Thursday, June 4, 2009

WHAM! Hear the mountains dropping

Yes, it's the author plotting/Can't write a character to save her life (sung - badly - to the tune of Scotland the Brave)

We all like to see the hero triumph against impossible odds, which is part of the reason why we like underdog stories. We also like the hero to actually be moderately heroic - to do things rather than wait for fate or some kindly deity to drop it in his, her or its lap.

So how do we write that? Obviously there have to be obstacles, and they have to be real obstacles, things that could feasibly stop the hero cold or possibly even kill him. If there weren't any, the book would be dreadfully boring.

This is where a lot of authors come adrift and start to plot by dropping mountains. You've all seen it. Hero is going along heroing, things are starting to look good, then WHAM! and the mountain drops in the form of a catastrophic event coming out of nowhere. Some books get so bad about this that any time the poor hero starts to catch his breath the poor shell-shocked reader starts looking for the next mountain.

Pratchett punctures this beautifully in The Color of Magic in the sequence with the Gods playing games with Rincewind and Twoflower, causing random pieces of scenery to land on them and getting them (actually, mostly getting Rincewind) into terrible trouble.

So what's the alternative?

Characters have motivations. The hero wants to rescue an adoring maiden, cart off several wagon loads of gold, and settle down to a comfortable retirement with his adoring ex-maiden. The villain wants the hero to become a sticky smear on the ground. The maiden wants to be rescued. Everything outside whatever sends the hero off after this particular maiden should arise naturally out of the hero doing his thing, the villain doing his, and the maiden doing hers. If a mountain lands on the hero, it should land there because something the hero did pissed off someone else, who set up a large catapult and sent that mountain flying, or because the villain is trying to keep the hero out and launching pieces of landscape in order to protect himself and the maiden he's holding hostage. The reason the villain is holding the maiden hostage is another layer: perhaps her father owes him a lot of gold, or he's paying back an old grudge, or he's fallen for her and is trying to get her to marry him and this is the only method he knows.

For instance, in Sarah's Gentleman Takes a Chance Tom and Kyrie both want to protect themselves and the people of Goldport from a murderous shifter, without drawing attention to themselves because a guy who turns into a dragon and a woman who turns into a panther would probably not like the results of being known for what they are. Dante Dire wants to pin the deaths of thousands of shifter beetle larvae on someone, kill someone, and get out of the hick little town, and wouldn't object to doing so with an attractive companion like Kyrie. Rafiel wants to stop the killings and find himself a nice girl who can accept him for what he is. The killer wants dinner. The intersection of all these motives drives pretty much everything that happens in the book.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to name the books that offer really good examples of the character's motivations and actions driving the plot, or if you're feeling contrary, the ones where the author is flinging scenery from on high. And explain why, of course.


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Unstated is that not only do the characters have motivations and try to solve their problems, but often in trying to solve the problem they make things worse And often what causes them to make things worse is a blind spot caused by their character flaw. "Plotting and character. All connected. Wheels within wheels."
If you simply grab onto "things get worse" as a means of plotting, things get very boring very fast.
Took me forever to realize this, by the way. I have an entire series waiting rewrite. Cretan universe. Great gods, great obstacles, battles, incest, madness and all sorts of goodies...
So, why does it need absolute scraping of the slate and rewrite? Because I didn't realize plotting was connected to character. I had my plot flapping lose, and just kept dropping stuff at random on the poor critters.
One advantage of the character-connected plot is that you can IMPLY to your readers that there are things the character isn't seeing and thus provide foreshadowing.
Now, foreshadowing is a whole subject on its own, but being incredibly perceptive, I totally missed the need for it (but, but, but readers WANT to be surprised) and I went out of the way to un-foreshadow, that is to hide what's coming even when logical, until Monkey-san (three kow tows and four obeysances in his direction) rephrenologized me and pointed the error of my ways.
Yes, the reader wants to be surprised... maybe. There is a reason that in movies, the music swells up before the stuff hits the rotatting object. And which is more suspensful? Your character enters a room, undresses, changes clothes, does her make up and wham bam, guy drops from atop the wardrobe with a knife? It's a surprise, sure, but you probably fell asleep watching her do girly stuff first. Or you know the guy is on top of the wardrobe, waiting his moment to pounce, and the character is (oh, ick) undressing, changing clothes, doing make up (what is she going to do? Stab him with her mascara wand?)
Anyway, getting far from the point but the thing is -- it's all connected. Character drives plot. Plot tests character. Narrative techniques make it possible for reader to see both happening.
(exits singing "it's the circle of fiction.")

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, there is a dirty trick to foreshadowing. It must be done... and 3 times is often good. BUT (and here is tricky part) the reader must be subconciously primed for the 'surprise' mountain falling... so that when it falls the reader slaps forehead and says... "why didn't I see that coming? It's SO obvious." If you can do that, you're golden. Part of this is foreshadowing in character - let us see responses that make the final 'surprise' likely and plausible. The other thing is to use invisible writing... well, that or speech tags, or information contained in repartee. The reader READS it. They even remember it when the denoument happens (if you've done it at least a couple of times!). They just don't notice it. Ok, so I am a very lazy Chekov-type writer. If it is in a scene, it's there for a reason. I'm too idle to put words in for fun. Or too anal. You decide. I vote for lazy myself. That's unusual. Most writers put wads of verbiage that they thought sounded good at the time. Suits me. It means my readers are lulled, and don't spot the primers/foreshadows until it's far too late. Even then they may be unaware they were set up.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Another layer I like to add to motivations driving plots forward, is characters growing, so that their motivations change as the book progresses.

I've been reading CE Murphy's Queen's Bastard and Pretender's Crown. In these books the main protagonist, Belinda, grows as she learns things and her motivations change.

Mike said...

Scenery from on high...

Footfall! But they are motivated!

Kate said...


"Things get worse" does need to happen because of things the characters are doing rather than just flinging scenery at them.

(Carefully takes earplugs from ears and checks to see if Sarah plans to sing again)

So who does it well? And why?

Kate said...


You do it brilliantly. If I started going through the examples from your books, I'd be here all night, and I need to go to bed :)

So who else does the foreshadowing/character/plot intermingling really well, and why?

Kate said...


Absolutely. Sometimes motivations do shift, and that can deepen a book immensely. I love the way Pratchett does this, such as in Thud!, where what looks like a very simple murder gradually reveals how much more complex it all is.

That sequence where Vimes is in full berserker and still trying to read to his son is both terrifying and immensely moving, and emerges naturally from who and what Vimes is.

His motivation at the start might have been the simple "stop the trolls and dwarfs going to war in my city", but by the end it was something much more complex and at the same time more elemental.

Kate said...


So why does Footfall work or not work for you? How do you see the motivations fitting into or causing (or not causing) the scenery from on high?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Foreshadowing -- who does it well.... Other than Dave and Pterry and other people the hem of whose cloaks I'm not fit to touch...

Jill McGowan. Mystery writer. This is the first that comes to mind, because in the end her "solution" flips about three times -- you think you have the right one, then it flips, then it flips agian -- and each time you go "duh." I read her first book and thought "popcorn" then found I kept coming back to it. Went out and bought everything of hers. The series seems to be dead. Don't get me started.

F. Paul Wilson has done this over VOLUMES so that in book six he can turn the entire worldbuilding on its head and you go "Oh, of course!"

Who doesn't do it well -- me. I either pound people over the head with it, or am so subtle I routinely get accused of not plotting. Despite my 50k plus outlines, I get told I really should outline. It's sad really. But... I'm learning. While there's life there's hope. And I no longer drop mountains on characters.

Dave -- re: verbiage. I just pour it out while I'm tired. It's a side effect of a degree in literature. I'll wake up and realize I wrote two pages. And none of it makes sense. THANK heavens I now know enough to delete it. Either that or give the lines to a really boring character. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I don't know if anyone else does this, but all my books have a point at which the characters realize either their motivation is not something that any longer want, or that their motivation was wrong to begin with. Ie. say you have a character setting out to get revenge on the man he thinks peed on his goat. He sets out to explain to him that pillage isn't pee-lage. Then halfway through the book, he realizes that if he explains this, the maraunder is likely to hurt him more, so he comes home and bathes his goat instead. Or say the character sets out to conquer the world, then finds out that what he really wants is a nice cup of tea.
Farcical examples aside, this seems to happen in almost all my books -- or at least the ones that are worth a damn -- and I have a term for it "mirror moment." The moment the character looks in the mirror and perceives his true motivation.

WangZheng259 said...

For an example of motivations driving the plot, I am going to have to pick an example from Kratman's Terra Nova books again. Robinson wants to destroy Terra Nova so that it will not threaten Earth. Mustafa wants Terra Nova under the rule of the Salafi. Pat Carrera wants a terrible bloody revenge with a fairly broad list of targets. These motivations drive these three men into all the battle activity of the first two books. The motivations that drive the sequels seem to be either the same, or could reasonably be predicted from the first two books.

'I like fighting and killing for a decent cause, and I'm being paid to acheive this objective' is also a motivation, but it doesn't quite feel the same. It can be done quite well, but it isn't exactly the same as strong conflicting ambitions and desires for revenge.

In Negima, Negi Springfield is searching for his missing father, and has been seeking to follow in his footsteps, since the age of four. His first assignment on this path, just out of magic school, essentially drops a mountain range on him. However, he finds the path to his father through the mountains, and is currently travelling it.

Dave Freer said...

Kate one of the problems with what you're asking here is that even to most wanna-be writers and certainly to almost all just-readers - (and Sarah just touched on this with her Jill McGowan eg) is that good writers tend to blend things in well enough that until you know what they're doing it's hard to realise they're doing it. If - without looking for it - you read a piece and say 'look at that character evolution', or 'I see this character will make them try and break out of jail' or even 'wow, that's meaningful'... the writer is fairly unskilled (will someone PLEASE explain that to to modern literature studies). The bottom line is if it looks effortless... it prossibly was the inverse. Rather like ballet or rock-climbing or a martial arts Kata. You're an intelligent woman and you've been looking for these things for some years. You will spot them, and they'll quite obvious to you. It's important to learn to spot them, to absorb these techniques (which cannot all be taught, but can be learned ;-)) but it's not as easy as all that. I'm still learning to spot it, and I've been industrious about it for 15 years.

Dave Freer said...

extending that - writers are a subset of con-men. Good confidence tricksters don't let you being know youré being tricked (and part of that is not lying unless they have to, but that's another point.)

Jim McCoy said...

I think one of the best examples of this is the Dragonlance: Legends series by Weiss and Hickman. The whole series is about nothing but the ambitions of Raistlin and his brother Caramon's attempt to foil him for the good of the world.
Raistin pursues power and wants to become a god. The whole story revolves around his attempts to do so. The obstacles in his way are initially created by Takhisis, the evil queen whom Raistlin is attempting to overthrow. Eventually it gets to the point where Raistlin comes to realize that the greatest stumbling block to achieving his dream is himself. A vision of the future shows that would have destroyed the world that he had meant to rule. He eventually gives up when he realizes that even if he wins he still loses.
Caramon's part in the whole thing is complex because he has twin motivations: He wants to stop his brother from succeeding and he wants to keep his brother safe. So on one hand, Caramon has to do whatever is necessary to stop Raistlin. On the other hand, keeping someone safe means not hurting them yourself. It's a very interesting quandary.

Chris McMahon said...

I guess what you're asking really should be an element of all good writing. One fantasy books I really enjoyed with very unique and well drawn characters was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I got really excited by his depiction of the key characters, they were unique, and even the prose he used in each section distinguished them. I would have to say I struggled to get a real sense of broader motivations though, and by the end of that series I was left disappointed. It was at that point I realised that what had excited me was the potential of these characters -- the motivations I was reading into them myself!
One of the other series I have enjoyed tremedously is the Michelle Paver series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. I was embarassed to turn up at the local library for one of these only to be directed, not to the YA section, but Junior Fiction! Says something about me.
In any case, I think Paver draws her characters extremely well. I have also read her historical romances, and these are even better (Serpent's Tooth is the first I think).

Mike said...

You want me to work? OK, I just remember that Footfall by Niven and Pournelle had a mountain (asteroid) falling to earth as part of the plot. And it's been a few years since I read it, but... with the magic of Wikipedia... aha, that was it. The Fithp are herd creatures who believe -- due to genetics and experience -- that when two herds meet, you fight until it is clear that one is dominant, at which point the inferior surrenders by letting the other one put his foot on your chest, and then the herds merge. Sort of a dominance display with trimmings. So in their encounter with Earth, they are all set to demonstrate their strength, including dropping the Foot -- a dinosaur-killer -- when things get rough. They have a rationale for dropping mountains on the other characters! Although they are confused at several points about why these strange beings surrender -- and then get up and fight again. 'taint right!

So, actually, Footfall isn't the authors throwing scenery from on high -- it's characters. Who are deeply motivated to do it, too. In fact, the herd has been travelling for some time, and really wants to win a new home -- and is terrified of losing the women and children, if I remember correctly. So they are throwing scenery, but it's for a good cause.

Unlike some other books and movies, where the asteroids just come down out of nowhere. That may work as an inciting incident -- after all, we do know that dinosaur-killers are possible -- but you're right, doing it in the middle of the book just because the heroes are succeeding feels a bit like the old space opera series where each one had to blow up or threaten a bigger chunk of the universe. And if the Lensmen won this battle, guess our next exciting episode, there's an even more terrible evil facing them!

Does that help clarify? Footfall is just an amusing novel in the context of a discussion of dropping mountains on the characters, because they do. But it's motivated destruction, not deus ex machina. And the Foot is definitely motivation for part of the plot, too :-)

Kate said...

Sarah, you're selling yourself short. I've seen what you write when you're half asleep and you're still dropping in the foreshadowing and character-plot interaction. Maybe you should try for sleep-noveling?

And agreed, on the mirror moment. That point where the character realizes who and what they are and want is often the turning point of the book - or books.

Kate said...


Since I'm not familiar with the works you're talking about, I can't really say much there. I do agree with you about the "I'm good at killing so I'll do that" being not a particularly compelling reason to follow a character's story - it can work, but it has to be done very well.

I've read a few books - alas, the stainless steel lint trap that poses for my mind refuses to retrieve names or authors - where the main character starts with the "I"m good at killing so I'll do that" and for reasons outside his control (usually to do with someone else wanting him dead if I remember correctly) he finds himself forced into what Sarah described as the mirror moment, where he has to decide what he actually stands for and who he is.

Kate said...


I am nailed! Caught, nabbed, and hoisted on my own leotards... oh, wait, I don't own... Nevermindnothingtoseehere... movingonnow....

You're right, of course. I grew up in a musical family, and got hammered with "First you work to be able to do it. Then you work to make it look and sound easy. If it sounds like you're working at it, you're not doing it well enough."

And of course, I look at what writers I enjoy do and how they do it to try to emulate their skills. Then I fall prey to that oh-so-human failing of thinking I'm just like everyone else and forget that not everyone else has spent years trying to learn the craft of writing.

Kate said...


Wasn't that the War of the Twins series? (It's years since I read that, so I'm not entirely certain). The contrast between Raistlin and Caramon and their interaction was in a lot of ways the highlight of the Dragonlance books.

Raistlin became a tragic figure, doomed by his inability to overcome his flaws where Caramon was able to move past his weaknesses and find redemption. Weis and Hickman did that aspect of the series very well indeed.

Kate said...


That's an interesting experience you've described, where you've read your own desires into the characters and been disappointed by the outcome.

I suspect it's happened to all of us at one time or another. I know I've had times when I've subjected a book to a flying lesson because a character has done something out of character because the plot demanded it.

Usually when that happens, the author didn't do something they should have done - although sometimes it's purely our desires being projected a wee bit too loudly.

Kate said...


That sounds like Niven and Pournelle did a lot of layering and worldbuilding (and species building, which is kind of the same thing) behind their plot and characters.

I'm not going near the pun levels in their title and your description of the book, because when I start punning, it's time to leave.

Jim McCoy said...


War of the Twins was one of the books IN the series but the series was Dragonlance Legends. But whatever you call it, it was one of the greatest fantasy series of all time.