Earlier this week I loaded my e-reader with a few novels to pass the time as I flew from Grand Rapids to New Orleans via Dallas. I read, from start to finish, The Silver Ships by S. H. Jucha (self-published, $2,99 on Kindle, 4.3/5 stars over 643 Amazon reviews). Interesting story, and for being self-published, it’s remarkably well done. Significantly, Jucha credits people, either editors or beta readers, for improving the story.
I also completely digested The Atlantis Gene by A. G. Riddle (self-published, $3.99 on Kindle, 4.2/5 stars over 9,883 reviews, No. 1 bestseller in Sci-Fi Romance; on Goodreads, 3.6/5 stars over 16,571 ratings). According to Riddle’s biography on Amazon, his trilogy — of which 2013’s The Atlantis Gene is the first volume — has been translated into 18 languages and has sold more than 1 million copies; in fact, it’s even going to be made into a movie. Pinnacle of success, right?
Please allow me [spoiler alert!] to quote “Ira,” a Goodreads member who offered a succinct three-star review of Riddle’s debut novel:
This book has everything. Almost literally. Nazis, time travel, Atlantis, a mystical spear that was used to stab Jesus, secret portals that let you walk from Gibraltar to Antarctica, space monkeys, miniature nuclear weapons that can be created in days and placed in a 5-year-old’s backpack, worldwide plagues, Neanderthals, genetic engineering, gun fights, love stories, crazy plot twists, the Spanish flu, magical potions that cure all wounds and ills, characters with massive Freudian complexes, lost loves, World War 1 AND World War II, a secret society that has lasted since the dawn of time, super spies, betrayals, noble deaths, a toss-away sex scene, autistic Indonesian kids in peril, hot-air-balloon escapes from mountaintop monasteries with mystical ninja monks. … At one point, I almost expected Pope John Paul and Jesse James to pull out matching Lugers to keep the Kaiser from escaping in a Vulcan spaceship with a horde of infected Nicaraguan mosquitoes that he would take back in time in order to inflict the Crusaders with malaria which would delay the dawn of the Renaissance and prevent Leonardo Da Vinci from creating the blueprint that the Wright brothers eventually would use to invent the first airplane. Maybe in the sequel.
Ira really isn’t joking; all those plot devices infest Riddle’s relatively short novel. He missed some of my favorites, though, including people getting shot in the head and then being brought back to life, surviving a nuclear meltdown, evil scientists stealing fetuses and pretending they were miscarriages, and walking away from a crash landing in a remote forest when you’ve never flown an aircraft before. The story is so filled with an endless parade of poorly matched clichés that I don’t think Caffeinated Press would have accepted the manuscript for publication. Did Riddle self-publish because he couldn’t find a publisher? Or because he just wanted to self-publish? I have no clue.
Let’s concede that for some readers, a wild ride of improbabilities makes for a fun read. And let’s further agree that readers fall along the entire discrimination spectrum; some people have a very high tolerance for fun-but-sloppy storytelling, while others fly off the handle over a single comma error. That said, a perusal of Goodreads reviews — even positive ones –suggests a theme: The story had promise but really could have used a strong editor. The prose isn’t bad at all, from a syntax standpoint, and some straightforward challenges (e.g., wooden dialogue in places) could have been streamlined without undue drama. The problem is the plot. Or the lack thereof. The story seems driven by one cliché after another, punctuated frequently by the lame contrivance of having characters suddenly stop to share their backstory and innermost secrets in detail, so everything ties together neatly for the reader.
Genre Norming vs. Clichéd Writing
Christopher Booker, in his The Seven Basic Plots, argues that every story should fall along one of seven different types of narrative: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, or Rebirth. Within the scope of Booker’s archetypal stories, an ordinary plot follows a standard curve featuring a starting point, rising action, a climax, falling action and a resolution. Different genres support different archetypes with varying degrees of success. For example, in a typical genre Romance story, you’ll often see a cycle of two people meeting; they struggle with their newfound attraction in some way before they finally connect and remove the barrier between them. Such a script doesn’t work as well when it’s set as the main plot of a detective story.
Following a genre paradigm isn’t the same thing as writing cliché. The latter arises when the specific parts of your plot or characterization stop being original and start relying on over-used themes to advance the story.
Spaghetti on the Walls
Spend enough time at write-ins during National Novel Writing Month and you’ll inevitably encounter writers — many of them teens — who don’t plot at all. Instead, they just write off the top of their head, taking pride in zany stories that don’t have a coherent narrative but do include a lot of unexpected twists that defy genre categorization. NaNoWriMo writing prompts often feed scenes that have very little threading them together, but which cumulatively hit 50k words.
I call this approach to writing “spaghetti on the walls” because you’re basically throwing a bunch of stuff into the pot, chucking it at the backsplash, and seeing what sticks. If you’re writing for fun, this method can be extremely rewarding, especially as an exercise in creative writing. But if you’re writing for a commercial audience, the spaghetti method doesn’t work well. Readers who care about characters and storylines — instead of valuing random plot twists — don’t appreciate storytelling approaches that routinely challenge their suspension of disbelief.
The Plot Problem for Novice Authors
Much to the dismay of a large set of readers, and especially to those readers who publish, very many stories crossing most publishers’ transoms prominently feature some sort of “shocking plot twist” as a selling point.
Plot twists sometimes work for thrillers or detective stories. They don’t work well across the board, because most inexperienced authors can’t deploy them effectively:
- Twists are often obvious because they’re poorly foreshadowed, or are unfair to the reader because they pop out of left field with no warning whatsoever. Readers like to co-create worlds with the author; when the author takes away the clues to what happens next, he strips the readers of their essential role in the storytelling process.
- Twists require a greater suspension of disbelief, which some readers may be unwilling to extend.
- Twists often require awkward transition scenes to insert themselves into the main plot — usually, through the form of some character suddenly deciding to go voice-of-the-narrator in sharing some privileged information. Think of those James Bond scenes where the Evil Villain puts 007 in a seemingly impossible-to-escape position, so the bad guy opts to reveal his whole plan including his motivation and his backstory, all in one tidy, condensed passage of dialogue. Such a construction remains thin gruel, despite its prevalence in published pop fiction.
- Twists are trite. They’re a crutch to obscure that the main plot is shallow.
But even if deployed deftly, a plot twist can fail if it’s rooted in some sort of commonly abused fiction trope. Clichés like secret societies (or secret Nazis!), characters being unexpectedly related, main characters falling into love or lust, some minor character making an innocent mistake that stymies the main characters, the arrogant kid who can’t follow orders, the serendipitous discovery of secret information — all of these artifices diminish the creative power of the work as an original story.
Riddle’s book, distilled, has no real plot. It’s a bunch of weakly connected flights of fancy that move from scene to scene; the only real “unexpected twist” is in figuring out which overwrought cliché he’ll throw at you next.
The logical disconnect for some authors is to think that the sequence of events is what drives a compelling read. It’s not. Readers tend to favor plausible plots (within the bounds of the story’s universe) and deep characters whose conflicts ignite the reader’s own sympathies. There really aren’t that many novels, apart perhaps from some very rigid genre work, that depend on events in the main plot as the primary driver of the story’s narrative conflict. Plot is necessary, of course, but the best stories use plot as a scaffold for advancing character conflict. Readers care about people; they don’t care about events per se.
The more that authors seed their stories with oh-so-common plot contrivances, relying on twists instead of depth to drive the plot, the less top-shelf readers will pay attention. And also, for that matter, the less that publishers will be persuaded to license a manuscript.