The One-Plot Wonder


Back in the mid to late 1980s I was a security guard. The pay waslousy, but it gave me many hours in seclusion to write shortstories and novels. However, I usually worked over 80 hours aweek. No one can write that much. Well, at least not me. Thus Idiscovered the joys of my local libraries.

Recently, I decided to look up an author who gave me greatpleasure in those days. Most of his books are now out of print,I've learned, even the one that became a movie.

I found that two of his were books available, so I ordered them.One I'd enjoyed before. The other was a straight thriller fromthe days before he created the "Appleton Porter" spy spoofs,re-released in 2001 in POD. I didn't know this before it arrivedat my home in China.

Since I'm giving away THE plot spoiler, I won't identify theauthor or title.

A man who deeply loves his wife buys her a hotel outside London.She is very happy there, at first. This is a fine suspensefulread as she notes oddities and eventually appears to be losingher mind and such. Suicides, an eventual murder. Finally, herhusband pays a doctor to kill her.

Her husband arranged all this, we learn at the end, becauseshe was dying of a horrible and incurable illness. Rather thanlet her suffer the indignity, he tries to give her some finaldays filled with wonderful memories. He never realizes that heended her days with a living hell.

The writing was fine, aside from some stupid typos of the sortcommon in unedited POD titles. He's obviously a sincere,hard-working, talented author. The plot was wholly consistentand everything "worked."

So why is it a weak book? Because the plot I described is allthere is. It's a one-plot wonder.

As an author, if you find yourself floundering, if you find yourwork-in-progress failing to make progress, ask yourself. Is it aone-plot wonder?

Here are some best sellers I've read over the past thirty years.

During the Cold War, a Soviet commander steals a top-secretsubmarine and tries to defect to the US with it. A good andidealistic young law graduate accepts a job too good to be true,only to eventually learn he's working for the Mafia. Analcoholic author and his family become caretakers at an oldMaine hotel, alone during the winter, and he eventually goesnuts. A US President declares war on drug dealers, a "clear andpresent danger" to national security. A crippled author iskidnapped by the ultimate fan.

I've chosen these titles because I've read the books and seenthe movies. None of my plot summaries are wrong. But with someof those novels, there are many more plots and subplots at work.These are the novels that didn't always translate well to thebig screen due to time constraints and/or loss of non-objectivevoice.

I love a well-conceived "what if" scenario, and none of these books lack that. But more importantly, I love a novel that'srich with the fabric of life. That's where multiple plots comeinto play. Very rarely will a movie capture this as well as anovel can.

A one-plot wonder is a boring read. It's a boring write. It's notrealistic. And, it's a hard sell. All your eggs are in onebasket. If the editor isn't enthralled with that sole plot, youaren't published. If the reviewer isn't enthralled with that soleplot, he pans you. If the potential reader isn't enthralled withthat sole plot, he doesn't buy your book. Or if he does, maybeyou don't get any repeat business from him. You don't get mine.

Plus, we should be setting the bar a bit higher for ourselvesanyway. We entertain, but we also enlighten and educate. Or atthe very least, provide needed escape. But it's hard to escape toa one-plot wonder. I keep taking coffee breaks between chapters.

I single out no writing medium with this. All are guilty. Comeon, TERMINATOR 2 has more subplots than many successful booksthese days. And it's not just "these days," incidentally. Thetitle I reviewed early in this article is from 1979. Published,successful, well-written, flat.

Craftsmanship is fine. Craftsmanship is wonderful to behold.Craftsmanship is a necessity. But, it's not enough.

Do you want to build a horse barn that never leaks or do you wantto build a two-story A-frame home that survives five hurricanesundamaged? My carpenter did the latter and I can't do the former.But if I had the ability to build a leak-proof barn, I certainlywouldn't limit myself to barns. I'd try to build houses.

I'm not talking about weighty tomes. Times change, readerschange, and most people don't read them any more. What was onceconsidered gripping is now considered boring.

But one-plot wonders also bore readers. They read it, enjoy itmoderately, then go look for something else to do. There's littlesatisfaction at the end. Rarely the big "wow" that probably madeyou start writing in the first place.

I'm talking about shooting for five stars instead of two orthree. I'm talking about richness of story, raising the standard,writing your absolute best instead of settling for adequate.

I risk oversimplification here, but I'm seeing far too manyone-plot wonders. People are buying them, too. But it's time forus, the authors, to quit writing them.

Copyright 2004, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at http://www.chinarice.org waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?


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