The Plot Thickens: Sweetening the Plot

English: U.S. novelist Neal Stephenson at Scie...
Neal Stephenson always writes fantastically woven plots full of real science mixed with well written science fiction.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to fear for the future of humanity in the days when Twilight was all the rage.  Now look at it.  Gone, baby, gone.

And good riddance, I suppose.  You know something is passé when it garners a top 10 list of reasons why it is good that it has passed on.

However, there are so many well written books/television scripts out there recently, and many of them are popular not just because they have zombies in them or because they are about the latest fad.  They are well liked because, after all, they are good stories.

Here is a short list:

  1. The Hunger Games – Well written allegory for the 99%-ers, commentary on the idea of teens being increasingly seen as irresponsible, with a plot interwoven with intrigue and high action that keeps readers coming back for more.
  2. Breaking Bad – Allegory of Macbeth, Moby Dick and Faust and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, clever commentary about being a teacher and the woes of the profession, and not to mention a complex, multi-layered narrative that is completely unpredictable.
  3. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson – This novel mixes real science with science fiction in a narrative that quite frankly will make you feel smarter for reading it.  It is an incredibly masterful weaving of science fiction with masterful storytelling that will not disappoint.
  4. The Walking Dead – If zombie films are a commentary on consumerism, this series is taking the genre to a new level, sticking close to Robert Kirkman’s magnum opus comic book series.  It is not really about the zombies, but about the interrelationships of believable characters, thrust into situations that cause them to react in strange and in most cases very realistic ways.

What do all of these stories have in common?  Great plots.  The plots are not one dimensional, but multi-layered.  I would submit that they contain the following, which are necessary to achieve the writing status of these well received works:

  1. Rich Subtext – All four of the texts mentioned above (I use the term text when referring to television shows because someone has to put pen to paper to write them) have more than one simple story rolling from point A to point B.  It is necessary when we outline our novels to make sure that we insert some subtext to our main plot, namely something that the story is referencing, an idea, a philosophy, some kind of main view that is being expressed by the events and the character’s reaction to those events.  I usually make notes in the margins of my outlines about this for each chapter, doing my best to cause the subtext to roll throughout the plot through adjectives/adverbs used in descriptions, symbolic places or items, or things characters say in the dialogue.
  2. Peeling the Onion – The plots of the aforementioned texts are constantly revealing new and surprising information about the main characters or about the environment that the characters are populating.  If your plot is one dimensional, it will also be very predictable.  This will cause the reader to become completely bored with your narrative.  I’m not saying that we need to write with the purpose of shocking the reader, but what if we look through our outline to find predictable actions and do the opposite to see where it might lead.  You never know what might happen to a character if they do the unpredictable thing.  You only have to make sure that the action taken by the character makes sense within the world that you have created and that there is proper motivation for it.  Otherwise, it will not make sense to the reader.
  3. Little Sub-Plots – No novel is complete without these.  It’s ok to tell a side story when (A) it doesn’t drag too far away from the main plot and (B) it gives the reader some explanation for why something happens in the main plot.  A novel without subplots is a weak novel, plain and simple.
  4. Realistic Characters – I know this is dipping a little into characterization, but if there is one thing that can ruin a plot it is bad characterization.  I’m three chapters in to reading Stephen King’s The Wasteland, and I can say that I am not really liking any of the characters because all of them are nearly unredeemable.  One is a drug dealer, another is a woman with a split personality and the third is a murderer who killed a child in the first book.  I’m sure King will come through because he has a reputation to uphold.  We eventually endear ourselves to his bizarre characters, but right now I’m holding out hope that one of them will become someone with whom I can relate.  All of them, however, are a bit too realistic for me, but the reason we like characters in the first place is because we relate to them somehow as human beings.  Multi-dimensional characters are much more interesting and give us reasons for reading further.



Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

4 thoughts on “The Plot Thickens: Sweetening the Plot

  1. Though I’ve never read it, I don’t like to get down on the Twilight series because it means a lot to a lot of people. It fills a void, offers a sense of a larger community, etc. Perhaps it enticed people to read who otherwise would not have. I’m clearly not the intended audience as well.

    That said, your 4 points of good storytelling are dead on. The novels that hit those elements are the ones we remember.

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