This is not only an interesting article about plot in writing, but it’s also an entertaining read. Donald E. Westlake was an amazingly prolific writer, and even better, a very successful writer. That’s mostly because he was a delightful entertainer. A good point to take, because that’s what all writers really need to be, right? If you want to sell what you write, it needs to entertain people.
This is an article dug up out of the ancient archives of Writer’s Digest, and even way back in 1959, Westlake was only 26 and wasn’t writing full-time. He hadn’t even published a book in his own name yet. But he had been writing for years and had been an editor, and was deeply entrenched in the art. Here he brings us 36 examples of plots you need to avoid if you’re going to sell your story. That’s a LOT! And you can read the list and know that you’ve seen all these stories a lot, and maybe understand why editors don’t want to see the same old, tired stories over and over again. So this is some incentive to think of new twists and make your stories fresh. A guy with that much success…well, he most likely knew what he was talking about.
Bonus: The article also includes Westlake’s 5C Plot Plan! Good thing to assimilate into your process.
Enjoy the read, and learn the perspective, and success is yours! Well, let’s hope, anyway!
By Donald Westlake
This morning I received a story in the mail, a story that contained some of the most vivid, incisive, and clever writing I have read in a long, long time. But the story was the oldie about the man who murders his wife, drags her body into the darkened living room, the lights go on and a million relatives stand around shouting, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” The writing was wonderful, but the story wasn’t bought.
As Executive Editor of Mystery Digest and former Assistant Editor at a literary agency, I have spent too many hours a day reading and rejecting well-written stories because they are afflicted with Plot Formula, the “Tired blood” that kills an otherwise competent writer.
Definitions, please. A plot is a planned series of connected events, building through conflict to a crisis and ending in a satisfactory conclusion. A formula is a particular plot which has become stale through over-use.
My 5C Plot Plan
My own working definition of plot is what I call “5C.” First, a character. Anybody at all, from Hemingway’s old man to Salinger’s teenager. Second, conflict. Something for that character to get upset about, and for the reader to get upset about through the character. Third, complications. If the story runs too smoothly, without any trouble for the character, the reader isn’t going to get awfully interested in what’s going on. Fourth, climax. The opposing forces in conflict are brought together. Like the fissionable material in an H-bomb and there’s an explosion. Fifth, conclusion. The result of the explosion is known, the conflict is over, the character has either won or lost, and there are no questions left unanswered.
No matter what the definition, the essential ingredients are always the same, and the result is always plot, not formula. It wasn’t formula when Homer used it in The Odyssey, and it still wasn’t formula when Pasternak used it in Doctor Zhivago.
How to Tell the Trite From the New
A lot of writers, when told they are writing stale, cliché-filled, trite formula, cry, “How can I tell the new from the old” How am I supposed to read every copy of every magazine that was ever published?”
Something like that, yes. The writer should certainly read everything he can possibly find in his own field. It has always been my belief that no writer should expect to write a story for a particular magazine until he knows that magazine just as well as the editor does. And constant reading in your field will soon give you a pretty clear idea of what has already been done.
But here’s a head start: a list of story ideas to stay away from, and its purpose is to help you decide for yourself whether your rejection slips have been the result of poor writing or poor plotting. Included are twelve stale formula ideas from each of three fields, mystery, science fiction, and slick.
The Mystery Field
1. John Smith is sitting in his living room, reading the paper or watching television, and one, two, three, or four hoodlums, who are being hunted by the police, break into the house intending to lie low there until the neighborhood quiets down.
2. John Smith is sitting by the windows, and he watches Joe Doakes murder Jane Plain. The phone is out of order. John is bedridden, confined to a wheel chair, 10 years old, or too drunk to move. The murderer is coming to get rid of the witness.
4. John Smith is sitting in his office and a man from Why-Do-It-Yourself, Inc., comes in and offers to murder his nagging wife for him.
5. John Smith, private eye, walked into his best friend’s apartment to find the friend dead and Lieutenant Joe Doakes from Homicide standing there with a notebook in his hand. “If I get the killer first,” says John, “there won’t be much left for the law.”
6. John Smith, private eye, is sitting in his office when a total stranger staggers in, says, “The green jade – cough, cough,” and drops dead with a kris in his back.
7. John Smith wakes up with a hangover in his head and a smoking gun in his hand. Joe Doakes is lying on the floor, shot to death.
8. John Smith is sitting in the park, feeding the other squirrels, when a beautiful girl runs up, kisses him, and whispers, “Pretend you know me.”
9. John Smith, private eye, is sitting at his desk, when Marshall Bigelow, thimble tycoon, trundles in waving thousand-dollar bills and shouting, “My daughter has disappeared!”
10. John Smith, hen-pecked husband, fortyish, short and stout, meet and mild, has decided to murder his battle-axe, demanding, shrewish, and nagging wife, and he has this plan, see, which is foolproof. Only it isn’t.
11. Johnnie Smith, 16, decides to break with the neighborhood gang, the Golden Dragons, because Becky Thatcher, 15, was to be proud of him.
12. Fourteen people, one of them named Fitz-Warren, are all weekend guests at the mansion of cranky old John Smith. Suddenly, a scream pierces the plot, and the whole entourage runs into the study, to find cranky old John Smith dead at his desk, a kris in his back.