The title of this article refers to what’s generally considered sloppy story telling. Your characters end up in some seemingly impossible situation and then with no explanation beyond saying something like ‘and suddenly they were free’ they manage to get away unscathed. This is a really good way to annoy your readers as they’re left wondering what actually happened, but it’s an easy trap to slip into if you’re not careful. A similar situation arises when a character picks up an essential tool or weapon which has never been mentioned before, or suddenly reveals a key skill the reader never knew they had until the very moment they need to use it to escape.
So how do you avoid this in your writing? One obvious solution is not to let your characters get into impossible situations in the first place, but then you lose the tension such situations create and your story becomes dull and uninteresting. A better solution is to plant the seeds for everything needed for their miraculous escape earlier in your story, often as casual comments or passing references. This way, the reader is left thinking, ‘Oh, of course!’ rather than ‘Where did that come from?’. However, you need to be careful exactly how you insert these little ‘plotlings’ (the seedlings from which your plot will grow). If you’re not, you’ll find they end up jumping up and down in the reader’s mind waving their arms and screaming ‘PLOT DEVICE!!!’ at the top of their lungs and that just makes them seem clunky.
To illustrate this point, we’ll take a scene where two characters, John and Max, are being chased by a group of zombies. They see a cottage in the distance and decide to take shelter in it. They reach the front door, managing to get inside and get the door shut before the first zombie arrives. While catching their breath they look around and realise to their dismay that there’s no other way out, meaning they’re well and truly trapped. Meanwhile the zombies are now battering and the door and it’s threatening to give out at any second. How do they get out alive?
Well, they’re going to find a gun and shoot the zombies just as they finally break through the door, allowing them to escape unscathed. However, you can’t just have a gun lying around in the room they happen to have become trapped in, that would be way too convenient and reader just wouldn’t buy it. Instead, you could have them finding a gun at an earlier point in the story so that they are already carrying it when they become trapped in the cottage (which, for arguments sake, we’ll say happens in chapter 10). For example, you could introduce a gun when their search another house for food earlier in the day (maybe in chapter 8) with the line:
‘Just as John was leaving the room he spotted something, “Oh look a gun! That will come in useful if we ever get into trouble.” ’
Your readers now know John has a gun which can be used to help them escape from the cottage, but it’s not exactly subtle; you might as well reach of the page and smack your reader in the face with said gun and say ‘Remember this, it’s going to be important!’. A better approach might be something like:
‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the couch. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes and what looked like an old pistol. Before he could examine the contents properly there was a shout from outside telling him he only had time to grab the backpack and run.’
Here the gun is only mentioned as a possibility along with a list of other items and items like the food might be more critical to the plot at that specific moment in the story (since that was what they were looking for in the house at the time). Thus, the ‘plotling’ is planted but without drawing too much attention to itself. This means when you first write the cottage scene in chapter 10, you might have them being pursued by five zombies and have the following to reveal how the gun will be used in their escape:
‘Suddenly, John remembered the pack he’d found when they were looking for food; hadn’t he seen a gun in it? He frantically rummaged through the bag until he found what he was looking for. It was indeed a very old and very dirty pistol. John had no idea whether it would still work, but he knew it was their only chance. In a single movement he pulled it out and slid it across the room to Max just as the door finally gave way.’
Max grabs the gun, shoots the zombies and hey presto, your characters are finally free to leave the cottage and your readers are left thinking ‘lucky he remembered the gun when he did or they’d never have got out of there in one piece’ rather than ‘where’d that gun suddenly come from?’ or ‘finding that gun there just when they needed it was a bit too convenient’.
Of course, sometimes you’ll find that as you edit your story, you need to go back and change these little ‘plotlings’ to keep everything consistent. If we go back to the example above, the reference to an old pistol could be taken to mean a revolver, which would have a maximum of six bullets in it (assuming it was fully loaded). However, when you come back to edit this scene, you might start thinking that five zombies isn’t really enough to build any real tension, and you up the number to ten. Except in order to be able to kill them all, the gun would need to reload at some point and you’ve not explained where the extra bullets came from. This is when you’d go back to the scene where John finds the bag while looking for food and change it to:
‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the sofa. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes, a half-full box of bullets and what looked like an old pistol …’
It’s a small change but now the bullets are mentioned in passing along with the gun as part of the list of newly-found things, so you are free to use them in the cottage scene. Of course having to reload the gun half way through a zombie set piece also allows you to rack up the tension with things like:
‘With the first four zombies down, Max pulled the trigger again but it just clicked. He looked at it for a second before he realised it was empty. As John fumbled in the bag, trying to find the box of bullets he’d seen earlier, Max leapt backwards as the remaining zombies surged towards him. After what seemed like a life-time, John found the bullets and threw them to Max before pulling out one of the machetes …’
This has the advantage that you are now also using one of the machetes the reader knows was also in the bag. If these had never appear in the story again, your reader might end up wondering what ever became of them. This, of course, is the flip side of ‘plotlings’: you can’t introduce something such as a weapon, if your characters never make use of it. If you do, you’ll leave your readers wondering why you ever mentioned it in the first place. You don’t need to use everything mentioned in a single ‘plotling’ for the same escape scene, but you do need to use everything you mention at some point, even if it’s just something like (maybe in chapter 9):
‘In his haste to climb onto the tree which lay across the ravine, John flung the bag over his shoulder, sending one of the machetes clattering onto the rocks below. John cursed his stupidity, knowing they wouldn’t have time to retrieve it before the zombies arrived …’
This tells you one of the machetes has been lost and will play no further part in the story. The other, however, remains in play (to be used by John later when Max runs out of bullets in the cottage in chapter 10).
However, you still have a bit of a problem. Max has managed to grab a gun off the floor and shot four zombies with a maximum of six shots (which is pretty good going for anyone!), and you can’t have a character popping off perfect head shots like that without explaining how they know how to shoot (well you can, but it’ll probably annoy your readers!). This means you also need to mention this somewhere before the cottage scene. This can be quite subtle, with something like this placed in chapter 3:
‘As the night closed in around them and they reached the bottom of the whisky bottle, they started to reminisce about their lives before the zombies. Max took another mouthful and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “I sure as hell won’t miss my old man. He was a mean drunk, forever wailing on me. When I was young I’d sometimes sneak his gun out of the bedside table when he was out drinking and use it to shoot tin cans off the fence in the back yard just to get my own back on him. Only one time he came back earlier than I expected and caught me. He beat me so badly that day I couldn’t sit down properly for a week. He’s one son of a bitch I’m glad I’ll never see again.” There was a brief pause as he took another slug from the bottle, “I’ll miss my little sister though.” ‘
Here the ‘plotling’ seems to be more about Max’s relationship with his (presumably now dead or zombified) family; yet it also serves to introduce the idea that Max knows how to shoot and would be capable of picking up a pistol that had just been slid across the room and scoring direct hits on the zombies as they pour through the cottage door.
So in the example here, the reader has been armed with the knowledge that: 1. Max can handle a gun (mentioned in chapter 3); 2. John has what might be a gun along with some extra bullets (from chapter 8); 3. John also has a machete, again in chapter 8, having lost another one due to his carelessness – in chapter 9. Each of these elements has been inserted into the storyline in an appropriate place long before chapter 10 when these two characters become trapped in the cottage, with what at first might seem like little chance of surviving. This means everything is in place for the characters to make their narrow escape as the zombies finally break through the door.
Getting the knack of slipping in these ‘plotlings’ into stories can be quite difficult, and probably the best way to learn how to do it successfully is to look at the work of others. J.K. Rowling is one of the best authors for this. The Harry Potter books take place in a relatively complex world meaning it would be easy for escapes to appear miraculous. Yet, she always introduces just the right amount of information ahead of time so the reader is never left feeling cheated whenever the characters escape by the skin of their teeth through one magical means or another. Sometimes the ‘plotlings’ for specific dramatic events are planted several books before they are needed, making them particularly impressive. For example, a major plot line in book 6 revolves around a broken vanishing cabinet which we hear about for the first in book 2 where it gets broken as part of a seemingly insubstantial action, and then again in passing in book 5. Even if you’re not a fan of her books or their subject matter, they are worth reading purely from a technical point of view to see how well she does this.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.