Monday 12 January 2015

Tricks of the Trade 1: The Plant

This is the first in a series of posts looking at common writing techniques that can be both very effective and horribly misused. The focus here will be on how to get the most out of them while avoiding the obvious, hackneyed and contrived.

In most stories you will employ some kind of plant. This is where you establish something early on that will come back to have some significance later on in the story.

It could be an object, a name or an idea. Typically you make the reader aware of it in the first few chapters and when it turns up towards the end the recognition combined with the important role this seemingly innocuous thing/person/concept now plays can be very satisfying. It can also be crass and clunky.

Mind you, crass and clunky doesn’t always lessen the effect on the audience. Consider a James Bond type of set up where our hero is presented with a gadget at the start of a story. This gadget has a very particular ability, and lo and behold when the hero later finds himself in dire straits the one thing he needs to make his escape is the one thing his gadget can do. 

Yet, it’s somehow still quite entertaining to see where exactly the watch with the built in electro-magnet will be used. This is the power of the plant. The pay-off will always have some kind of effect on the audience, even when they know it’s coming. In fact knowing the gun in Act I will be used at some point in Act III often raises anticipation and expectation.

That doesn’t mean you can’t shape and refine this technique to be more impactful or to have different effects.

A popular approach is to bury the plant so it isn’t that noticeable when first mentioned. You lose the anticipation here but also the obviousness, what you gain is surprise. The hero is about to meet his doom, and suddenly he escapes using that ability to dislocate his shoulder that was mentioned in passing back in Chapter One.

The problem here is that trying to slip something into the story that is noticeable enough so it won’t be forgotten while being subtle enough so as to be glaringly obvious can be tricky. If someone mentions that they’re deathly allergic to bee stings apropos of nothing in particular it’s going to pretty clear this is an attempt at a plant.

It is a simple matter to convince yourself that the people in the scene are just having a conversation and this sort of thing sometimes comes up so it’s perfectly reasonable that it could be mentioned. But drawing attention to a technique risks taking the reader out of the story. 

A way to avoid this is to have a good reason for mentioning it in the first place; one that has nothing to do with the eventual role the plant will play.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Jem is saved at the very end by Boo Radley (Hooray for Boo!). Boo could have just been mentioned in passing as they walked past his house one day and chances are you would recall the name when he turned up to save Jem, but instead he is given a separate and significant role in the first half of the book. He is the scary mystery man that lives in the spooky house the kids are both intrigued and terrified by. His appearance is both a surprise and completely satisfying. We’ve never met him yet we know a lot about him. Even though we’ve never seen him we have felt his presence. 

This is the kind of multi-layered effect you can achieve if you get the balance right.

Another issue is that often it’s been such a long time since the plant has been mentioned that when Delbert Desaviour finally turns up the reader might have to take a moment to remember who this person is, taking them out of the story.

You can provide a reminder in the narrative when Delbert makes his entrance but this can come across as heavy-handed and awkward; far more satisfying for readers to make the connection for themselves. A better way is to remind readers along the way so they don’t forget, but characters randomly dropping Delbert’s name into conversation every now and again will seem odd if they don’t have good reason to.

Consider Harry Potter and his relationship to Voldemort. From the very beginning we are made aware of a connection between the two. For some reason Harry was allowed to live. He has the scar on his forehead. He can talk to snakes. He has powers far beyond wizards of his own age. These and other clues are sprinkled throughout the many thousands of pages so that when we finally learn what a Horcrux is and that Harry is one, we don’t need to recall these strange indicators from way back, rather they come together to like puzzle pieces finally slotted into place. It doesn’t matter if you forgot some, even one that resonates will be enough to do the job. And, as is more, probable, you are hit by a number of realisations it will only make the experience more satisfying. 

It’s not the same information repeated over and over, and it isn’t random disparate elements, it’s the same plant expressed from different angle.

So while even the most basic plant will improve a story, by taking a little time to give a plant its own place in the narrative you can produce a pay-off that will be truly memorable and impactful.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The example with Boo is good. If the plant can serve two purposes, that's best.

mooderino said...

@Alex - doesn't hurt to have a name that striking either.

Christine Rains said...

Excellent post. Sometimes that plant is difficult to do. I've found that it works best for me to fit it in smoothly when I do revisions.

Chemist Ken said...

I'm big on dropping plants throughout a story. I love them in the stories I read, so I love to stuff them into my stories. This means I'm always struggling to find ways to drop them in without making them obvious. The best way for me is to always have another story reason for bringing them up.

mooderino said...

@Christine - same here, often I need to finish the first draft to know what plants to work in.

@Ken - nothing quite as satisfying as the solution that was sitting right in front of you the whole time.

Anne Gallagher said...

This is a great post. I use plants all the time, not to be confused with red herrings (b/c I use those too). Now that my series is complete, I actually found a plant from book 1 that showed up in book 8. And I had forgotten all about it. THAT was a great day.

Melissa Sugar said...

I just wrote a long comment and it disappeared . I won't go into it all again, but one of my favorite films that utilized this was Sea of Love. Pacino's cop character uses his cop trophy that he stashed early on so the suspect he took to bed wouldn't make him as a cop. I've also heard this refered to as the first act solution or the third act solution. Is that the same thing as the plant you are referring to ?

Loved the article . As always , it was very helpful . This is definitely one of my go to blogs when I am stumped or need help with a scene I am writing . Thanks for sharing such helpful information

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