On Writing: Love is Not a Plot

Monday, January 28, 2013

on writing: Love is not a plot

I read... a lot. And not just because Stephen King told me I had to, if I wanted to be a good writer. An amazing book takes me one day to finish, and my children go feral while I forget to eat. An okay book might sit in my car for a couple of weeks and get picked up while waiting in carpool lines. A book that I don't enjoy usually gets tossed into the DNF pile and glared at sullenly.


Occasionally, I'm obligated to finish a book I would otherwise have set on fire after the first page, and that's when things get weird.


After battling just such a book for a week, I struggled to put into words why I hated the damn thing so much. My conclusion? 




Here's how to tell if your book suffers from the horrible disease of NOPLOTTITUDE.


1. There is no action. Nothing happens.


2. The biggest threat is that someone will lose their lover. There are no outside stakes.


3. The only action verb in your summary is "learns" or "struggles". 


4. You rely heavily on backstory to add interest because nothing is actually happening in the present.


5. The book is over 80% dialog.


6. The climax of the book is someone having an emotional epiphany. And nothing else.


And, yes, I know that there's a cerebral edge to romance, that emotional struggle and internal dialog are vital to the story. And I know that my tastes aren't universal, and that my books are termed "adventures" and have the romantic couples constantly journeying as if I'm terrified of having them hold still for five minutes and get eaten by mutant lobsters. And my way is not the only way.




There still has to be some driving force other than "two people find a way to love each other despite psychological obstacles." You should be able to sum up your book according to this log line formula:  When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____. If your answer is When Amy falls in love, she must learn to love or face losing the person she loves, there's a problem. 


I don't care if it's as simple as a non-threatening motorcycle accident or a blackmail letter or a crazy ex showing up at the door with a gun, there has to be some external plot that draws the story along. In fact, lack of plot is my main (but not only!) objection to the 50 Shades books. "I'm scared to love you" is simply not a plot; it's an experience. And a good writer should be able to craft a story *around* that experience that keeps the reader engaged, the story moving along, and the characters growing through activities other than dialog and sex.


In short, if you're plotting your story around a great idea or character, check your log line. Fill in the blanks, and make sure that there are actual stakes. They say love is all you need, but.. it's really not. You should probably throw in a crazy ex with a blackmail letter on a motorcycle.