I was watching a TV show on Netflix with my daughter last week. Children’s shows vary a lot in quality, and the plotting in this one was particularly egregious. The show was stuffed with fake plot. Let’s look at what that is.
What is it?
A story thrives by exciting things happening. However, the things that happen do need to have a purpose. When a problem appears in the protagonist’s path and they solve it without it having consequences, then it’s fake plot.
Every scene should do one or more of the following:
- Advance the overall story
- Raise the stakes
- Show us something important about a character or the world that we didn’t know
- Foreshadow something later in the story
Preferably, a scene should do more than one of these things. Some people argue that this is too strict. Sidesteps without purpose are a kind of flavor. I disagree, and I feel that this is based on a misunderstanding of the above. If a scene doesn’t do any of the four things above, it is detrimental to the story.
Building a story is like building a Jenga tower. You want to build a structure as high as possible, with as few building blocks as possible. A story is as much about the blocks (the parts you write) as about the open spaces (the parts you don’t write). A Jenga Tower is still a tower, and a story with tight pacing is still a complete story. However, you need fewer words to tell the same thing.
The trick of a story is to imply things that are not written down. By implying more with less words, you can progress through a story at a fast pace, and imply a depth that is formed by the reader’s imagination. If you add fake plot, you are making reader’s read words that don’t add to the tower at all. The reader will perceive them as tedious or boring, although they often won’t be able to tell you why. They don’t add flavor, they add tedium.
Note, though, that there is still a lot of leeway. This isn’t a hard and fast rule; more on that later.
First off, my daughter’s television show. In the story, two children are walking two dogs. Then *gasp* the dogs run off. Tense music plays. The children cry out for the dogs. Tensions rises.
… And the dogs re-appear.
Yep, that scene really doesn’t add anything. Nothing changes. It doesn’t tell us anything about the kids, or the dogs. It’s just wasted tension.
The last volume of Harry Potter starts out with Harry and his two pals doing some stuff, until they end up camping out in the wilderness. I won’t go into details to prevent spoilers.
Suffice it to say, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spend half the book in the wilderness — probably less, but it felt that way — and they seemed to go around in circles. Nothing really changed, and nothing really happened. We didn’t learn anything about them. And then… the story moved on. I loved the earlier Harry Potter books, but the last two… they suffered from fake plot and felt tedious.
How to fix it
I may have made this seem black-and-white, but like all things in writing, it really isn’t. There are cases that are clear-cut, of course. I’ve seen beginning writers write scenes that were complete wastes of words. Heck, I’ve written them.
However, things quickly become more murky. People love Harry Potter and the world-building that happens there. Who is to say that something is a quirky sub-plot that deepens the characters / world or that it’s superfluous rubbish?
In the end, I’ve found that if you feel your scene is dragging, fake plot is sometimes the cause. In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes that when he got stuck in the Stand, he let a bomb go off to advance the plot. Personally, I feel the Stand — especially the complete edition — is filled with fake plot, but who am I to judge. His idea is sound, though: when things start to drag, make something happen.
The idea is not to cut the meat out of your story, the trick is to cut just enough to make the rest stand out. To do that, always look to make scenes and events do double duty, or triple duty, or more.
Often, a twist in a book does exactly that: reveal something about the character, advance the story, raise the stakes, and foreshadow where the climax is going. That’s why those work so well.