I’ve been watching the AMC mini-series The Night Manager, and for the most part, I’m loving it. Great characters, an interesting set-up, terrific acting (especially by Hugh Laurie!). But with all the plot-twists, my husband Michael and I keep looking at each other, saying, “Well, that was convenient, wasn’t it?”
Even though we love it, we’re picking the plot apart.
And it got me thinking: what is it about plot-heavy works that makes people be ultra-critical?
It’s funny, because I actually love plot. I get quite frustrated when a book or movie has a lazy, meandering plot, or when a project is over, and I’m left thinking, “That’s it? What was the point to all that?” It’s part of the reason why I’m not a big fan of literary novels: oftentimes they almost seem hostile in their refusal to let anything actually happen, or to have their main characters be, you know, active. And I love an ambiguous ending, but I hate a lazy, non-ending that doesn’t really say anything.
And yet, here I am watching The Night Manager, a plot-heavy TV series I really like, and I find myself being ultra-critical of the plot. What’s that about?
The truth is, a good plot is hard. Fiction is an approximation of real life, but it’s most decidedly not real life. Real life doesn’t come with act breaks, and it isn’t driving toward any particularly satisfying or interesting conclusion. We writers are faking it for entertainment purposes.
Every book or movie requires some degree of contrivance, but the skill comes from the writer’s ability to disguise the artifice, to make everything that happens look seamless, like something that could actually happen. Characters need to act the way the situation (and their characterization) requires, not what is most convenient for the purposes of moving the plot forward. And then, of course, it all needs to be leading to a completely unexpected and wonderful and surprising ending, but that ending also can’t come out of the blue. It needs to proceed logically from everything that came before.
I actually think that “plot” is the most difficult part of writing, hands down, which is why I wish it got more respect from critics (in books, they love poetic language; in movies, critics love arresting imagery and show-y acting). If writing came with a degree of difficulty, I think the twisty, plot-heavy books and screenplays would be the ones with the highest number.
And I think readers and audiences love plot. The fact that we all take it so seriously — that we get so annoyed when something feels false — indicates just how much we care about it.
I’ve been thinking about these things a lot because my latest book, Three Truths and a Lie, is probably my most intricately plotted book ever. It’s a puzzle box thriller with a “twist” ending, and almost every single sentence in the book is there for a specific reason.
Did I pull it off? Does the plot all hang together?
I think so! But, of course, you have to be the judge of that.