Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Peggy: Of Plot Promises and Michael Jackson

I had a FABULOUS sixth grade teacher. But there was one thing, though, that he didn’t get that writers HAVE to get.

You can't have unfulfilled plot promises.

My teacher made our class a deal. If we met certain goals– really, really hard goals the whole class would have to work for— THE Michael Jackson would come to our class. In all of his sequined glove wearing, king of pop being, video music making glory. We thought about how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to get him to go anywhere, and wondered how our someone on a teacher’s salary would be able to afford it. Then we wondered if maybe Michael Jackson was doing it as some sort of charity. An encourage-the-youth kind of thing.

But really, we doubted he'd come. So we kept asking, “Is he really going to come here?”

He’d say, “Yep, he'll come.”

The Michael Jackson. Promise?”

“I promise.”

We loved our teacher. He was the type who wouldn’t lie. Still, though, logic led most of us to believe there was a 99% chance that he wouldn’t come. The fact that there was a 1% chance made us work really hard. We met our goal and our teacher announced the day The King of Pop would grace us with his presence. On that day this came to class:


Yep. That’s a POSTER. If our teacher had been a book, we would’ve slammed him shut and hucked him across the room and never picked up the sequel because we no longer trusted the author.

And sometimes, you don't even realize you're making a plot promise! You may mention something irrelevant, but if you place too much importance on it, the reader is going to expect that plot thread to be followed through. How many times have you gotten to the end of a book, and as you're thinking about it after, you think, "Hey! The author never told us what happened with [fill in the blank]! Why did the author even mention it if they weren't going anywhere with it?"

As a writer, making your reader think that the plot is about to go in a certain direction and then NEVER GOING THERE is a bad idea. Even if you want the reader to think the plot is going in a different direction than it actually is. But what about Red Herrings? Sometimes I want the reader to think the plot is going in a different direction! Red herrings can be tricky, but a good rule of thumb is, if the direction your reader thinks you are going is cooler / more exciting / more interesting than where your plot is actually going, you might want to head back to the drawing board. Because no one wants their book hucked across the room.

On a scale of 1-10, when you're reading, how much do unfulfilled plot promises bother you?
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42 comments:

  1. There is a difference between a promise and a hint. If there is a hint at something and then a twist is thrown in, great, I'm excited and ready to figure the real truth out. However, if an entire book is building for something to happen and then it fizzles, I'm incredibly annoyed and almost hurt that the author would mislead me.

    Great post!

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    1. Yes! Give me a hint and a twist any day! Give me just a hint that's dropped, and I'm not so happy. ;)

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  2. I kind of love that you thought Michael Jackson would come to your class :) I hate huge unfulfilled plot promises, but I don't mind little ones. I think it is hard is anticipate all the info readers might want. I guess that is what beta readers are for.

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    1. I'm fine with little ones, too--- as long as it wasn't something that piqued my interest enough that I really wanted to find out what happened with that plot thread.... and then never got it. And yes, totally. Beta readers rock in that department.

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  3. Cute story! To me, I get the sense that the author just forgot about it - and I don't know why that wouldn't get picked up in editing but anything's possible. Apart from that, it makes me think it was just there to take up word count. I've read loads of quotes from authors that say to strip out ANYTHING that doesn't move the story forward so I'll try to abide by that. Great post.

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    1. I think things can totally get missed. It's easy to forget about one little thing when you're dealing with 1,000! (Gosh I hope I haven't forgotten anything!) But to be there just to take up word count-- nothing good comes from that. Ever.

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  4. Fortunately I haven't ran into it much since I read what you recommend! Haha! I do hate those kinds of things when I have run into it. Makes me feel cheated. Like my whole wallet wasn't taken, just a $20, but it still bugs.

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    1. Not just your $20, but the time you took to read it! Good thing you have such a good source of book recommendations, huh? ;)

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  5. I HATE unfulfilled promises, no matter how little. I have an OCD brain that notices that stuff way too much. I wish I didn't. But when I critique other's manuscripts, you can count on me finding all those pesky details that never get addressed. Sadly, this happens in movies I watch too. Why was that character there or why did they bring it up if they weren't gonna address it again??!! So I guess, I'm a ten.

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    1. Ooo. You sound like a FABULOUS critiquer! I wish for the sake of everyone that you were everyone's crit partner. :)

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  6. I really dislike unfulfilled plot promises. It's like the author forgot, or didn't care enough. And if the author doesn't care enough to finish the thread, I can't care enough to finish the book. Or if I already finished and sat there thinking, but what about this? then I feel like I've been taken advantage of.

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    1. And who likes being taken advantage of?

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  7. scale of 1-10? At least an 8, up there with purple prose. Great post, Peggy!

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  8. Oh my gosh, I hate unfulfilled plot promises. They tick me off like crazy. I think you raise a great point about red herrings sometimes being more interesting than the direction you took the story. Big no no. When I run into something that doesn't get dealt with or tied up I immediately think the author must have forgotten about it. Surely, s/he is not stupid enough to leave it unresolved, right? :)

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    1. I'm fine with threads being left open for the next book in the series to deal with (when it's obvious that the next book will deal with it), but ones that just get forgotten? Um... Not so much.

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  9. Oh, break my heart with the Michael Jackson story!

    Broken plot promises irk me to no end. I definitely feel swindled, and usually don't realize it until the last page . . . It's like coming home after a long day to realize your wallet is gone.

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  10. Wow - if my teacher did that to my class I think I'd pretty much hate her forever!

    So that kind of says how I feel about broken plot promises. They are LAME.

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    1. It's that Calabio blood you've got running through you. ;) Makes any MJ slights all the worse.

      So I'm sensing you have some hate for the unresolved plot issues....

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  11. Unresolved plot issues bug me really bad. I hate it when I get to the end of the book and find something wasn't finished up, or didn't go anywhere. And because my sister notices these things even worse than me, she tells me all the details, which makes it worse. Still, maybe she can critique my novels for me...

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    1. It sounds like your sister is going to be an amazing asset! (At least when it comes to critiquing your stuff.... not as much when it comes to filling you in on the details of other books. ;))

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  12. For me, it depends on what that promise is. An unfulfilled plot promise of adventure will really disappoint me, for example; but if it's, say, romance or a bad character decision then it won't bother me as much. I'd still rate them about a 6, though.

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    1. Hahaha! Yes. Like that for me, too. Sad on missing out on adventure, less sad at missing out on romance. Hm. Guess we're not the girliest of girls, huh?

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  13. You hit the nail on the head!!!! I never really knew what to call it...but when a book or a movie has a loose end...it REALLY burns me up.
    And readers are more savvy than the average bear. I had a beta ask me, "What was in the letter?"
    I had forgotten and set a letter on a table and never opened it when the plot line was abandoned.

    Stephen King in his book, "On Writing" said never put a gun on a table unless you plan to use it. Now instead of saying the plot "left a gun on the table", I can say...dropped plot promise. Much more concise!

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    1. I hate when I find something in my own ms that breaks that rule! But I'm SO VERY GLAD when someone points it out. :o) Just one of the many reasons why CPs rock.

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  14. How traumatizing! No wonder you grew up to be so morbid. (You write about bombs for a living!)

    …Okay, you’re actually one of the cheeriest people I know. The ol’ Jackson bait-and-switch couldn't keep you down! ;) Great post!

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    1. Wait, what? You have to be morbid to write about bombs? DARN IT. But they're "green" bombs. So just because the population is wiped out, doesn't mean the earth itself was ruined. That's cheery, right?

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  15. Usually the books that have unfulfilled plots strands, also have a lot of other things wrong with them. They all all to the disappointment of the book. So, in answer to you question, on a scale of one to annoying, i'd rate it 'irksome' :o)
    (Great post btw)

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    1. Hahaha! And for the record, I think all scales should be based off words instead of numbers.

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  16. Nice post. I can't help but feel a little let down when this happens. And it's never good thing to leave a reader unsatisfied, in my opinion.

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    1. I completely agree! Wanting more is a good thing, being disappointed in what you got is something else entirely.

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  17. I was so hoping that at least a long black limo would drive slowly past by the school as one sequined glove waved silently from the rear window.

    Totally bummed out that it was a poster instead...

    The same kind of thing leads to lukewarm Goodreads reviews in a book.

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    1. Ahh! A black limo / sequined glove would've been awesome! (And about a million dollars less expensive than hiring MJ.)

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  18. I'm with many of the above - there's a difference between a hint and a promise, and I don't mind small unfulfilled promises, but I don't like being left with loose ends. If it was mentioned enough for me to wonder about it, it should have been tied up!

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    1. Yes! If it was mentioned enough for me to wonder about it, I want something, too. Anything other than being ignored.

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  19. Maybe I'm just a really dumb reader, but I don't ever close a book and go, "Oh, man I'm disappointed [such and such] wasn't resolved." If I made it to the end, I trust the author to weave the story together that needed to be told.

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  20. I don't like to keep multiple trains of thought going in a book (or really, anywhere!). If an issue is not resolved, it stays open in my mind. Those details interfere with how I process the ongoing plot. Once I start feeling like I have to map out the family tree of characters or events just to keep up, I am not happy. As a reader I am willing to pay attention and work some. However, if the load gets too heavy, it will get dropped. Lovely post!

    Total bummer on the bait and switch from a teacher. And to think he probably tells the same story at dinner parties from his somewhat-evil perspective.

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  21. Gosh, I love this post ... and I loved Michael Jackson. I would've been crying had that been my teacher. Seriously. No MJ for real?

    Great reminder to not leave plot points dangling out there in neverland ... kind of where I imagine MJ to be right now.

    (In all seriousness, I hope he's in heaven. I LOVED him.)

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  22. Wow, I'd definitely feel let down! A poster, really? This is such a good point. I've finished books where I was like, what about X? Great reminder to not leave plot points unresolved!!

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  24. Peggy, I'm about to make my first post on Crowe's Nest and was checking out the most recent ones. I love this, and my teachers did something very similar to us in elementary school -- except their unfulfilled promise ended in lip sync and blackface. I posted about it as a eulogy to Michael: http://storybookgirl.blogspot.com/2009/06/oh-michael.html

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