The Short Road Home, part II: a plot that’s better than good










Sigh. In April. RIP, daffodil.

Last time, I broached the monumental twin subjects of tension and conflict in novels and memoirs. While lack of either is a frequent rejection trigger, there are as many individual underlying causes for flabby tension and minimal conflict as there are manuscripts — or, indeed, as there are pages in individual manuscripts.

But that’s not going to stop me from talking about how to attack some of the more common culprits.

Yesterday, I introduced the Short Road Home, the all-too-common narrative practice of resolving a conflict practically as soon as it is introduced — or the first time the protagonist really puts his mind to it. Generally speaking, Short Roads Home tend to be a matter of the author’s not dealing with actions necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the action’s messy and page-consuming results.

They are, in a word, shortcuts — and in the vast majority of manuscripts, these shortcuts both minimize conflict and reduce tension.

The GOOD news is that the Short Road Home is exceptionally easy to spot in a manuscript, once a writer knows to be looking for it. While a bit time-consuming to fix — often, Short Roads Home are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, so it may require some pretty close reading to spot ‘em — the benefits in added character development tend to be substantial.

Okay, so good news is relative. I never promised you that revision would be a breeze, did I?

After my last post, I felt a certain amount of disgruntlement lingering in the air. “Well, YOU may not like it, Anne,” I heard some of you mutter, “but I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent writers do it routinely? Clearly, SOMEONE is selling stories with these kinds of devices.”

I can easily believe that you’ve seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies — so often, in fact, that you may not have identified it as a storytelling problem per se. Allow me to suggest that the main producers of Short Roads Home, like Idiot Plots (see yesterday’s post) are NOT first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with already-established track records.

In other words, it would not necessarily behoove you to emulate their step-skipping ways.

Are you sitting down? I have some bad news: established writers can get away with shortcuts with infinitely greater ease than someone trying to break into either the publishing or movie biz for the first time. As a general rule, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys.

There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly BETTER than what is already on the market.

To be blunt about it, as good is not necessarily good enough. Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but it’s just a fact of the literary market.

I ran into an example of this a couple of years ago in my critique group: one of my colleagues, a genuinely fine writer of many published books, showed us a chapter where her protagonist escapes from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker (who happens to be her boyfriend) in the groin. The attacker slinks off almost immediately, never to return; conflict resolved.

Now, three aspects of this scene immediately set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. The first relates to plausibility: reflexes tend to kick in pretty darned quickly. My self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so that area is not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the chapter’s attacker automatically block the blow?

Second, the attacker is able to walk out of the room right away after being battered in the groin, with no recovery time. Simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances.

Third — and what marks this exchange as a Short Road Home rather than merely physically improbable — this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book; one swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agree to call it a day.

Is it just me, or are most relationships, abusive or otherwise, just a touch harder to terminate permanently? I’ve had dentists’ offices try harder to keep in touch with me.

Now, to be absolutely honest, because my colleague is an established writer, she would probably be able to get this Short Road Home past her agent and editor if I hadn’t flagged it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

I brought up this example so you would have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene.

One true test of a Short Road Home is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the FIRST effort the protagonist makes solve the problem? Not her first THOUGHT about it, mind you — the first time she takes an active step.

If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does each minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

It may surprise you to hear that editors (and presumably agents as well) see this kind of Short Road Home on an almost daily basis. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it.

“Funny,” such a protagonist is prone to say, evidently looking around the house where he spent most of his formative years and raised his own seventeen children for the very first time, “I never noticed that gigantic safe behind the portrait of Grandmamma before.”

Seriously, professional readers see this kind of premise ALL the time. A simply astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously to people they’ve never seen before;

b) Long-lost parents/siblings/children/lovers whose residence has remained a source of conjecture to even the most dedicated police detectives to turn up in an instantly-fathomable disguise toward the end of the book;

c) Flawlessly accurate local historians (often disguised as shop keepers, grandparents, and other old folks) to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory at precisely the point that the plot requires it;

d) Characters who have based their entire self-esteem upon suffering in silence for the past 27 years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain with total strangers;

e) Living or dead Native American, East Indian, and/or Asian wise persons (generally elderly-but-still-virile men) to appear to share deep spiritual wisdom with the protagonist;

f) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at precisely the right moment for the protagonist to find them, and/or

g) Birds/dogs/horses/clouds/small children/crones of various descriptions to begin to act in odd ways, nudging Our Hero/ine toward the necessary next puzzle piece as surely as if they had arranged themselves into a gigantic arrow.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?” If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a Short Road Home on your hands.

What should you do when you find one? Well, clear away the too-easy plot devices first, then try throwing a few metaphorical barrels in your protagonist’s path. Give him a couple of unrelated problems, for instance. Make the locals a shade more hostile. Have the old lady who has spent the last fifty years proudly clinging to letters from her long-lost love burn them ten minutes before she dies, instead of handing them over to the protagonist with an injunction to publish them with all possible speed.

Make your protagonist’s life more difficult any way you can. Go ahead; s/he’ll forgive you.

On the plot level, having your protagonist track down a false lead or two is often a great place to start making his life a more interesting hell. Trial and error can be a fantastic plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

Have you ever seen an old-fashioned Chinese action movie, something, say, from the beginning of Jackie Chan’s career? In such films, the hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain in the first half of the film — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) Then we see the hero painfully acquiring the skills, allies, and/or resources he will need in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

Or, to use a example that may be more familiar, in the early HARRY POTTER books, when Harry and his friends encounter new threats, they don’t really have the life experience to differentiate between a teacher who dislikes them and someone who wants Britain to be overrun by soul-sucking wraiths. Yet miraculously, by responding to the smaller threats throughout the school year, Harry et alia learn precisely the skills they will need to battle the major threat at the end of the book.

You didn’t notice that the plots of the first three were more or less identical? Nice guy, that Voldemort, carefully calibrating his yearly threat to wizardkind so it tests Harry’s skills-at-that-age to the limit without ever exceeding them.

Now, strictly speaking, most of the pulp-beating and lesson-learning is extraneous to the primary conflict of the story, which is invariably some variation of Good Guy vs. Bad Guy. Jackie Chan and Harry could have simply marched out to meet the enemy in the first scene of the movie or book, right? We all know that he’s going to be taking that tromp eventually.

But half of the fun for the audience is watching the hero get to the point where he can take on the enemy successfully, isn’t it?

The point of the story is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as fast, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Try taking your characters down the side roads every once in awhile; have ‘em learn some lessons along the way. Stretch wires along the path in front of them, so they may develop the skills not to trip.

And let ‘em fail from time to time — or succeed occasionally, if your protagonist is disaster-prone. It’s more interesting for the reader than continual triumph or defeat.

Tomorrow, I’m going to tackle a harder-to-spot version of the Short Road Home — yes, this was the EASY one to fix. Get some good rest to build up strength for the revision to come.

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “The Short Road Home, part II: a plot that’s better than good”

  1. A novel, travelling from point A to B, at times steps off the road and has a diversion. It does not necessarily drive the story but if it is a good read, does it belong? All work and no play etc. ?

    1. Ooh, that’s a tough call, Gordon — so much so that I am tempted to fob it off with the standard industry response: “Well, it all depends upon the writing.” Or to say that the author’s conception of what makes a detour a good read may not be the reader’s.

      But I know that you’re asking a more complex question than that. Of course, the revision issue is seldom as black-and-white as this scene advances the plot, this one doesn’t at all.

      In practice, most novels don’t have a single storyline; they feature subplots, character development, etc. that are technically digressions from the primary story arc. And there’s nothing wrong with that, provided that (a) these side trips legitimately add to the reader’s enjoyment, (b) they add something different than what the reader may derive from the primary storyline (and thus are not repetitious), AND (c) they don’t FEEL like digressions.

      Much of the time, (c) is the problem, especially when the side roads lead into flashbacks. By definition, the reader tends to know that when a character remembers an event, however traumatic, he survived it — or he wouldn’t be here to remember it, right? Knowing present-day conditions very frequently saps the urgency of a flashback.

      Even if a side story is not going backwards in time, it can be problematic for tension. If a story’s going sideways, it’s hard to maintain tension, for the simple reason that when the plot digresses, the author (or at any rate the narrator) doesn’t seem all that keen to resolve the burning issues of the plot — and if that’s the case, how urgent can they be?

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