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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

"Plots We See All The Time"

"Plots We See All The Time"

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Solar Eclipse
I recently ran across Strange Horizons's list of "plots we see all the time," which is a subset of stories they don't want to have submitted. (Strange Horizons is a magazine of fantasy and science fiction.)  I found the list very entertaining (although perhaps a trifle painful) and so I reprint it here in full. If you want to see the original, the link is here. 

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  1. Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says "I want to be at point B." Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
  2. Creative person is having trouble creating.

    1. Writer has writer's block.
    2. Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
    3. Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
    4. Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
    5. Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.


  3. Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertantly violates them, is punished.

    1. New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist's attempts to explain local rules, is punished.


  4. Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.

    1. In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
    2. In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
    3. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
    4. In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.


  5. An A.I. gets loose on the Net despite the computer it was on not being connected to the Net.

    1. An A.I. gets loose on the Net but the author doesn't have a clear concept of what it means for software to be "loose on the Net." (Hint: the Net is currently a collection of individual computers, not some kind of big ubercomputer; software doesn't currently run in the wires between computers.)


  6. The future is soulless.

    1. In the future, all learning is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
    2. In the future, everything is electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who's lived a non-electronic life.


  7. Protagonist is a bad person. (We don't object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.)

    1. Bad person is told they'll get the reward that they "deserve," which ends up being something bad.
    2. Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their comeuppance).
    3. Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which they see the error of their ways and are redeemed. (But reading about the awfulness is so awful that we never get to the end to see the redemption.)


  8. A place is described, with no plot or characters.
  9. A "surprise" twist ending occurs. (Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.)

    1. The characters' actions are described in a way meant to fool the reader into thinking they're humans, but in the end it turns out they're not humans, as would have been obvious to anyone looking at them.
    2. Creatures are described as "vermin" or "pests" or "monsters," but in the end it turns out they're humans.
    3. The author conceals some essential piece of information from the reader that would be obvious if the reader were present at the scene, and then suddenly reveals that information at the end of the story. (This can be done well, but rarely is.)
    4. Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, they're born.
    5. Person uses time travel to achieve some particular result, but in the end something unexpected happens that thwarts their plan.
    6. The main point of the story is for the author to metaphorically tell the reader, "Ha, ha, I tricked you! You thought one thing was going on, but it was really something else! You sure are dumb!"
    7. A mysteriously-named Event is about to happen ("Today was the day Jimmy would have to report for The Procedure"), but the nature of the Event isn't revealed until the end of the story, when it turns out to involve death or other unpleasantness. (Many classic sf stories use this technique, which is one reason we're tired of seeing it. Another reason is that we can usually guess the twist well ahead of time, which makes the mysteriousness annoying.)
    8. In the future, an official government permit is required in order to do some particular ordinary thing, but the specific thing a permit is required for isn't (usually) revealed until the end of the story.


  10. Someone calls technical support; wacky hijinx ensue.

    1. Someone calls technical support for a magical item.
    2. Someone calls technical support for a piece of advanced technology.
    3. The title of the story is 1-800-SOMETHING-CUTE.


  11. Scientist uses himself or herself as test subject.
  12. Evil unethical doctor performs medical experiments on unsuspecting patient.
  13. Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
  14. In the future, criminals are punished much more harshly than they are today.

    1. In the future, the punishment always fits the crime.
    2. The author is apparently unaware of the American constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, and so postulates that in the future, American punishment will be extra-cruel in some unusual way.


  15. White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.
  16. Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.

    1. A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
    2. Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
    3. A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world.


  17. An alien observes and comments on the peculiar habits of humans, for allegedly comic effect.

    1. The alien is fluent in English and completely familiar with various English idioms, but is completely unfamiliar with human biology and/or with such concepts as sex or violence and/or with certain specific extremely common English words (such as "cat").
    2. The alien takes everything literally.
    3. Instead of an alien, it's people in the future commenting on the ridiculous things (usually including internal combustion engines) that people used to use in the unenlightened past.


  18. Space travel is wonderful and will solve all our problems. (We agree that space travel is pretty cool, but we'd rather that weren't the whole point of the story.)
  19. Man has an awful, shrewish wife; in the end he gets revenge on her, by (for example) killing her or leaving her.

    1. Man is entirely blameless, innocent, mild-mannered, and unobjectionable, and he kills his awful, shrewish wife entirely by accident, possibly in self-defense, so it's okay.


  20. Some characters are in favor of immersive VR, while others are opposed to it because it's not natural; they spend most of the story's length rehashing common arguments on both sides. (Full disclosure: one of our editors once wrote a story like this. It hasn't found a publisher yet, for some reason.)
  21. Person A tells a story to person B (or to a room full of people) about person C.

    1. In the end, it turns out that person B is really person C (or from the same organization).
    2. In the end, it turns out that person A is really person C (or has the same goals).
    3. In the end, there's some other ironic but predictable twist that would cast the whole story in a different light if the reader hadn't guessed the ending early on.


  22. People whose politics are different from the author's are shown to be stupid, insane, or evil, usually through satire, sarcasm, stereotyping, and wild exaggeration.

    1. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by politically correct liberals, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).
    2. In the future, the US or the world is ruled by fascist conservatives, leading to awful things (usually including loss of freedom of speech).


  23. Superpowered narrator claims that superhero stories never address the mundane problems that superheroes would run into in the real world.
  24. A princess has been raped or molested by her father (or stepfather), the king.
  25. Someone comes up with a great medical or technological breakthrough, but it turns out that it has unforeseen world-devastating consequences. (Again, this is a perfectly good plot element, but we're not thrilled when it's the whole point of the story.)
  26. It's immediately obvious to the reader that a mysterious character is from the future, but the other characters (usually including the protagonist) can't figure it out.
  27. Someone takes revenge for the wrongs done to them.

    1. Protagonist is put through heavy-handed humiliation after humiliation, and takes it meekly, until the end when he or she murders someone.


  28. The narrator and/or male characters in the story are bewildered about women, believing them to conform to any of the standard stereotypes about women: that they're mysterious, wacky, confusing, unpredictable, changeable, temptresses, etc.
  29. Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation.

    1. The protagonist is surrounded by people who know the explanation but refuse to give it.


  30. Hell and Heaven are run like businesses.
  31. Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, in a story that's ostensibly about violence against women being bad.

    1. Man is forced by circumstances or magic to rape a woman even though he really doesn't want to, honest.
    2. The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped.


  32. Evil people hook the protagonist on an addictive substance and then start raising the price, ruining the protagonist's life.
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Interestingly, apparently people quote this list so often that the magazine actually has "guidelines for bloggers."  That was entertaining too.

 
  • Well, I already see a LOT of novels and sci fi short stories with some of this. Even movies as in especially no.31. Examples of 32 are hilarious


    LOL..I love your "location" Ah the music...

    Hope you're having a good holiday.
  • That's a scarily long list. Although I have deftly avoided most of these by writing only about people, and specifically about people who live on planet earth. Though some of them do magic. And keep dragons. Oh, well.
    • Hm, several of them are about people, aren't they? And ordinary people? But it's good that you've avoided them. The dragons are a problem, though...
  • Hee!

    The funny thing is, each of these reminded me of at least one classic Asimov/Bradbury/Niven/Whoever story.

    Which I suppose is precisely the point!

    And...

    Mmmmmmmm, latkes! X
    • It might be an amusing exercise to list some classics, or at least, published fiction of decent quality, that fit each of these.

      3. Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead.
      4a. Wizard of Oz (movie version).
      7c. Does it count if the redemption part happens earlier? Say, Les Miserables?
      9e. Twelve Monkeys
      16. My favorites in this subgenre are D. J. Heydt's A Point of Honor and Will Shetterly's The Tangled Lands (both of which could also qualify as 4b).
      17. Stranger in a Strange Land
      20. Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End (now available free online, but I read it in paperback).
      21b. The classic example of this is by Borges. I forget the title offhand.
      23. Niven, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex
      • A lot of texts in there I love, Hex. The time travel scenario, I think, is much more complicated in Twelve Monkeys than is suggested in the 9e plot summary. That movie is another classic plot, that the past as it exists is the past as you changed it, you just didn't recognize it as such. *Shiver.*
    • I think each of these ideas was the "new and fresh thing" once. I was most amused by the "writer's block" plots. Can't you just picture it? "Well, okay, I can't think of anything to write, so I'll write about someone who can't think of anything to write!"

      Latkes are great, but the stuff is coming out of my pores...
      • "Well, okay, I can't think of anything to write, so I'll write about someone who can't think of anything to write!"

        Stephen King's Misery. ;-)

        And yeah--they do stay with you!
  • Here via tunxeh - thanks for sharing this fascinating (and worrying) list!
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