For every plant, there must be a payoff

This maxim is best remembered in the words of Anton Chekhov, who gave the advice several times and in different ways, one of which is this:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.—Anton Chekhov

No plant w/out payoff or vice versa.

Whatever your thing is, if it seems important to the reader, it had better, at some point, be important to the story.

plant payoff

Photo by hsvrs • iStockphoto

Rowling did this well in the Harry Potter series with a lot of things, including the horcrux marked R.B. (For those of you unfamiliar with the story, all you need to know is that a horcrux is an object, a MacGuffin, almost. But not quite.) When it’s first found, it has its own story purpose, and you don’t think too much about the initials. You figure she’ll explain later. And several books later, when she does, it all fits together satisfactorily. It’s doubly satisfying if you figure out who R.B. is before the reveal.

What would have been a problem is if there had been no follow-up on the initials R.B. That would have been plant without payoff, just as Chekhov warned against. These kinds of things should either be deleted in editing, or given a bigger role to play.

One notable exception to this guideline is in mysteries, where you can often plant false clues, known in the trade as red herrings. But even they serve a story purpose, that being to send the investigator—and hopefully the reader—in the wrong direction. But even a red herring needs to be relevant to the story. Don’t throw in an element just to create confusion. It still has to belong in that setting.

I don’t want to imply that every single thing you describe in your entire book has to have deep meaning and plot relevance. The purpose of a Ming vase on a shelf may only be to show the wealth of its owner. You do need to describe your settings. Just keep in mind that the time spent describing a thing should increase in proportion to how important it is to the story. So if the Ming vase is only there to demonstrate wealth, a single phrase will do. But if it’s about to be stolen, or if it’s so precious to the impoverished widow that she refuses to sell it despite her straitened circumstances, then spend more time on it.

The opposite of plant without payoff—pulling a gun we haven’t seen before—can sometimes look like a deus ex machina, although the folks at TV Tropes have a much earthier name for it. So if at the end of your story some critical thing comes into play, whether it’s a weapon, an object, or a skill possessed by one of the characters, it’s best to go back as you edit and plant at least one reference to it early on.

Make subplots integral to the story

We’re still working on the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Subplots arise organically and make sense as they unfold, not only in light of the ending.

Done right, subplots add richness and depth to a novel. They give us a chance to see characters in different lights and see the results of the plot from different angles. But a subplot that arises out of nowhere for no apparent reason will distract the reader. Having a “now it all makes sense” moment at the very end isn’t a great help, because by that point you may already have lost the reader. Continue reading

Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading

Use surprise in your story, but realistically

Last time, I noted that stories about characters who never fail can become boring. One of the ways to keep things interesting—in addition to giving your characters the occasional setback—is with unexpected plot turns. Hence this checklist item:

The plot contains elements of surprise.

On the one hand, readers, especially of mysteries, enjoy figuring out the story and predicting the ending. But few readers enjoy books in which they can predict everything. When a critique partner or editor calls your story “predictable,” that’s not a compliment. Continue reading

Escalate the stakes to engage the reader

We noted before that the stakes for the protagonist should be stated early.

In the best stories, though, the stakes will change as the story develops. The stakes get higher—at the outset, the heroine might have a promotion on the line, and by midway through her job, and by the end, her life. Yes, it is permissible to have the plot be life-threatening from the outset, but escalating stakes are a valid plot choice as well, and arguably better, because you get the effect of a roller coaster rather than a runaway train. Continue reading

Story tension doesn’t mean everyone fights

Last time, I noted that tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages. One mistake new writers make is confusing conflict with tension.

Conflict is opposition—it’s a fight. When the hero wants one thing, and the villain wants the opposite, that’s conflict.

Tension is strain—a stretching, possibly to one’s limit. If the hero is climbing a mountain, his muscles are under tension, and so is the reader if there’s a danger he might fall. But he’s not in conflict—unless someone is trying to stop him.

In other words, conflict involves at least two forces, but tension can involve only one.

Writers can get confused on this point: Continue reading

Plot: The other half of story

Early on in this journey, I said Character + Plot = Story. So we’ve talked about characters and as an adjunct to that, point of view, which is how the reader experiences the character. On to plot.

There are some genres of fiction, notably literary fiction, in which you can get away with meager plots as long as your characters are fascinating and your writing is lyrical.

But in most genres, you’ll need an engaging plot to showcase those fantastic characters. Ideally your protagonist—or someone close to your protagonist—goes through a transformative experience in the course of the story. One way to think of it is to consider that the plot is what forces the character to make this change. Many writing teachers call this The Crucible. Continue reading