Avoiding TOO STUPID TO LIVE Characters
by Veronica Scott
There was an interesting discussion recently in one of the public Facebook science fiction romance groups I frequent, about the first book in a new series where the heroine does some Too Stupid To Live stuff and there are other ‘convenient’ dumb moves on the part of those who are supposed to protect her…leading to a lot of probably unnecessary conflict and pain for the hero and heroine prior to the Happily Ever After. No one named the book or the author, but the plot sounded familiar. Several people (not all) said they’d tossed the book aside at that point and wouldn’t read any more by that author.
I’m pretty sure I read it, rolled my eyes at the place where the heroine did her TSTL decisions, and kept reading anyway, because I liked the author’s voice, the world building and the characters enough to hang in there. My daughters and I have a phrase for it when we’re watching TV or a movie where the plot takes a turn that’s along these lines. “Makes the movie work,” we say with a shrug. It’s not that we don’t recognize the “lazy plotting device” as someone in the FB discussion referred to the heroine’s TSTL decision, but we can overlook it because we’re enjoying the rest of the entertainment package. We’ll hang in there for the eventual payoff. Had I not been enjoying the book otherwise, it would have been a Did Not Finish for me too, as it was for some in that group.
Your hero and heroine can’t talk to each other for 200 pages about the Elephant in the Room and hence are motivated to act against all logic and thereby hangs a big part of the plot? Umm, maybe that’s not the best writing choice. Could be, but then again, is there something else your characters could do? These SFR readers had a lot of suggestions actually!
My editor at Carina Press, the wonderful Alison Dasho, challenged me on a few plot points involved in my second novel for them, Warrior of the Nile, and helped me realize that sometimes the first instinctive plot decision needs to be looked at with a very critical eye. It’s worth putting in time to see what other alternatives there might be to arrive at the HEA ending you’re seeking. My current independent developmental editor is also good at flagging these things. I’m a total pantster. I start my novels knowing who the hero and heroine are, the first scene, the last scene and a few events in between. I then commence the writing with scene one and write till the end of the first draft. Lots of revisions thereafter of course! I’m very superstitious about my Muse, how my creativity flows and my writing process. Having said that, I’ve developed a method to my madness to help me at least consider alternatives.
In the previous day job, we had a root cause analysis tool called the “Five Whys”. Basically you ask yourself a series of questions about some issue or problem, until you’ve drilled down to the real cause. Our example in the classes we taught was the degradation of the stone in the Jefferson Memorial. Why did the stone degrade? It was washed too often. Why was it washed so often? Because there were so many spiderwebs. Why were there so many spiders? Because there were so many flying insects at night? Why so many insects? Because the Memorial is brightly lit at night. The solution? Turn on the lights later, after the other monuments in the area, to let the insects be attracted elsewhere. I’m not sure if that’s a real story or apocryphal, but it illustrates the principle. There are various root cause diagramming tools and techniques that go with this. The instructor who taught me always emphasized you stopped asking Why? as soon as you’d reached a reasonable level of root cause, rather than drill all the way down to the Big Bang beginning of the Universe.
I use a variation of that analysis to solve knotty little plot problems. I take my desired end result and then diagram the possible ways to achieve what I want to happen. In an upcoming SF romance there’s a need to escape from a facility. I listed the possibilities starting with duh the roof, and then forced myself to really sit and think about creative alternatives. For each choice, I drilled down a bit more, asking myself “if this/then what?” questions. I usually find that one leg of the diagram starts generating more questions than the others, leading me to get excited about the plot possibilities, and other decisions and events that might flow from the choice. That’s where I end up going in the book. So my characters in the upcoming novel won’t be going out over the roof, I can tell you that right now! Even though that was my original vision when I first conceived the overall plot.
I’m not suggesting you adopt my cobbled together hand scribbled method, nor any of the big elaborate tools that I’m aware other people use quite successfully and teach. I’m just saying find a way that works for you, and take a deeper look at easy plot mechanisms that just might be TSTL for some of your readers to swallow. Poke a few holes, see if there are unexpected choices your hero or heroine could make. There are tools and classes and workshops on the topic if your bent is toward organized plotting vs. seat of the pants scribbles on lavender paper like I do.
And of course some genres or stories might actually call for the TSTL solution, as part of the tone…
What about you as a reader? Do you DNF books when things are too easy or contrived in the plot?
More About the Author
Veronica Scott is the USA Today Happily Ever After blog’s SciFi Encounters columnist and a three-time recipient of the SFR Galaxy Award. She’s written a number of best-selling science-fiction and fantasy romances. Her latest release is Ghost of the Nile, set in ancient Egypt. Veronica grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories. She made the jump to fulltime author this past March and is the current FF&P Treasurer. You can find out more about Veronica at https://veronicascott.wordpress.com/ or on twitter @vscotttheauthor or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Veronica-Scott/177217415659637