Ansible logo Ansible 46 Feature

The Well-Tempered Plot Device
Nick Lowe

Perhaps once in a generation, the science of criticism is shaken by a conceptual breakthrough so revolutionary that the literary establishment can only dismiss it as deluded quackery. Such a breakthrough is described in these pages. If I draw comparisons with Darwin, Einstein, Lysenko, the sceptical reader may smile. Yet they laughed at Leavis; they creased themselves pink at Edmund Wilson; they barfed up gobs of lung tissue at Derrida's Of Grammatology. To all such shallow-minded so-called "scientists" I say: go ahead and hoot! The High Speed Train of progress makes no unscheduled stops to pick up late travellers, nor can it be tilted in its tracks.

The failure of the old paradigm is simple. There's a curious bias in the vernacular of critical discussion towards the qualities that make a book good. Most of the language traditionally used to describe a book's achievement has to do with its positive qualities: the plot, characterization, style, ideas, significance. Moreover, it's a bias that carries over into all those gruesome handbooks on How To Write Totally Brilliant Novels and Win Big Cash Literary Prizes. The reason nobody's yet become a big time novelist by reading up on Diane Doubtfire is just that all the advice in such booklets is directed towards getting you to write a book full of plot, characterization, style, ideas, significance. In short, a good book.

Now, it strikes me that this is completely misconceived. You've only got to look around you to realize that most books that get published are NOT good. This simple point makes a nonsense of conventional criticism, which lacks any sort of vocabulary to discuss badness in any meaningful way. And yet badness is the dominant quality of contemporary literature, and certainly of SF. All orthodox criticism can say of a truly awful book is that the characterization is terrible, or the use of the English language makes your bowels move of themselves. It fails completely to grasp that bad writing is governed by subtle rules and conventions of its own, every bit as difficult to learn and taxing to apply as those that shape good writing. But do you ever find workshops offering instruction in how to write the sort of really atrocious garbage that leers at you from every railway bookstall?

Already you can begin to understand why my theories are scoffed at by the neanderthal proponents of orthodox so-called "criticism". History will judge who has the final chuckle. In the following pages I will reveal:

– a whole new language of criticism

– the secret of success in science fiction writing

– and a revolutionary new technique of interpretation that will grant you instant and total understanding of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and many far less reputable works.

And while I'm about it I'll propose a new definition of magic, account for the existence of Lionel Fanthorpe, and show you a way to derive pleasure from Stephen Donaldson books. (Needless to say, it doesn't involve reading them. But neither does it involve burying them under six foot of badger manure and napalming the lot, which you might think the obvious answer.)

In principle, these secrets can be exploited by anyone; but you may be interested before we start in testing your native aptitude through a couple of simple and deceptively irrelevant exercises.

1. Complete the Poem

Leonard Nimoy, currently *** directing his own resurrection in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, is the author of two books of poems rightly considered too hot for bookshops to handle. They're distributed solely through Athena poster shops, in the same series of icky little volumes with tinted pages and silhouettes of weeds that has given the world the if anything even more deathless works of the legendary Susan Polis Schutz, the Colorado Sappho. (You must know the stuff: "Our relationship / is beautiful / because / it is ours / because / it relates / to us.")

All you have to do is read through the following (genuine) sample poem, and then use your skill and judgement to supply the missing lines from the ones that follow. (These include about 80% of the text of Nimoy's second book of poems, which by a novel inspiration consists almost entirely of excerpts from the first.) Then turn to the end of the article to find out how you scored. First, the specimen:

"Rocket ships / Are exciting / But so are roses / On a birthday

"Computers are exciting / But so is a sunset

"And logic / Will never replace / Love

"Sometimes I wonder / Where I belong / In the future / Or / In the past

"I guess I'm just / An old-fashioned / Space-man."

And now it's over to you:

(i) I love you not for what I want you to be ... (2 points for the missing line.)

(ii) I loved you then for what you were ... (3 points.)

(iii) I miss you / And not only you ... (3 points)

(iv) My love for you is not a gift to you ... (1 point.)

– and the hardest one: here you have two lines to guess of a three-line poem.

(v) I am me ... (2+4 points.)

2. Clench Racing

This is a social and competitive sport, that can be played over and over with renewed pleasure. Playing equipment currently on the market restricts the number of players to six, but the manufacturers may yet issue the series of proposed supplements to raise the maximum eventually to nine.

The rules are simple. Each player takes a different volume of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and at the word "go" all open their books at random and start leafing through, scanning the pages. The winner is the first player to find the word "clench". It's a fast, exciting game – sixty seconds is unusually drawn-out – and can be varied, if players get too good, with other favourite Donaldson words like wince, flinch, gag, rasp, exigency, mendacity, articulate, macerate, mien, limn, vertigo, cynosure.... It's a great way to get thrown out of bookshops. Good racing!

Let me explain the tenuous relevance of these modest exercises to my main subject. Here we have two of the most accomplished of contemporary bad writers inadvertently showing off one of the most valued qualities in their art. I refer, of course, to predictability. Donaldson's use of language is so repetitive and his characterization so limited to a few clumsy responses that he finds himself coming back again and again to the same beloved words, to the extent that you can predict their occurrence reliably enough to be able to leaf through and be sure of finding one almost immediately. Nimoy is even more adept in this esoteric art: his banal thought falls so naturally into clichés that you can predict whole lines at a time.

You think I'm jesting when I speak of an Art of the Predictable, but if you think about it it is an art. The grammar of cliché is a language all of its own that's never had the study it deserves. How is it that we learn to spot the ending in advance? how do we know when a particular creaky old line is about to get trotted out? how do we come to anticipate the obvious platitudinous moral the story's setting up? In the same way as we learn a language, by exposure to so many examples of usage that our brains construct, unknown to our conscious minds, an internal grammar of how they're used in practice. After you've seen enough 50s SF films on the box, you come to expect the professor's Faustian dabblings to destroy him in the end, while the young journalist hero clasps the daughter as they gaze on the smouldering wreckage of the laboratory. ("Oh Rick, it's – horrible...." – "It's all right, Jean, it's over now. The nightmare is over forever.")

And this is what I mean when I say there are rules governing bad writing that you simply have to learn if you're to become a successful manufacturer of exploitation fiction. Perhaps I ought to clarify what I mean by that last category as applied to SF: I'm thinking principally of escapist adventure stories with no particular pretensions to engage the higher cortical functions and consisting chiefly of well-worn ideas and storytelling techniques recycled more or less formulaically. But in a way that's the least interesting quarter of the field under survey, because you'll find in practice that the techniques of shoddy fiction have permeated SF to such an extent that you can observe these same rules in operation even in some jolly good books, and many more with pretensions to being jolly good. I'll be drawing illustrations from all these categories, but obviously it's the last one that intrigues me most. Predictability, you see, even though we use the term disparagingly, has become in recent years a very bankable commodity in SF and fantasy publishing. The publishers know the public knows what it wants: it wants more of the same. Safe books. No surprises. Familiar surroundings from page one. And this means that even writers with considerable literary pretensions have had to learn the Art of the Predictable as part of the basic equipment of their trade. In Gene Wolfe, who is rather a subtle writer, this only results in the occasional irritating embarrassment; in Stephen Donaldson, who is about as subtle as a lead brick, it results in contemptible gaseous claptrap. Examples follow in due course.

Well, by this stage, you're probably bouncing up and down in your seat with barely-continent excitement, thinking, "Wow, am I really going to learn to write like Stephen Donaldson?" I have to let you down as gently as I can and say no, it's not quite as easy as that. You have to remember that Mr Donaldson's spent years learning to produce a book so flatulent you have to be careful not to squeeze it in a public place. All I can do in the time available is to offer instruction on the first and most important element of crummy writing, which is (as my title suggests) bad plotting. I can't promise that by the time you've read these pages you'll have learned to write significantly more stereotyped characters, or that your style will have become significantly more leaden and clichéd. But I do promise that you'll be fully conversant with the many varieties of plot device, their use and function, and you'll be able to recognize and admire their handling in the works of the masters: Lionel Fanthorpe, A.E. van Vogt, and the early sword-and-sorcery novels of Michael Moorcock, to name only some of the virtuosi of the plot device I haven't space to mention in what follows.

I choose plotting as the focus of my discussion for two compelling reasons. One is that it's been a persistently underrated art in all kinds of narrative all down the ages, and has rarely come in for any kind of analysis. I think the last person to say anything respectable about the art of plotting was Aristotle, who besides some famous remarks about beginning-middle-and-end laid down a few elementary precepts like events in the story having to follow in a relationship of internal logic, and having to appear to arise out of the interactions between characters rather than being obviously imposed from above by an author. Otherwise, nobody's ever tried to explain how to plot tightly or elegantly, and the whole skill of it's tended to be treated as a rather low form of creative activity, more appropriate to Feydeau farces and TV sitcoms than to high narrative art.

There's a reason for this, I think. Up until very recently, really elaborate plotting has only been possible in comedy, where you don't mind being reminded of the existence of an author by the absurd artificiality of the structure of events. Real life isn't, on the whole, especially well plotted, and as soon as the good plotting in a story begins to get obtrusive we lose that essential impression of a purely internal logic governing the progress of events within the story. It's only in the last few decades that serious fiction has begun to make serious reference to its own fictitiousness, which is how novels like The Affirmation, Little Big, or If On a Winter's Night a Traveller can come into being. Even so, you'll find that most of the highly plotted, highly self-conscious novels within and without the genre tend to be funny – as the various works of John Barth, William Gaddis, and John Sladek. It's significant that Sladek finds himself so attracted to the detective genre, about the only non-comic non-artsy-fartsy fictional tradition that still makes play with the reader's awareness of the plot as something basically artificial.

The other reason I've chosen plotting to talk about is that it's the ideal topic to illustrate my point about rules of bad writing; because, while it's comparatively difficult to formulate any very definite procedure for constructing a good plot, I hope to be able to show that there are all sorts of little rules you can follow to give you an easy, step-by-step recipe for a really creaky one.

This is the point to introduce you to the manual. In my experience, the book that has most to teach about the mistakes to avoid in good fantasy writing, and by that token the one that can tell you most about the rules of hacking, is itself a work of fiction. It's not one that's likely to be familiar to all, and I'd like to take this chance to bring it to notice; because while there may be other books I don't know about that could serve equally well, this is the one I've found to stand head and shoulders above all comparable handbooks of instruction.

It's Lin Carter's novel The Black Star. For all I know, every other Lin Carter book may be exactly the same. I don't know; this is the only one I've ever finished. But I've read it more times than I can say, because practically any point you could wish to make about techniques of hackwork can be illustrated from the pages of this remarkable novel, to which I'll be making quite a lot of reference in what follows. It's hard to give any idea of the flavour of this astonishing text from just a few short citations, but here by way of introduction are four passages about the same character from different parts of the book.

Niane fled down the jungle path on frantic, stumbling feet. Her gown was torn. Her slim white legs were scratched and bleeding. She panted for breath, young breasts heaving and straining against the fabric of her gown....

He hastened to untie the girl. She was in a sorry state; most of her clothing had been torn from her, although she did not seem to have suffered any injury save the insulting touch of cold, sly hands....

"Tush, girl!" the old fellow said, blushing a little at the warmth of her words and averting his keen old eyes reluctantly from the generous glimpses of her maiden flesh rendered visible by the sorry condition of her gown....

In the crude intimacy of the cell they had shared, the temptation to touch her, to allow a comforting, soothing hand to venture an overt caress, to permit his eyes to taste the soft slenderness of her body so artlessly revealed through the sorry condition of her garments, had often been well nigh irresistible. Where another man would have yielded, perhaps reluctantly, to his need – which she as well felt – he but stiffened and grew colder, wrenching his thoughts aside from this insidious channel with distaste....

Unfortunately, I'm limited to discussing the plot. The storyline of The Black Star is simple enough – one might say, puerile. In the last age of fabled Atlantis, before the gods pulled the plug and sank beneath the waves that prehistoric continent that had linked Britain and the Falklands while the dagoes were still struggling with their Linguaphone courses in proto-Indo-European, Diodric the Warrior, Niane the Nymphet, and Nephog Thoon the Wizard with the Silliest Name in All Prehistory struggle against troglodytes, sorcerers, and militant anarchists to save the fabled jewel The Black Star from falling into the wrong hands, since the Gods seem to have a bit of a thing about it and will destroy civilization if it's lost. What relieves this at best "routine" (in the technical sense coined by the SF Encyclopaedia) story from total tedium is the fascinating use that Carter makes of plot devices in order to get the whole preposterous rattletrap of a story moving along its dried-up watercourse of a road.

Here I'd better pause and clarify what I mean by a plot device. In normal usage, when people talk of a plot device they mean something in the story that's just a little bit too obviously functional to be taken seriously. The most famous plot device in recent SF is the Babel fish, the joke about which is that it's such an obvious plot device that it implies the existence of an author. But the term is a flexible one, and I'm going to use a number of more specialized terms for some of the more specialized varieties of device. The Babel fish is an instance of the plot device at its simplest: a little bit of technology or whatever introduced into the story's world for the sole point of overcoming a little technical difficulty like the fact the characters can't speak to one another. All these FTL drives, instant translators, oxygen pills, and so forth: contrivances so basic to getting interplanetary stories off the ground that we no longer really worry about their implausibility.

This is a fairly innocuous kind of plot device, often quite institutionalized, and nothing you could fairly call a sophisticated hacking technique. For that, you have to move a level up....

No time for words now, girl. I am sped, but ere I go down to the Kingdom of Darkness I must pass a terrible burden into your hands: alas, that it be so, but thus it must be, for I am near the end of my strength and there is none other here to take up That which I may no longer shield," he panted, and she wondered at his strange, portentous words....

(And this goes on for a page or so, then:)

He plucked Something from the bosom of his robes and thrust it under her eyes. At the sight of the Thing which he held she voiced a small cry and would have recoiled in holy awe, save that his other hand grasped her wrist again, and dragged her near. "Girl! You know the meaning of this Thing? I read it within thine eyes.... Then take It, child."

Well, of course, the Thing in question is the legendary Black Star, as we learn a hundred pages later: "While this Thing rested in the possession of the Divine Dynasty" (ie. the good guys) "the favour of the Gods shone upon Atlantis. No Emperor could hold the throne unless he also held the Black Star...." which means that the wicked Trotskyite rebels that have temporarily overrun the kingdom will be overcome so long as the goodies retain the Black Star. Notice that the only causal connection between possession of the Black Star and victory is that enforced by "the Gods", for whom of course read "the author", and you perhaps begin to see why I like to term this kind of thing Collect-the-Coupons plotting. It would be much too complicated to have three goodies overcome the whole usurping army, or at any rate it would be far beyond the plotting powers of a Lin Carter. So what you do instead is write into the scenario one or more Plot Coupons which happen to be "supernaturally" linked to the outcome of the larger action; and then all your character have to do is save up the tokens till it's time to cash them in.

Obviously, this is an artifice which lends itself particularly well to fantasy writing, and is capable of widely varying subtlety of application. I think The Lord of the Rings, or Lord of the Plot Coupons, is the chief villain here, unless you want to trace it back to Wagner and his traditional sources. Tolkien, on the whole, gets away with the trick by minimizing the arbitrariness of the ring's plot-power and putting more stress than his imitators on the way the ring's power moulds the character of its wielder and vice-versa. But even so it's a pretty creaky apparatus, and one whose influence has been wholly disastrous. It's so easy, they all cry; you save so much energy by just smuggling a few choice plot coupons up and down the map.

Probably the most distinguished practitioner of collect-the-coupons plotting is Susan Cooper in those awful The Dark Is Rising books, in the course of which the hapless goodies have to run down no fewer than nine different plot tokens before they can send off to the author for the ending. I quote from the end of volume two: "Each of the Things of Power was made at a different point in Time by a different craftsman of the Light" (odd how these discussions of the plot always seem to be signalled by bursts of capitalization), "to await the day when it would be needed. There is a golden chalice, called a grail; there is the Circle of Signs" (of which there are six separate components – very busy book, that one); "there is a sword of crystal, and a harp of gold. The grail, like the Signs, is safely found. The other two we must yet achieve, other quests for other times." (Read: two more sequels.) "But once we have added to these, then when the Dark comes rising for its final and most dreadful onslaught, we shall have hope and assurance that we can overcome."

We'll come back to Susan Cooper later on. A collect-the-coupons plotter who runs her close, though, is the inimitable Stephen Donaldson. He tends to pad more than Ms Cooper, so it takes rather more pages to collect each token; but I should think by volume nine of the trilogy he may well outstrip her for sheer multitude of the wretched things. Here's the crucial passage of insight and revelation from The Wounded Land, in which Thomas Covenant in a flash of wisdom perceives the whole point of volumes four to six. I've changed just one word throughout; see if you can spot what it is.

Covenant saw. The Staff of Plot. Destroyed. For the Staff of Plot had been formed by Berek Halfhand as a tool to serve and uphold the Plot. He had fashioned the Staff from a limb of the One Tree as a way to wield Earthpower in defence of the health of the Land, in support of the natural order of life. And because Earthpower was the strength of mystery and spirit, the Staff became the thing it served. It was the Plot; the Plot was incarnate in the Staff. The tool and its purpose were one. And the Staff had been destroyed. That loss had weakened the very fibre of the Plot. A crucial support was withdrawn, and the Plot faltered.

Of course, the word "Plot" in all this replaces Donaldson's "Law" (with one of those significant initial capitals), and of course all Covenant has to do now, in a Lensmanesque escalation of the same basic routine he went through in previous volumes, is go chugging off to cut himself a new Staff of Plot from the jolly old One Tree. I don't know how he does; four volumes was quite enough, though I hear there's an amazingly silly bit with limpet mines in the fifth. Another fantasy first.

At any rate, there's another variety of ingenious plot device that's closely related to collecting the coupons, and that's Saving the Vouchers. As the name suggests, it's an activity that can amount to the same thing if your plot tokens happen to have an effective power of their own. A Plot Voucher is one of those useful items that is presented to the hero at the start of his adventure with a purpose totally unspecified, that turns out at an arbitrary point later in the story to be exactly what's needed to get him out of a sticky and otherwise unresolvable situation. ("This voucher valid for one [1] awkward scrape. Not transferable." Young Dirk stared at the object in bewilderment. "But what does it do?", he asked, putting it reluctantly away in his pouch. "Ah," said the old sage, "I am not at liberty to tell you that. But when the time comes, you will know its purpose.") There's a glorious chapter in The Wounded Land again where Thomas Covenant is visited by a rapid succession of ghostly characters from previous volumes "to give you gifts, as the law permits". Some of the gifts are a bit of a cheat, as they consist only in explaining bits of the story that don't make an awful lot of sense. But there are two authentic plot vouchers thrown in. "When the time comes," says one character, "you will find the means to unlock my gift." "He may be commanded once," says another of the handy sidekick with whom he saddles the hapless Covenant. "Once only, but I pray it may suffice. When your need is upon you, and there is no other help." Ho-hum. In the event, of course, the ink is scarcely dry on the page before Donaldson decides Covenant's need is upon him and there is no other help. He also turns out to take a decidedly flexible interpretation of this once-and-once-only clause.

I do recommend the use of plot vouchers to your attention if you're at all interested in writing multi-volume epics of quest and adventure, because they're terrifically easy to use and the readers never complain. You can issue your hero with a handy talisman of unspecified powers at the beginning of volume one, and have him conveniently remember it at various points over the succeeding volumes when he finds himself surrounded by slavering troglodytes or whatever, with no obligation to explain it until the series proves unsuccessful enough to require winding up and the loose ends tying. Lest anyone begin to suspect a veiled allusion to certain 1982 Nebula-winning novels, I'd better rip away the veil and confirm their suspicions; because if the Claw of the Conciliator is anything more than a general-purpose plot voucher I'm buggered if I can see what. I confess I haven't got on to the Citadel yet ***, but can it really explain this kind of thing?

My lungs were bursting; I lifted my face to the surface, and they were upon me. No doubt there comes a time for every man when by rights he should die. This, I have always felt, was mine. I have counted all the life I have held since as pure profit, an undeserved gift. I had no weapon, and my right arm was numbed and torn. The man-apes were bold now. That boldness gave me a moment more of life, for so many crowded forward to kill me that they obstructed one another. I kicked one in the face. A second grasped my boot; there was a flash of light, and I (moved by what instinct of inspiration I do not know) snatched at it. I held the Claw.

And then the Claw bathes the scene in its wondrous radiance and Severian slips away while the beasties are held rapt. What a let-down, eh?

Even so, there are looser and lazier plot devices even than the voucher system. Don't forget that if you're absolutely stuck for anything for your characters to do, you can always issue them with little plot algorithms prescribing a sequence of more or less pointless tasks that they have to fulfil in order to achieve their end. Again, this is particularly easy to do in fantasy: an ancient prophecy, more often than not couched in mock-archaic verse, is quite sufficient. Susan Cooper is good at this; she's got a little rhyme to summarize the whole series in twelve lines, a shopping-list of plot tokens that encapsulates in a mnemonic nutshell the entire plot of the story, such as it is.

But perhaps the supreme manifestation of the plot deviser's art, and the point where hackwork shades over into genius by virtue of the sheer inspired brilliance with which the unwritten rules of short-cut plot creation are exploited, is what I call the Universal Plot Generator. A Plot Generator is a device written into your scenario that will create further stories as often as required, while laying no restrictions whatever on the kind of story produced.

What I think have to be the two most brilliantly conceived specimens of this rarest and most sophisticated of all plot devices came up in the DC comics of my childhood. I don't think this is any accident. The comics have always been a kind of elephant's graveyard of antiquated plot devices, because they've always existed under the three ideal conditions for the genesis of bad plotlines: serial format with regular publishing schedules, an audience of adolescent Americans (arguably the lowest form of intelligence in the galaxy), and truly terrible writers. DC Comics in the middle sixties were a particularly golden age in this respect, because while other comics publishers like Marvel and Warren were making tentative sallies into character drama and the adult market, DC were still resolutely plumbing away in search of the lowest common denominator of all narrative art, under such marvellous hacks as the legendary Gardner F. Fox (whose novel Kothar – Barbarian Swordsman ranks among the classics of contemporary prose sculpture).

Anyway, the first of DC's great plot generators is almost too famous to warrant discussion, except that the sheer artistry of the concept is rarely appreciated in full. I'd like you to think for a moment about red kryptonite. There was a time when the hues and varieties of kryptonite were being boosted daily by new kryptonological discoveries, but I think green and red were the only ones that really lasted the course. The effects of red kryptonite, you remember, were as follows. Each individual chunk would affect Superman, but no-one else, with a completely unpredictable effect that would last exactly forty-eight hours. He would then revert to normal and that particular chunk of red K could never affect him again. The brilliance of this only becomes fully apparent when you translate it all into plot terms; because forty-eight hours happens to be the average timespan of a story in a DC comic. What red kryptonite amounts to is a random element in your scenario that can be brought on at any time and introduce any daft plot idea the writer happens to have kicking about; and at the end of the story it will disappear from the continuity as if it had never been. It's hardly any wonder that the series, at its peak, got through chunks of red kryptonite so frequently that someone calculated that, for that amount of planetary debris to arrive on Earth by chance alone, the original planet Krypton must have been about the size of a galactic supercluster.

There was only ever one plot generator among the many in DC's repertoire that ran red K close for sheer elegance (though others like Dial H for Hero proved more durable), and that's the little-remembered Idol-Head of Diabolu. The Idol-Head appeared for a couple of years as the continuity in the Martian Manhunter stories, and the way it worked was this. The Idol-Head of Diabolu was an ancient bust created by an evil sorcerer way back in the mists of flashback, and I think it got unearthed by an unfortunate archaeologist or something. Thereafter, it would drift around from owner to owner or float around in the ocean and get washed up from time to time (which was odd, since the Head was carved from stone); and every full moon the top of the head would flip open like a Terry Gilliam cartoon and a new evil would be loosed on the world. Invariably these magical banes would find themselves being tackled by the Martian Manhunter, till eventually he managed to run the Idol-Head to ground and destroy it. What I so admire about this invention is that "every full moon" corresponds almost exactly to the publishing schedule of a monthly comic book; so that you had, written into the set-up, a device that would generate a guaranteed new villain or disaster every issue while leaving the scripter total freedom to fill in the details.

Sometimes, however, even the Universal Plot Generator breaks down. You may find, in the course of hacking forth your masterpiece from the living pulp, that none of the plot devices hitherto catalogued, none of these little enemas to the Muse, will keep the story flowing; that you can think of no earthly reason why the characters should have to go through with this absurd sequence of actions save that you want them to, and no earthly reason why they should succeed save that it's in the plot. Despair not. If you follow the handbook, you'll find there's a plot device even for this – when the author has no choice but to intervene in person.

Obviously, this requires a disguise, unless you're terribly postmodernist. The disguise favoured by most writers, not unnaturally, tends to be God, since you get the omnipotence while reserving the right to move in mysterious ways and to remain invisible to mortal eyes. There aren't all that many deus ex machina scenes where the Deity actually rolls up in person to explain the plot to the bewildered characters, though Stephen Donaldson permits an extended interview at the end of The Power That Preserves. What tends to happen instead is the kind of coy allusiveness coupled with total transparency of motive you meet, for example, in The Black Star, where our heroes most improbably find a light aircraft in which to escape the overrun city:

It was by the most incredible stroke of fortune that Diodric and the Lady Niane should have stumbled upon so rare and priceless a memento of the eons. Or perhaps it was not Blind Fortune, but the inscrutable Will of the Gods.

One thinks irresistibly of Gandalf's famous words to Frodo when explaining the logic of The Lord of the Plot Devices: "I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker." Frodo, unfortunately, fails to respond with the obvious question, to which the answer is "by the author".

But actually, it's not always necessary for the author to put in an appearance himself, if only he can smuggle the Plot itself into the story disguised as one of the characters. Naturally, it tends not to look like most of the other characters, chiefly on account of its omnipresence and lack of physical body. It'll call itself something like the Visualization of the Cosmic All, or Seldon's Plan, or The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Law, or the Light, or the Will of the Gods; or, in perhaps its most famous avatar, the Force. Credit for this justly celebrated interpretation of Star Wars belongs to Phil Palmer; I'd only like to point out the way it makes sudden and perfect sense of everything that happens in the film. "The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot." "Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot." When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero's head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses "a great disturbance in the Plot."

If this is beginning to sound like a silly little verbal game, think again. The reason you can play this sort of game in the first place is that the Force is one of those arbitrary, general-purpose, all-powerful plot devices that can be invoked whenever convenient to effect whatever happens to be necessary at the time. The only ends it serves within the logic of the story are those of the storyteller. And the reason you can decode so much of SF in this kind of way is that SF is absolutely addicted to crappiness; and while science fiction may not offer any more opportunities than any other kind of fiction for crappy character-drawing or crappy prose, the scope for crappy plotting is virtually limitless.

For instance, Lionel Fanthorpe could never have existed in any genre but SF. Everyone knows, I imagine, the story of the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray, perhaps the most outrageous deus ex machina ending in all literature. There the heroes were, stranded deep in an enemy sector of space, surrounded by an entire enemy fleet with the guns trained on them, when the maestro realized all of a sudden he had only one page left to finish the book. Quick as a flash, the captain barks out: "It's no use, men. We'll have to use the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray." "Not – not the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray!" So they open up this cupboard, and there's this weapon that just blasts the entire fleet into interstellar dust. One almighty zap and the thousand remaining loose ends are quietly incinerated. Where, but in SF, could you do that?

So this is your challenge. I hope that in revealing to you, for the first time in cosmic history, these precious secrets of how to tune and play your very own plot devices, I've given you some idea of the opportunities that exist for the talentless hack to abuse, short-change and exploit the mindless masses who put up with this garbage. Armed with this knowledge, you are now equipped to go out into the world and create science fiction stories worse than any that have gone before them. The earth will tremble; railway bookstalls will burst with the fruits of your typewriters; small-time hacks like the vermin who write for Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine *** will be swept away by the new torrent of drivel! From this moment on, the universe is yours. The only thing that could possibly stand in your way would be a united resistance from those contemptible snot-gobbed arthropods the readers themselves, crying out against cheapskate exploitation fiction and demanding stories that can hold the road without the author stepping in every five pages to crank the bloody things up. Small chance of that, eh?

I leave the future of SF in your hands. May the Plot be with you.

Answers to Complete the Poem quiz:

(i) ... but for what you are.

(ii) ... I love you now for what you have become.

(iii) ... I miss what I am when you are here.

(iv) ... it is a gift to me.

(v) ... You are you. / Our love is us.

Rate Your Score ... 13-15 Excellent. The nation's greetings cards manufacturers need you. 9-12 Not bad, but damaging traces of poetic sensibility probably bar you from the big time. Try ghosting for Patience Strong. 5-8 Could do well in vanity publishing. Don't despair. 1-4 Alas! better stay dead.


This piece started as a talk (Fencon, 1982) in rather different format – eg. Clench-Racing was demonstrated in real time. Aeons later, Nick recast it as above for my and Kevin Smith's fanzine Drilkjis, and galactic cycles after that it became apparent that Drilkjis 7 would not appear. My asterisks are to remind you of time's wingèd chariot, and that, for example, Asimov's is very much improved under Gardner Dozois. [Dave Langford, 1986]