The Book Meme: Day 7

Day 07 - Least favorite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise

Analyzing plot can be a tricky thing, because some devices work pretty well in the hands of one writer and not in those of another. Basically, any given plot device is like an accordion; some people know how to play it well enough to get away with using it, but some people don't really play it very well, and some people aren't unskilled players, but they use it without any regard to what else is going on. John Linnell of They Might Be Giants knows exactly when the song calls for it, but you shouldn't really use an accordion to play a heavy metal song unless you're Weird Al Yankovic.

One irritating cliche is the Hero Is Motivated By Losing His Wife/ Child/ Dog. Cultural critic Ian Shoales used to call this one "That Dog's Gonna Die," positing that the only reason to give a hero a dog was to spur him to action by killing it. It's a quick and simple way to provide motive, and it has the added advantage of quickly establishing who the bad guys are (e.g. Whoever Killed That Dog.) Problem is, because it's so easy to use, it gets used A LOT. Comics critic Heidi McDonald once dryly observed that "Those evilbadguys killed my wife!" is to the modern comic book what "Zeus has a yen for a mortal maid" was to Greek mythology. Batman and Spider-Man get away with their motivations because they were young people who lost parental figures (and Spidey's associated feelings of guilt), but man, the number of heroes motivated by the loss of their loved ones is astonishing. In comics you've got the Punisher, the Saint of Killers, and Jon Sable. In movies you've got Gladiator, Kill Bill (where it's at least gender-flipped), and the original Mad Max. And in books, dead loved ones serve to motivate everyone from Victor Frankenstein to seemingly the entire cast of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Mind you, it is possible to use this trope well, if you give time to establish the hero's bond with said wife/child/dog. This is handled well in John Wick, since the character is established as having been devastated by the death of his wife, and then receives a posthumous gift from her, only to lose it through the motivating incident. I'd also have to say that, as much as I hated this trope in the Punisher comics, a combination of good writing and acting makes it effective in the Netflix TV version of the character. I know, I'm as surprised as you.

There are plenty of cliches out there, but there are even tropes that are not especially cliched that do rub me the wrong way. I recently read a Mira Grant novel where the Big Reveal made itself clear to me in the opening pages, but it was another 500 pages before that Reveal was revealed, and because it was set up as the big shocking cliffhanger moment, I felt unsatisfied. (Honestly, it wasn't OMG IT'S THE SLED! or OMG HE'S LUKE'S FATHER! so much as it was OMG THE ICEBERG SANK IT!) At the same time, I have to admit that this twist was not a cliche, or at least not one that I recognized from other sources, so I give Grant credit for that, at least.

My top irritation, however, is one I've mentioned in part already: when an author stacks the deck in favor of his characters. Sometimes this is done to make a political or philosophical point, as in Piers Anthony's Xanth and Apprentice Adept series, where every character who hews closely to the rules is always rewarded for it. Maybe not immediately, but consistently. If you obey the law and stick by your word, Anthony will make sure things turn out well for you, even if you're a clueless misogynist.

Robert A. Heinlein sometimes stacks the deck in a similar way. If one of his heroes is faced with opposition from a bureaucrat or minor official who cannot see that the hero's pure heroism demands cooperation, that hero will immediately rise up indignantly and fire back at said official with threats, blackmail, or pure, sweet reason. And that official will, without exception, cave. Every one of them is a complete invertebrate when faced with the Randian fury of a Lazarus Long or a Joan Eunice Smith, because RAH will have it no other way.

The most egregious deck-stacking I've come across, however, comes from a writer whose work I ordinarily love. I've enjoyed almost every Dan Simmons novel I've picked up, with my highest praise going to The Terror, but with Drood, The Abominable, Black Hills, and his Hyperion series all providing thorough satisfaction. With all that said, the deck-stacking in his 2000 novel Darwin's Blade (which I'd bet was written long before) is enough to alarm a Las Vegas blackjack dealer from across the state line. The titular Darwin is an accident reconstructor, called upon to investigate various wrecks which Simmons obviously swiped from the urban legend emails that were spread all over the nascent internet in the 1990s, starting with this classic of a car with a JATO attachment. That's pretty lazy, but it's not the most irritating card placement. No, that has to be the fact that all Darwin's peculiar skills are established early in the book so that they can save his life later. He's an accomplished sailplane pilot... and guess what skills he must rely on to escape the bad guys? He's an expert in constructing Ghillie suits... and guess what he has to make in order to protect himself from the bad guys? He's a guy who likes strong women... and guess what kind of woman becomes his love interest? (I should emphasize that this woman is not actually a strong female character, but she's presented as the kind of woman Darwin likes.)

A lot of people apparently enjoyed Darwin's Blade (its rating at Goodreads is 3.32 stars out of 5), but I note that a lot of other folks disliked it strongly. Unique among the Simmons books I've read, it has more 1- and 2-star reviews than 5-star reviews. And I'm afraid I'd have to include myself in the latter group of reviewers. I'm a Simmons fan, but I know when a writer's cheating, or at the very least when he doesn't mind creating the appearance that he's cheating. All in all, I recommend giving "Particle Man" a listen, re-reading The Terror and pretending this never happened.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 11, 2018 10:29 AM.

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