Plot Formulas? Really? You’re Still Doing That?

As a Certified TVWriter™ minion, I spend most of my time looking for helpful articles about writing and then snatching them into my big net in the hope that they’ll be the kind of thing TVWriter™ visitors need and like. The other day I discovered this one, which certainly passes the test. Read and learn, as a certain LB might say. Read and learn:

formulaplottingby Mette Ivie Harrison

There is no formula to plot. The more I talk to writers I admire about writing, the more suspicious I am about books or formulas about how to plot anything “the right way.” As a reader/viewer myself, I can smell formula a mile away. Plot that feels imposed on characters can never satisfy. Let me give some examples of problems that I’ve seen in plot and I think you will agree. From there, I’ll talk about how to plot outside of the box in ways that will really surprise you and the most savvy consumers out there.

One of the most common plot devices is to kill a character near the end of a story in order to raise the final stakes at the climax of the book. The villain chooses a character to kill who is “really” important to the main character. This is also a character we consumers have fallen in love with. The writer(s) have done everything possible to make us care about the character in question, giving this character strengths and vulnerabilities, and even showing us a character arc in development. Often this is the “best” character, the one who is the kindest, the smartest, the cleanest (in terms of the consequences of the story arc that clings to the main character in particular). So when this character dies, we consumers feel really angry. We want to throw things at the screen or shout out loud. Yet this is all pre-determined. The writer(s) intend this very response and bank on it. And yet, precisely because it is so effective, it has become a shtick, predictable and, to me, annoying.

How often have I seen this happen? It occurs over and over again in American television, where writers wear golden handcuffs that force them to return to the previous season’s beginning in order to continue the formula which has been successful and bankable for the corporation that pays for the show to be produced. They wouldn’t want to risk losing all their advertisers by changing the rules of the game, right? That would be crazy. And when people are still watching a show, why would they risk ending the show early. There seems to be a rule in American television that you have to milk a cow until it is well and truly dead. If people are still watching, the cow might be old and stinking to high heaven, but we don’t kill it.

House was one of my favorite television shows, but I got pretty tired of the insistence on not allowing House to change and grow in a good way. Every season, when you were ready to believe that House might, in fact, have learned something this time — nope! Back he went into his drug-addicted, arrogant, lonely stupidity. Because he wasn’t House — the brilliant doctor — unless he was like that. Remember the character Amber, who was one of the few characters who threatened the show’s real premise? We got to like her, and then she got killed off. Of course she did.

Read it all at Intergalactic Medicine Show