro with shouts of awful laughter to the invisible lips of the other till the whole place echoed with the words and with shrieks of fiendish
merriment, which at last ceased as suddenly as they had begun.

‘Oh, mon Dieu!’ yelled Alphonse, startled quite out of such self-command as he possessed.

‘_Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!_’ the Titanic echoes thundered, shrieked, and wailed in every conceivable tone.

‘Ah,’ said Umslopogaas calmly, ‘I clearly perceive that devils live here. Well, the place looks like it.’

I tried to explain to him that the cause of all the hubbub was a very remarkable and interesting echo, but he would not believe it.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I know an echo when I hear one. There was one lived opposite my kraal in Zululand, and the Intombis [maidens] used to talk with it. But if what we hear is a full-grown echo, mine at home can only have been a baby. No, no–they are devils up there. But I don’t think much of them, though,’ he added, taking a pinch of snuff. ‘They can copy what one says, but they don’t seem to be able to talk on their own account, and they dare not show their faces,’ and he relapsed into silence, and apparently paid no further attention to such contemptible fiends.

Take every opportunity not only to populate your story with memorable characters, but also to give your characters ways through the story to make themselves memorable.

At the risk of being tiresome, SHOW don’t TELL. I could tell you that Umslopogaas was a bad ass, but I much rather show you that even devils don’t dare show their faces, where he carries his battle ax.

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