Writer Tip: Tired Plots, or Stories to Avoid

For the past two years, I’ve been utilizing the wonderful service of Duotrope to find markets for my short fiction and to keep track of what I sent where. All my short fiction is published under my pen name, O. M. Grey, and I’ve had a considerable amount published since 2011.

While researching one of my dream publications, I came across their list of “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often,” and I was so very happy the story I submitted to them didn’t fall in one of these categories. Here is a partial list, for the complete list, please visit Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine:

  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says “I want to be at point B.” Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.
    1. Writer has writer’s block.
    2. Painter can’t seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can’t seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person’s work is reviled by critics who don’t understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertently violates them, is punished.
    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist’s attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they’re not real.
    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
    4. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we’ve seen are part of the novel.
  5. An AI gets loose on the Net, but the author doesn’t have a clear concept of what it means for software to be “loose on the Net.” (For example, the computer it was on may not be connected to the Net.)
  6. Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
    1. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
    2. All technology is shown to be soulless; in contrast, anything “natural” is by definition good. For example, living in a weather-controlled environment is bad, because it’s artificial, while dying of pneumonia is good, because it’s natural.
    3. The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.
    4. In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
    5. In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who’s lived a non-electronic life.
  7. Protagonist is a bad person. [We don’t object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.]
    1. Bad person is told they’ll get the reward that they “deserve,” which ends up being something bad.
    2. Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their comeuppance).
    3. Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which they see the error of their ways and are redeemed. (But reading about the awfulness is so awful that we never get to the end to see the redemption.)
  8. A place is described, with no plot or characters.

Fortunately, I’ve never made any of these faux pas, although I’ve come close with my character of Arthur in O. M. Grey‘s Avalon Revisited. In fact, I might have tipped over into the territory of #7 in its sequel Avalon Revamped. It’s in the hands of beta readers now, so we’ll soon see! **bites nails in anticipation!**

It’s a long list, so I’ll skip a bit to things I have done…that I have either learned to stop doing that on my own or someone told me: stop that! (Remember….see the entire list at Strange Horizons)

  • Space travel is wonderful and will solve all our problems. [We agree that space travel is pretty cool, but we’d rather that weren’t the whole point of the story.]
  • Man has an awful, shrewish wife; in the end he gets revenge on her, by (for example) killing her or leaving her.
    1. Man is entirely blameless, innocent, mild-mannered, and unobjectionable, and he kills his awful, shrewish wife entirely by accident, possibly in self-defense, so it’s okay.
  • Some characters are in favor of immersive VR, while others are opposed to it because it’s not natural; they spend most of the story’s length rehashing common arguments on both sides. [Full disclosure: one of our editors once wrote a story like this. It hasn’t found a publisher yet, for some reason.]
  • Person A tells a story to person B (or to a room full of people) about person C.
    1. In the end, it turns out that person B is really person C (or from the same organization).
    2. In the end, it turns out that person A is really person C (or has the same goals).
    3. In the end, there’s some other ironic but predictable twist that would cast the whole story in a different light if the reader hadn’t guessed the ending early on.
  • People whose politics are different from the author’s are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.
    1. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by politically correct liberals, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).
    2. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by fascist conservatives, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).
  • Superpowered narrator claims that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.
  • A princess has been raped or molested by her father (or stepfather), the king.

Okay. No. Haven’t done any of those either, but the second one made me laugh.

More: this first one MAKES ME SICK! I wish I could say I was shocked, but not after what I’ve experienced the past year. Nope. Not anymore.

  • Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that’s ostensibly about violence against women being bad.Evil people hook the protagonist on an addictive substance and then start raising the price, ruining the protagonist’s life.
    1. Man is forced by circumstances or magic to rape a woman even though he really doesn’t want to, honest.
    2. The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.
  • Fatness is used as a signal of evil, dissolution, and/or moral decay, usually with the unspoken assumption that it’s completely obvious that fat people are immoral and disgusting. [Note: This does not mean all fat characters in stories must be good guys. We’re just tired of seeing fat used as a cheap shorthand signifier of evil.]Protagonist agrees to go along with a plan or action despite not having enough information about it, and despite their worries that the thing will be bad. Then the thing turns out to be bad after all.
    1. Someone wants to kill someone else, and that’s perfectly reasonable because, after all, the victim-to-be is fat.
    2. The story spends a lot of time describing, over and over, just how fat a character is, and how awful that is.
    3. Physical contact with a fat person is understood to be obviously revolting.
  • Teen’s family doesn’t understand them.
  • Twee little fairies with wings fly around being twee.

The last one made me laugh.

Now, the one on fatness used as a sign of evil. I’m deeply ashamed to say I’ve done this. Don’t get me wrong, I also have wonderful fat people and evil skinny people in my stories, after all Moody Marlin is very fat, and he’s a super-duper awesome guy! On the other hand, Fiana, James, and Arthur (in O. M. Grey‘s Avalon Revisited) are evil evil evil, and they’re quite thin. Still, it wasn’t until someone pointed out how often I related to Rex’s weight when trying to make him seem particularly bad that I saw it. It was completely unconscious. Some of the people I love the most in this world would be considered “fat,” but somehow deeply ingrained in my subconscious, I fell into the cultural stereotype of fat = evil, and I didn’t even realize it. I did the same thing with Frank, and then with Trudy’s looks as well.

In my defense, most of my antagonists and other evils people are very thin and beautiful, but then, most of my characters are thin and beautiful, which is in itself problematic. Even my fat characters are beautiful. Most of my antagonists, especially now, are not only beautiful, they are charming and narcissistic, verging on sociopathic. Fiana edges ever closer to surpassing even that and becoming completely delusional and insane, as the Rowan of the Wood books continue. Again, problematic, adding to the stigma around mental illness.

Fat does not equal evil.
Ugly does not equal evil.
Mentally ill does not equal evil.

I’m working on breaking down these deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes and stigmas as I work on my craft. The first step is recognizing it.

What about you? Have you done any of these tired plots? What about the others on the list? Leave a comment below and let me know.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I don’t think I’ve done any of these, but I do try to be quite conscious of these plots and troupes. If I’m reading a book or watching a movie or a TV show and something with a character or a plot point makes me roll my eyes then I try not to do the same myself.
    After reading this post though I think I’ll be even more conscious of the points listed 🙂

    1. christinerose says:

      Good for you!

      Always improving, that’s what it’s about!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s