Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Elevating plot over character

Here’s a post at Terrible Minds: On Plot And Character

Here’s the bit I want to pull out:

Last scene in the season finale involves a character leaving their phone behind, and on this phone is a voicemail we want them to hear, and then another character intervenes — they open the phone, listen to the voicemail, and erase it.

Simple enough.

Problem:

The character who left behind the phone is a teenager. Teenagers are maybe forgetful, but they’re also critically married to their phones (as are we proper adults), and this teenager in particular is sharp, savvy, and naturally suspicious of like, literally everyone. And in the first season we saw a character lose their phone and see the result of that. So, leaving a phone behind callously is strange. The character isn’t just stepping outside for a cigarette — they’re “walking into town.” At night. It’s a good distance. And they don’t take their phone. …

The episode is very concerned about its PLOT and not very concerned about its CHARACTERS. … I hate whenever I’m watching or reading something and one of the characters is suddenly acting very unlike themselves, and it feels like the storyteller is shaving off their square corners so they’ll fit into the circle hole socket that the plot requires. 

Chuck Wendig treats this as a forgivable choice on the part of the writers, even though it bothers him personally. I disagree. I think the above choice — forcing a character to leave their phone behind, and using this uncharacteristic action to get the character into trouble — is a dire mistake.

Here is what the writer of that show should have done:

COME UP WITH A PLAUSIBLE REASON

You can always come up with a plausible reason for a character to do something that is fundamentally out of character and/or stupid. You just have to put your mind do it. Why would a character — teenager or adult, any character, I’m glued to my phone these days and I’m far from a teenager — leave her phone behind? Well, she might do that because:

— something really startling happened, maybe something urgent as well as startling, and she needed both hands for some other purpose. She was therefore distracted, in a hurry, and physically unable to pick up her phone. You could even have her throw a look over her shoulder at the phone but no! The situation is too urgent, so she leaves it behind.

— her phone ran out of charge and she plugged it in and then something urgent happened and she had to leave the house, but the phone was still very low on power — even if she remembered it, it wouldn’t do any good.

— She puts it in her pocket, but it falls out and she doesn’t notice.

I mean, this kind of thing is NOT HARD. All the writers had to do was think, Wait, why would she leave her phone behind? and the problem is basically solved. You should be able to come up with a plausible reason that suits the specific situation within one minute of asking yourself that question.

Bottom line: never let the needs of the plot force a character to act in an unbelievable way, especially if that action is also stupid.

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2 Comments Elevating plot over character

  1. Mary Catelli

    She was afraid of being tracked by it!

    Mind you that requires as much set-up as all the rest combined. . . .

  2. Rachel

    Yep, that’d work! If you’d already set up the spying thing as a subplot, which yes, if you haven’t, probably not the way to explain this.

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