Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Making a Better Plot

On her blog, I’ve seen Rachelle Gardner write that she would rather see a well written manuscript with a poor plot than a poorly written manuscript with a great plot. The assumption here is that an agent can make suggestions concerning the plot and through a collaborative effort the author and agent can produce a good book, whereas poor writing is much more difficult to correct because it requires going through the manuscript sentence by sentence to make changes. I see some truth to that. Assuming the agent has the ability to do either, improving the plot requires less work, but is that a safe assumption. I kind of wonder if literary agents aren’t somewhat like movie directors who believe they can fix all of the mistakes that happened on the set in the editing room. The implication is that plotting is so easy that anyone can do it.

Recently, I’ve watched many of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. You would be hard pressed to find a television series with better written episodes. But it’s the plots that make these episodes what they are. In one episode two men are in a bar. One man is having marital problems. His wife is openly having an affair with another man. It is established that the husband can’t beat up his wife’s lover because he was once a professional boxer, but the other man in the bar, a legal student, suggests that the husband challenge the lover to a duel. According to the legal student, under California law a duel doesn’t carry with it the same consequences as murder and a jury might be lenient, considering the situation. They work out how it can be done and the husband goes home. He finds his wife and her lover together, pulls a couple of swords off the wall and challenges the man to a duel. The husband kills the lover, and then turns himself in to the police. The trial takes place and it works out just as the legal student said, except the judge throws in an additional provision in California law that requires the winner of the duel to provide for the survivors of the person killed. There is one son and the judge rules that the husband must give the son $100,000 and $1,000 a month for the rest of his life. The husband, a wealthy man, is happy to do this since this is the price of ridding himself of his wife’s lover. He returns home and finds that his wife is with another man. When we see who the man is, we find that it is the legal student from the bar who also happens to be the son of the man killed.

After watching that episode, I began to ask myself what I would do if I wanted to come up with a similar story. We can’t just copy the story; it has already been done. It isn’t likely that it was just a creative stroke of genius or a dream in the night that created this plot. As I considered it, most of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents stories are setup in a similar way. The story follows one line that is quite interesting in and of itself, but then we reach the end and we are given a twist that changes our understanding of the story. The stories are the work of skilled writers.

It’s easy to come up with a plot, but not all plots are created equal. My mother has told me that of the novels I’ve written, she likes For the Love of a Devil more than the others. So do I and it all has to do with the plot. I like the others and stand behind them, but For the Love of a Devil as a little extra spark. The difference is that the theme is much more primal. It’s about a man who wants his wife back. Searching for Mom is a little closer to that, since it is about a girl who wants a mother, but when I look at the plots of How to Become a Bible Character and And Thy House they aren’t as primal. And Thy House has the appearance of being primal because it is about a man who wants his children saved, but it’s hard to bring that down to an immediate concern. We feel an immediate concern when we’re under conviction, but no book can put the reader under conviction.

So here’s the problem, the stories are what they are. An agent or an editor might be able to go through and suggest ramping up a scene, deleting a scene or adding a scene, but no such change will make How to Become a Bible Character as primal as For the Love of a Devil. If you read both of these books, I think you’ll find that some of the scenes in How to Become a Bible Character are ramped up just as much as those in For the Love of a Devil. I don’t care how good you think you are, not plot changes you can make will ever make How to Become a Bible Character the story that For the Love of a Devil is.

There are things we can do to improve the plot of a story after it is written, but there fundamental things that can’t be changed without creating a new story. That aspect of writing requires skill. I believe it is a learnable skill, but it isn’t a skill everyone has. So, when an agent says that she can help an author with a plot, I think what we’ll find is that she can only improve upon the strengths of a manuscript that has a great plot as its backbone, but no more.