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Rant:
Easy Plots for Lazy Writers

I am Cliché, son of Lame-Plot! Tremble before the power of my convenient plot devices!
- Cliché son of Lame-Plot by Useless Hack

1. The Plot-Guide

The Plot-Guide is a character who guides the protagonist through the story, telling him what to do. The Plot-Guide is usually old and wise: a Wizard or a Jedi Master. The protagonist trusts the Plot-Guide. He takes what the Plot-Guide says as true without question. He follows the Plot-Guide's advice without question.

This makes light work for the writer. Information and motivation can be supplied by the Plot-Guide whenever the writer wishes. Whenever the writer wants Our Hero or the audience to know something, the Plot-Guide says it. Whenever the writer wants Our Hero to do something, the Plot-Guide tells him to do it and he does it without question. He doesn't ask why, or if this is the right course of action. This lets the writer get the action moving without any dragging explanations. Isn't that convenient?

But of course the Plot-Guide doesn't reveal everything at once. He keeps some information back to be revealed later at a dramatically appropriate moment. This makes it easier for the writer to produce dramatic effects. Isn't that convenient?

The archetypal Plot-Guide is Merlin, who basically knows everything, and gives people information and instructions (sorry, advice) whenever it takes his fancy. But he doesn't do this all the time, because he's enigmatic and eldritch, qualities which can justify any inconsistency. Isn't that convenient?

Obi-Wan is a Plot-Guide in Star Wars. He dies, but it was so convenient having him around that he pops up again in spirit form to carry on his work as a Plot-Guide. Gandalf is a Plot-Guide in The Lord of the Rings. It's a very convenient character trait that he's enigmatic, only revealing bits of information when he feels like it. Again, he comes back from the dead to continue his work.

2. The Plot-Oracle

The Plot-Oracle is like a lesser form of Plot-Guide. He states the setup of the story somewhere near the start. Unlike the Plot-Guide he doesn't accompany the characters and keep giving them orders. Instead he stays at home while Our Heroes ride off to take all the risks.

A typical example is this. The Horror is threatening the land. There seems no way of stopping it. But then a wise old sage pops up and tells Our Hero (a mighty-thewed young warrior) that there is a Ring of Horror Dispelling. It lies in an ancient tomb deep inside the Land of Unpleasant Things. Armed with this conveniently delivered knowledge, Our Hero journeys through the Land of Unpleasant Things (facing many dangers), reaches the tomb (facing more dangers, yawn), takes the Ring of Horror Dispelling, rides home and dispels the Horror. He's rewarded with the King's daughter and half the kingdom.

The function of the Plot-Oracle is simply to put all the pertinent facts before the audience and the protagonist right at the start, so the protagonist is free to get on with having the adventure. Isn't that convenient?

3. The Plot-Announcer

The Plot-Announcer is a more limited Plot-Oracle, a character who gives the protagonist just as much information as the writer wants but then no more. A typical ploy is this: Our Hero is thrown into prison, sharing a cell with a condemned man. The condemned man begins a desperate rant. "Listen to my story! As a young man I explored deeper into the jungle than anyone else had ever been..." The Plot-Announcer gives Our Hero some wild story of a lost city paved with gold. Possibly he shoves an old map into Our Hero's hands. Then the guards come in and drag him out to hang him.

This is all terribly convenient for the writer because it lets him give only partial information. The Plot-Announcer might leave something out because he is rushed for time. Because the Plot-Announcer is killed moments after giving the information, there is no time for follow-up questions. Our Hero is handed just as much information as the writer wants, and no more. Isn't that convenient?

4. Enigmatic God-Like Aliens

If you're writing a story and you really need something to happen, what could be more convenient than having an enigmatic god-like alien do it for you? They're enigmatic, so you don't have to explain why they do what they do. And they're god-like, so they have the power to do just about anything you want. Isn't that convenient?

Now, since these aliens have god-like powers, the audience might well say, "Well if they can do X, why don't they do Y as well?" But remember these aliens are enigmatic, so their behaviour can be as inconsistent as the writer wants. Isn't that convenient?

One of the most horrifying examples of an enigmatic god-like alien comes from Babylon 5. The creator of B5, Joseph Straczyniski, gave the main hero Jeffrey Sinclair his own initials, JS. Later Sinclair was replaced as main hero by John Sheridan, also JS. Both are clearly the alter ego of the series creator Straczyniski.

Sheridan has been invited to Z'Ha'Dum, the homeworld of the evil Shadows. They say they want to explain to him how they're not evil really, but he knows that they plan to brainwash him and send him back as their agent. So he decides to go there as a suicide bomber. He takes a really big bomb, laced with special 'Vorlon matter' poisonous to the Shadows.

As Sheridan was heading for Z'Ha'Dum I kept thinking that Straczyniski would never let him be killed off in mid-story. But as I watched he arrived at the Shadows' capital city on Z'Ha'Dum and detonated his bomb. The episode ended with a huge explosion. I was surprised and pleased that Straczyniski had had the courage to let the hero die like that, even a hero with his own initials.

How foolish I had been. In the next episode, Sheridan woke up in a crater with an unknown human-shaped alien sitting next to him. The unknown alien started talking to him like a bad imitation of Yoda, asking questions in response to Sheridan's questions and that sort of thing. Eventually it turned out that this being was a god-like alien who had been watching galactic affairs for several millennia from atop his cloud. Now he had decided to intervene in galactic events by restoring Sheridan to life and then acting like a Plot-Guide to the officers of Babylon 5, feeding them little bits of information and instructions (sorry, advice) when he felt like it, but keeping other pertinent information back at his own capricious whim. Isn't that convenient?

I was disgusted. Straczyniski had written himself into a corner from which Sheridan could not escape. Then instead of having the courage to violate the literary convention that the hero has to live, instead of letting Sheridan die when he had chosen self-sacrifice, Straczyniski pulled this god-like alien out of nowhere to save him and restore the plot to what he wanted it to be.

5. Ancient Artifacts

Long ago there was a race of super-powerful beings, now called the Ancients. We know little about them now - yes, they're Enigmatic God-Like Aliens. The Ancients are all dead now (until, of course, the writer finds it convenient for them to pop up again). But the buggers are still annoying us from the grave - they left bits of their magic/technology behind. The people who live today - Moderns - don't understand how these Ancient Artifacts work. Moderns can't make, copy, modify, repair or damage them. Moderns can only use them as a black box. This lets the writer drip-feed exactly the powers he wants into the story by letting characters get their hands on particular Ancient Artifacts. Isn't that convenient?

One use of Ancient Artifacts is to allow interstellar travel to humans without super-technology. You see, the Ancients left Jump Gates in various stellar systems. A spaceship can fly into a Jump Gate in one system and out of another Jump Gate in another. This means that humans can travel faster than light without having other super-technology that should reasonably accompany FTL drives. Isn't that convenient?

It also restricts travel to certain fixed lanes: human spaceships can't just jump anywhere they want to go. That might make penetrating the defences of enemies too easy, ruining the writer's intended plotlines. Jump Gates form convenient choke points, where battles will naturally occur. Isn't that convenient?

This use of Jump Gates has been made by the film Contact (Jodie Foster) and by the roleplaying game Fading Suns.

6. The Monster's One Weakness

The more unstoppable a monster seems, the more terrifying it is. So the natural temptation is to make the monster invincible. But this creates a problem for the writer: Our Hero is expected to slay the monster, get the girl and live happily ever after. If the monster is invincible, how can this be made to happen?

If the writer is strong with the power of cliché, the problem is easily solved. The monster simply has one weakness. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is from the film adaptation of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (Allied Artists, 1962, starring Howard Keel). At the end, the humans are about to be wiped out by the Triffids when, suddenly we learn... wait for it... the Triffids melt when salt water touches them! Hoorah! Suddenly the monsters can be destroyed just by spraying them with ordinary seawater! Isn't that convenient?

That is just about the weakest ending for a monster film I could possibly imagine. One might hope that once that had been done, filmmakers might have learnt some degree of decent shame and never done it again. But no! In fact they've churned out the same drivel again and again since then. The monsters are about to kill Our Heroes when it starts to rain, and surprise surprise, rain melts their bodies.

The one weakness is not always something as stupid or easily available as water. It may be something that makes more internal sense to the setting's logic: Imhotep can only be dispelled by reading a certain spell from a certain book (The Mummy, Universal Pictures, 1999, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz). But this often strains credibility. Why should such a powerful being have a weakness that's difficult but possible for humans to bring to bear? The more god-like the being is, the harder this is to believe.

The one weakness can be revealed near the start of the story, and provide the main quest: Sauron the Dark Lord can only be dispelled by throwing his Ring of Power into the Crack of Doom (The Lord of the Rings).

7. Before I kill you, Mr Bond...

The villain captures Our Hero. Any rational person would just kill Our Hero to remove the danger. But no! Instead the villain decides to put Our Hero in chains explain the entire plot to him, so that the audience learns what's going on. "Before I kill you, Mr Bond, I shall explain my entire plan to you." Isn't that convenient?

We might expect the villain to see the pointlessness of explaining something to someone who's about to be killed, but no! He's such an egomaniac he just has to gloat. Isn't that convenient?

Naturally, Our Hero uses this time productively. He wriggles out of his chains so he can defeat the villain and win the day. Who would have expected such a thing?

In Joss Wheedon's Serenity, the villain (whose name is never mentioned) is a highly trained government assassin. The government sends him to kill people, but before he ends their lives he lectures them like a James Bond villain. We might expect that the government would have trained their assassins to just get the job done, not waste time talking at people they're about to kill, and not give away government secrets to anyone who may overhear. But no! The villain commits both of these stupid errors. At the start of the film, before killing a government official who'se had a lapse of judgement, the villain lectures him about what he's done wrong. This also serves to explain the plot to the audience. Isn't that convenient? Near the end, the villain shoots the hero, Mal. Mal should be dead. But no! It was just a shun shot! Why? Because the villain wants to tie Mal up and talk at him for 15 minutes before he kills him. Mal breaks his bonds (surprise surprise) and he's ready for another round of fighting.

8. Suddenly the Villain Can't Fight

In the big fight at the end, the villain is better at fighting that Our Hero. He mops the floor with Our Hero. The villain knocks Our Hero down, and then instead of killing him straight away, he decides to pause and taunt Our Hero awhile. Suddenly Our Hero leaps up and - what's this? - suddenly he's better at fighting than the villain. Our Hero has a sort of surge of power and in a stange reversal beats the villain who's consistently bested him up to now. Isn't that convenient?

In Joss Wheedon's Serenity (see 7 above), the hero Mal fights the villain near the end. He's much better at fighting than Mal. He ties Mal up to lecture him before killing him. Mal breaks his bonds, and suddenly he's winning the fight instead of the villain. How is this possible?

Even worse is Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are fighting Darth Maul. Darth Maul is equal to the two of them together. He manages to kill Qui-Gon. So now it should be easy for him to kill Obi-Wan, since he faces less opposition now. But no! In a stange reversal, Obi-Wan alone can beat Darth Maul, even though Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon together couldn't. Isn't that convenient?