There’s an epidemic going around, and it’s known as “The Plots.”
Picture this scene: your main character stands beside a secondary-character in the middle of a riveting story. The secondary-character asks your MC a question…and suddenly…
Backstory barf! All over the page.
The secondary-character is then drowned in the MC’s backstory for three, four, or more paragraphs. And it just keeps spilling out!
My good friend Jennifer Stolzer is the master of identifying plot pitfalls in a story. (She’s also an awesome fantasy author and children’s book illustrator, and you can find her here!).
Fortunately, she’s usually 100% spot-on with these pitfalls. Unfortunately, I’ve caught myself committing a few of these plot-sins in my own work. But since Jen has put names to these pitfalls, I’ve been finding it easier to identify – and slaughter – them in my own writing.
Here are a few examples (all terms coined by the lovely Jennifer Stolzer):
- A Case of the Plots / Backstory Barf
This is what happens when your main character – or any character – unloads his or her backstory on another character in a monologue. Reveal backstory slowly when possible. Blocks of backstory become boring to the reader, and become sections readers skim. Try to work it in naturally. Think about it: when was the last time you met someone, and they asked you straight out to explain your entire history? And then you went on a five minute monologue answering in detail? It doesn’t usually happen in real life – so it shouldn’t happen to your characters.
- Plot Cul-de-sac
(I’m looking at you, Tolkien).
This is what happens when your characters essentially go on a plot tangent. Maybe they explore a new place, or visit a friend, or do something else that doesn’t do anything to move the plot forward other than waste several pages worth of space. When the character leaves the cul-de-sac, nothing in the story has changed – he/she just keeps pressing on with the plot. Every sentence in your book should matter, and every sentence should help to move the plot forward. Sometimes prose is really beautiful, but does nothing for the story. Delete it!
- Exposition Couch
Similar to Backstory Barf, this is what happens when two characters sit down / walk around / do something completely menial as an excuse for an exposition dump. Jen came up with this term after reading a book that had two very long scenes – both of which took place on the same couch – during which one character proceeded to describe fantasy lore of his species to the other character. Nothing happened in the scene other than an exposition dump / telling disguised as dialogue.
Think of the Star Wars prequels. Padme and Anakin do a lot of “conversations on couches,” during which nothing interesting happens other than a lot of stilted conversation. Also similar to the example in Backstory Barf, there usually isn’t a time in natural conversation where one person asks another person a question, and then that person goes on a ten minute monologue to answer.
Remember, real conversation is like a tennis match – it should bounce back and forth, with each person adding to the discussion. Show, don’t tell.
- Bamboo Trap
Picture the reader is walking through a jungle, and all of a sudden falls into a trap hidden by twigs and leaves. The inside of the hole is filled with sharpened bamboo. The reader is stuck inside, and it’s painful. This is what happens when characters spend time rehashing details of the plot that the reader already knows. Nothing really changes in the story other than we get a big repetitive reminder of the plot details. Trust your reader – if your reader has been reading your story, he or she doesn’t always need all the details repeated. Skip this scene!
- Big Gaping Plot Hole
There’s no real way to describe this, other than the fact that it’s a big gaping plot hole. Something that doesn’t add up at the end of the story. Something that leaves your reader saying “hold on, this doesn’t make sense….”
I bet every writer has found at least one in his or her own manuscript (I know I have found several…), or can identify a book / movie with one. The best solution to this is to have a team of good beta readers scoping for plot holes. And if you find one, don’t hastily patch it up without thinking it through – your readers will spot a lazy patch job right away!
In conclusion, there are many plot pitfalls to avoid. These are just a few.
For more information on these and other plot pitfalls, check out the Write Pack Radio episode where Jen, me, and other members of the St. Louis Writer’s Guild discuss the dreaded Exposition Couch and others! Listen here!