Welcome to (unofficial) Plot week here at Eight Ladies Writing. Jilly started things off on Sunday talking about plot preferences (I’m fond of an external mystery plot) and then Jeanne continued on Tuesday with plot peeves (the big-misunderstanding is my peeve). Today we’re talking about what I think of, for lack of a better term, as plot tangles–cases where the author throws in everything including the kitchen sink.
A few weeks back I was talking with a Random-Guy-on-the-Internet about a book we had both read multiple times and enjoyed. He had just finished a re-read of the book two days before and wanted to share some thoughts on the story.
Right off the bat a problem became obvious when he said “I can’t believe so-and-so was the murderer” (the story was a mystery). The problem? So-and-so was not the murderer. A quick rifling through the book ensued and the correct culprit was identified, but the question remained: How could someone forget who the murderer was in a book that they had just read?
The book was popular.
The book was interesting (after all, we’d both read it more than once).
The writing was strong.
So, what was the issue?
A deconstruction of the story ensued and the consensus was that the story just had too much plot. There were so many sub-storylines and supporting characters that the main plot was lost in the weeds.
Mystery stories are notorious for containing red-herrings. It’s pretty much a requirement that there be an assortment of individuals and a fair amount of Is it him? Is it her? shadowing with false trails and irrelevant bits of information thrown in to cloud the issue and make solving the puzzle challenging for the reader.
There are limits though.
The story in question had seven potential red-herring suspected murderers, all with complicated plots and details and whatnot. They were interesting, and it was all woven together with great skill by the author, but the result was that the main story was overwhelmed and the actual murderer was lost in the confusion.
If the book was a garden I’d have pulled out my pruning shears and gone to town.
I’m pretty sure there were enough characters and plot points for at least two books.
But maybe that’s just me (and the Random-Guy-on-the-Internet).
So, how do you feel about complicated stories/plots? Are you a “the more the better” kind of reader or do you prefer your stories to be pruned a bit?
I’ve always kind of figured obfuscation as the primary tool in the mystery writer’s toolbox. Introducing alternative suspects and, initially, not enough clues to identify the culprit is the modus operandi of Midsomer Murders, for example, where each villager in that episode has some secret they’re keeping that makes them look guilty.
Same thing with Louise Penny’s Three Pines series which, as I recall, you really like. I’ve never counted the number of suspects any of these but seven seems like it’s in the ballpark.
Was the issue the overdevelopment of the subplots? Or were the subplots too tangential?
(I ask because I seem to have a similar problem with the second book in my series and I’m working out where I went wrong.)
Jeanne, you’re right, obfuscation is the primary tool for mysteries but, at least for me, there is a limit. Having plenty of suspects is fine, but when their individual supblots compete with the main plot, that becomes a problem.
Trying to think of analogy . . . it’s like setting the table for a dinner party and you add vases and candles and glitter and balloons and so much stuff that, when the guests finally leave, they don’t even remember the food that was served.
Or, from a story perspective, it’s like making your character, blind. With a limp. And a brain tumor. And shingles. At some point, those attributes start to overwhelm the actual story and the amount of time (story real estate) that is given to really diving into those issues starts to take away from the main story.
In the book I was talking about in the post, there were one or two subplots that could have been completely removed while still leaving the main plot strong and well developed (my opinion, of course).
I’m reading a mystery right now that’s like this. WAY too much plot, and I think it’s because this book was the writer’s first, and he didn’t know how to develop any kind of arc. It’s just one thing after another, bam, bam, bam. There’s also too many characters and they aren’t differentiated enough. The foreword was telling: he thanks his editor, who, he says, backed off when she learned that he wasn’t pursuing traditional publishing. Yeah, that’s no excuse. 🙂 Pruning—and yet, fertilizing—would have been the way to go here.
Pruning and fertilizing–definitely two tools to put into the Writer’s Toolbox.
I will quit a book with too many characters that are introduced as important. I don’t mind conversation with random coffee shop guy in order to get some back story, but don’t intro him with a nearly complete backstory. I don’t like “and this important person with a long name and similar name to the guy in the last chapter” really just has a five minute conversation. (I mean, really, Sauron and Saruman?-though I did finish the series…)