Monday, October 15, 2012

Help Readers Suspend Disbelief (and Avoid Plot Holes)

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
266239576_b690cb00c1The other night, I watched a mystery on television.  The actors were good, the puzzle itself was good,  and the setting—a boarding school— was interesting.

The problem that I absolutely couldn’t get past was that a horrible murder had occurred at this boarding school—and life at the school continued as usual, apart from the presence of the investigating officers.
As a parent, I’ve seen a phenomenon play out over the years, rightly or wrongly,  where parents descend on a school en masse to retrieve their kids….for just about any reason.

Ice storm predicted to commence?  They’re coming.  A teacher somewhere at the school suffered a fatal heart attack on the grounds?  They’re coming. Power outage in part of the school? They’re on their way.  Crazed murderer stalking students on campus….oh, they’re SO there.

But in this production, classes resumed as usual (where are the guidance counselors and the child psychologists?), giving the killer another shot at a murder a couple of days after the first one—which, of course, the killer took advantage of.

I understood why the screenwriters set it up that way—they couldn’t shut down the murderer.  The writers had an objective to accomplish. But once I fell into this plot hole, I couldn’t climb out of it…it bothered me that much.  It simply wasn’t realistic at all.

What probably would have worked well is if they’d written in a short scene with concerned parents at the school, and the school administration and police calming down everyone and insisting that the school was safe.  They needed to address the plot problem straight on.  If they didn’t want to write that scene, they could even have shot a short scene in the dean’s office where he’s frantically fussing over the number of phone calls and meetings he’s had with parents to persuade them to keep their children at the school.

I’m well-acquainted with plot holes.  Unfortunately, I sometimes write them into my own manuscripts.   In the last editorial letter I got from my editor for the quilting mysteries, my editor pointed out that my elderly sleuth’s daughter would surely be more interfering than she was…especially considering the circumstances I’d put the sleuth in.  She suggested an easy fix—temporarily distract the daughter by a huge task that she’s trying to undertake.   Easy enough.  The daughter wasn’t a cold-hearted person, but her lack of involvement came across to my editor that way.

The best way I’ve found to fix these issues is to address them head-on and early in the book.  We usually create these problems purely because of plot convenience.  Most of the time we can keep our set-up as long as we acknowledge the unbelievable part early and somehow offer an explanation.  It’s not hard to do and it can prevent us from losing a reader.

Do you ever run into these kinds of plot problems as a reader, viewer, or writer?

Photo: Señalética Patricia, Flickr