Anything But the Book Week: Plot

January 22, 2009 at 7:54 am (Anything But the Book Week)

I’ve described myself as a plot junkie before, and it still holds true, particularly when I’m watching a movie or TV show. While I can enjoy a plot that consists mainly of “shit blows up real good” (yes, I liked Shoot ‘Em Up; I’m not proud of that), I really love when a story turns draws together the separate threads of plot and turns them into something entirely new, subverting my expectations and revealing that what I’d thought was the central story wasn’t even a scrap of the larger plot. That’s what will hook me on a show and will keep me with it long past the point where I’d have gotten sick of it.

Why yes, I did watch the season premiere of Lost last night. Why do you ask?

Anyway, there are times when this can backfire. There’s a certain point where not knowing what the show or story is going to do turns into not trusting the story. At that point, even when the I’m told me something straight out, I have trouble believing it. Even if the author or the show’s creators back this up. (I’m looking at you here, Battlestar Galactica.)

I’m not sure what the tipping point is. I just finished The Somnambulist, which has a plot that turns itself practically inside out, and I still don’t know what was going on at the end. (It also made me yell and slam the book shut at one point, then stare at it until I was sure I could read further without getting more creeped out. That’s a good thing.) So why do I trust the author there, when I’m having trouble with BSG and, even though I liked last night’s episode, Lost?

What about you? Does a knotty plot draw you in or put you off? What makes you trust an author or team of writers, and what can break that trust?


  1. rbarenblat said,

    I adored the Lost premiere last night. (And though I’m only in early S3 of BSG, I’m digging that a lot too, though am not making much time to watch it, alas.) For me, I think, the question is really: do I trust the creators of the show (or book, or series) to know where the thing is going?

    When it comes to Lost, I absolutely trust the creators. They have shown me time and again that they’re building something bigger and more intricate than I had realized, and they’ve created characters in whom I’ve become so invested that I’m happy to be along for the ride for the final two seasons. I also find that it helps, knowing that there are only 2 seasons left; that gives them a finite amount of time during which to resolve things. It helps me as a viewer, and I’m guessing it helps them as creators, too.

    • mlronald said,

      I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me. There was a stretch in Lost where I didn’t trust the creators to answer anything (or even to pay attention to anything outside the Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle), but with the last few episodes that’s a little better. I’m no longer as happily baffled as I was in the first few episodes of the first season, but I can sense an end to it, and I think that enough questions will be answered that I’ll have some kind of closure. Even if it’s not the kind I expect.

      I can think of only a few examples where I’ve trusted the creators and had that trust stomped on (maybe some of my reaction is the result of getting burned by X-Files. I’ll have to think about that.) But in those cases I tend to make my own personal canon to replace what failed to end or threw me out of the story.

  2. kouredios said,

    Haven’t watched Lost yet! Watched Top Chef instead, so I’ll be watching my DVR’d Lost today probably.

    I’m interested in your distinction between book and TV show plot-trust, because I think for me, it’s reversed. First, I think that I don’t actually know what a story’s about until it’s finished. I tell my students this often–it’s the way a story ends that really tells you the theme. This is why screwing up the ending of a beloved story when putting out a movie version ends up making me so angry, I guess (thinking of Troy here, primarily.)

    But when it comes to a TV show, well, it’s never finished until it’s off the air, and even then, sometimes, it’s still not finished. So I’m really likely to give a TV show a whole lot more benefit of the doubt that they’re eventually going to tie up loose plot ends or explain seemingly inexplicable character changes. There is a tipping point, however. The end of the last volume of Heroes was clearly meant to be a sort of ending, so when it happened, and I was all, “What? That’s it?” I was disappointed (especially because I had given them so much slack, waiting for them to pull it together. Alas, no.) On the other side of the coin, I like the later seasons of Buffy a lot more than other fans I know do– because I look at all 7 seasons as a complete story, and though I think there were some execution problems in the 7th season, I see what they were doing thematically, and it made sense to me.

    • mlronald said,

      (Bah. I need to remember that comments here are unthreaded.)

      That’s a very good point. I usually judge a book by how its end works, and the same goes for series. But you’re right that TV shows have less well-defined endings (unless you have the predetermined arc, and, well, I hated the last season of Babylon 5, so that can go wonky too), and so it’s easier to cut them some slack. Again, I think it’s about trusting the creators not to mess with our heads for no good reason, trust that they have an end of some kind in sight. I’m much more likely to keep asking “are we there yet” if I don’t know where we’re going.

      And shameful confession time: I have not seen all of Buffy. I caught some of seasons 5 and 6, and I would really like to watch it all the way through. It’s the whole “free time” thing that’s a problem.

  3. Kate said,

    When I think plot, I think something matters, and I mean life-and-death. Something is at risk, and it moves someone(s) to act. Often that risk is part of a larger concern, yeah.

    I’ll follow as long as that risk is still real, and if it leads to other risks, then I’ll follow those. Will Leia die links with will Luke get off-planet alive. The plot is cause and effect, and if the risks are genuine and I care about the people, they’ll take me a long way together.

    I agree though that I’ll go farthest and be most moved when the risks are part of a larger concern that I care about. That’s why a mystery with a human villain is more interesting than one about a psychotic, and it’s why To Kill a Mockingbird,/i> is one of my favorite books, and it’s one of the reasons I love Firefly.

    When the risk is more specific than there’s a gun to my head, when there are complicated, insoluble reasons for it and no good answers, when people act for some reason beyond instinctively preserving their own lives — then the hook sets deep. Sometimes, people see the danger and keep walking toward it. That’s best and hardest.

    I’ll stop reading or watching something if the risk stops seeming worth taking; I put down an Elizabeth george mystery angrily when too many of the characters started acting violently unlike themselves for reasons I couldn’t believe, or for no reason at all. I’ll also stop if the writer seems to have no compassion.

  4. mlronald said,

    I think you’ve got something there with the intertwining risk, the larger concern, and so on. I sometimes have trouble in shorter fiction making the stakes high enough. Which is bothersome, because one of the things that will make me put down a book is if the actions are out of proportion to what’s at stake.

    Hm. I’ll need to think about this some more. Thanks!

  5. Julia said,

    The book I immediately thought of when I read your post here is Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson. The plot had me locked in and rapt, UNTIL the last third or so of the book when it was revealed that the plot I was enjoying so much was a simulated reality running in some far distant future super computer entity. This revelation broke the book for me and I didn’t even finish it. Other reviewers on Amazon called this a “Fatal Flaw” and I agree:

    • mlronald said,

      Oddly enough, there was a lot I liked about Darwinia, even after that point in the story. Yes, it no longer felt quite right — to me, it felt as if the rules for the story had suddenly changed, and it meant that I had to reconsider a lot of my expectations. But for some reason I stayed engaged with the story, even after it shifted, and I still like it very much. Maybe it’s that I looked at it in an allegorical sense, although since it’s been a while I can’t remember what the allegory mapped onto.

      Hm. Now I have to go re-read it.

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