1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Not doing the obvious

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by OurJud, Jul 29, 2016.

    I'd be interested to hear how others handle situations, that for plot reasons, mean your character doesn't do the obvious.

    Do you believe the reason for not taking the obvious action needs to be explained by creating a situation which removes it as an option? Or do you think readers will accept they're reading a work of fiction and move on?

    Classic, cliched example from horror films: The character is in a house when a brutal murder takes place.

    Obvious thing to do: Flee from the house and call the police.
    Plot thing to do: Go upstairs to investigate.

    Take my WiP. It's set in a near-future and it never occurred to me to give my characters mobile/cell phones. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I knew this would makes things too easy for them, but now that they're on the cusp of meeting their first big challenge, I find myself wondering if readers will wonder why they don't have such a common device on their person.

    This is an easy one (had I given them phones) so perhaps not a good example; lose them, flat battery, no signal, out of credit, etc. But what about the more subtle ones?

    For instance, this 'challenge' that my characters are about to face results from a car crash and leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere. They abandon the wrecked vehicle and begin walking. Now in the real world the car would be found, reported to the authorities, who would then run a check on the license plate and have reason to try and contact you. Now, okay, this wouldn't result in a full-on manhunt, but that's what would happen.

    I suppose what I'm asking is how do you decide when to just hope the reader will overlook the characters not doing the obvious thing, and explaining it away by creating something that removes it as an option or possibility?
     
  2. FireWater
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    FireWater Active Member

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    I think there needs to be some type of believable explanation for why the obvious isn't done. Otherwise it will seem like a plot hole.
     
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  3. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    A reader becoming truly engaged in a work of fiction relies on the ability of the author to suspend disbelief within said readers.

    It is your job to create a scenario relatively free of plot holes. I've read numerous books where I have a thought similar to 'why didn't so-and-so just do such-and-such.' Does this mean I didn't enjoy the book? Absolutely not. It means the author either didn't notice the plot hole (fully understandable), or the author chose not to address the plot hole (not as understandable).

    In the situation you've described, and from the fact that you've made this post, it sounds like you know, somewhere in your gut, there may be a problem here.

    I'm a big fan of listening to my gut when it comes to writing. If you think it may be a problem, fix it.
     
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  4. SethLoki
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    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Loss of signal might account for no use of phone and cars that go off (verdant) verges and drop into undergrowth can go unseen for a time. What'd be more difficult to cover, I'd say, would be the lack of passing traffic the occupants (ex) would surely flag down once they're free of the wreck? < That'd also be a third 'coincidence'. It may pull a reader from the page to query the contrivance. I struggle with this a lot. I know all stories are manufactured by imagination but I figure it's a requisite to ease off with over-concocting or ex machina and build in plausibility.
     
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  5. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Write a scene where he rings his wife/mother as soon as the incident occurs, then corrupt everything. Take it from there.
     
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  6. Sal Boxford
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    Sal Boxford Active Member

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    Heck, yes. If the story you're trying to tell me is original enough or funny enough, I've overlook pretty much any implausibility.

    I suppose whether the car is found depends on where it crashes. Maybe its a 4x4. Maybe they're off road. You did say 'middle of nowhere'. That might account for no signal too. And by the time they've walked to where they might get a signal most smartphone batteries would probably have died. ;)

    I hate cell phones (from a plot point of view). They're always trying to spoil my stories. I should just set everything in the 80s and have done with it.
     
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  7. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm not going to bother with quotes, but I will try and address all the points.

    @FireWater Are you saying there's no situation which would be overlooked by a reader, should the obvious not be done?

    @Spencer1990 So, I need to give my character's mobile phones? It's a bit late for that, I think, so I'll just have to come up with a reason they don't have them.

    @SethLoki I don't think the traffic thing will be much of an issue, as so many drivers are reluctant to stop for hitchhikers these days. That's if I want to go down that route. Them being picked up by someone might even be a good bridge to the next part of the story.

    @matwoolf Not sure what you mean by 'corrupt everything'.

    @Sal Boxford I know what you mean. They're such an easy safeguard, and yet in contemporary fiction they're conspicuous by their absence.

    I was watching Duel the other day, and was doing this all the way through. There are a million and one ways he could have escaped that truck driver, but is that really the point?
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  8. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    Yeah, I don't necessarily mean that you need to give them phones. But if you think it might be an issue, it would probably be in your best interest to address it somehow.

    Coming up with a reason for them to not have phones would be a good way to do it. It wouldn't be too labor intensive to do it.
     
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  9. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    I never go for the obvious if I can help it. The obvious is boring. The obvious has been done a million times. My favorite thing to do when I catch myself making an obvious decision when writing is to flip that sucker on its head. What if... (probably the best question a writer can ask himself or herself). I like to think of directions to take a story in that are so not obvious I don't even know how it will turn out.

    This is great advice. This is what I would do or something like this.
     
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  10. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's the whole point. The obvious is boring and I never suggested it should be the option. In fact I actively said it shouldn't be, in a roundabout kind of way.

    No, the point is that without good reason for not doing the obvious, people may question why.

    Real life:
    You crash your car into a ditch - phone the police / ambulance / recovery service = boring, no story.

    Fiction:
    You crash your car into a ditch - rip off the number plates and set fire to it = exciting, a story. But without good reason for your character behaving like this it makes no sense.
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2016
  11. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Depending on the antagonist in the story, would it be feasible for him to want them to do the obvious thing for some reason and for them to know that, forcing them to decide whether or not to do something bad for themselves as the cost of sabotaging him in some way?
     
  12. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I had to read that a few times before it clicked, but no, this wouldn't really work. Even though the incident was caused by an antagonist, it wasn't his intention.

    Can I just make it clear before people start getting bogged down offering plot ideas, this wasn't the idea of the thread (maybe I've posted it in the wrong section). I was merely looking for opinions in general, on characters not doing the obvious thing in a given situation.
     
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  13. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @OurJud Got it.

    Basically, if the character doesn't do the obvious thing because the character has an idea that would legitimately work better, then you'll probably be OK. If the character doesn't do the obvious thing even though the obvious thing would work better than what he's actually doing, then you'll probably need to work a bit to make it convincing that the character would do it.

    Showing a character flaw in a small way that causes a small problem at the beginning of the story, then having that same flaw cause a large problem in the middle, will feel less out-of-nowhere than if the flaw wasn't introduced until the big problem.
     
  14. deadrats
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    deadrats Active Member

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    Your story will only be as boring as you allow it to be.
     
  15. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    Roger whipped the front door shut. He turned to the interior of the house of horror and extended an offensive finger. "You think I'm calling the pigs like some pansy-butt, milk drinking, worm-eyed ENGLISHMAN!?" He whipped up his kilt and flashed his eleventh finger. "Ghosty, I got seven kids! Come over here, and let me put MY pain into YOUR soul!"
     
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  16. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you're missing the point.
    But I think the trick is to not give them the choice - remove it altogether so that they can't do the obvious. Unless, of course, the obvious would positively advance your story in the desired direction.
     
  17. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, that is foul @zoupskim. Finger's no good, anyway x
     
  18. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    ...over about 2000 words, and I'm okay under 2000, but after that, the ambition is to take the reader on a journey, a pleasure, spikes of fun, sure, but they need to relax along the highway, I think so...
     
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  19. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Love this and couldn't agree more. I love writing rest bites for my characters.
     
  20. IHaveNoName
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    IHaveNoName Active Member

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    Aside from the "middle of nowhere, no reception", you could add "lost/destroyed phone" (car crash, so it's either smashed, inaccessible, or just plain missing), "I don't carry a phone for xxx reason" (I don't), or "low battery" (ah hell, I forgot to charge it before we left!).

    And yes, like Sal said, they might have crashed somewhere it's not easily found - I've read several stories where people were trapped in their cars for days (sometimes within sight of a road!) before they could get free or someone found them. So, they go over an embankment, car's hidden in the trees/brush, they can't get back up, and there's no reception. Sounds like the beginning of an interesting struggle to me.
     
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  21. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that you usually need to explain or eliminate it, yes.

    I was going to say more, but that's apparently all.
     
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  22. mrieder79
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    mrieder79 Not a ground squirrel

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    When @matwoolf said to "corrupt everything," I believe he was saying that sometimes you can have your characters choose the obvious course of action and have everything go completely wrong.
     
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  23. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    For this case, you need what Dwight V. Swain calls a sequel, a not-really-a-scene before the scene where the character has to make a decision about whether or not to go upstairs. The character mulls over motivation(s), options, etc. and by the time the decision is made to go up the stairs, it's clear exactly why he/she is doing it.
    Not necessarily. First, an abandoned vehicle doesn't look abandoned unless there's something obviously wrong with it (flat tire, major damage to the body, broken windows, etc.) Even then, if the car is in the middle of nowhere, how does one tell how long the car has been abandoned? Only by the accumulation of debris. If it's freshly abandoned and visible damage is minimal (for instance, if there's a problem with the fuel lines or the battery's dead) the driver may also simply be a few feet off the road relieving himself (and I say 'himself' here because women don't usually do this).

    Finally, authorities don't do regular patrols of 'the middle of nowhere.' It would be a fluke if a sheriff or police officer happened by. Also, fish & game officials (the only ones who would have reason to be out there) have seen tons of cars sitting in or near the bush and would make assumptions that the person is there fishing, hunting, relieving himself or just out for a walk in nature... unless, as I said before, the car is obviously disabled.
    Again, this is something that's addressed in a sequel (see my sig for the name of the book). Whenever a character does anything, motivating it is the key. And getting that motivation across to the reader is done by showing the decision-making process (which also gives you the opportunity to bring up past situations that will influence their thinking).
     
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2016
  24. Dr. Mambo
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    Dr. Mambo Active Member

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    My biggest pet peeve in fiction is a character who behaves in such a way as to advance the story to event x, as opposed to event w causing a character to behave in such a way as to advance the story to event x. In my own writing I go to great lengths to ensure my characters act like real people. Sometimes that means scrapping a whole story arc that I don't feel I can reasonably get to without writing a character wrong or "cheating" by inserting ex machina devices. Generally, the best rule is to change the simplest part of the story you can to get to where you want to go. That minimizes the departure from realism.

    In your example, maybe the driver of the crashed/broken-down vehicle does try to flag down another drive for help. When he is successful and another car stops... Think of all the potential creeps or cutthroats who could be driving that vehicle and who might scare your MC into abandoning the wreck.
     
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