Today I read an unpublished novelette that – in theory – was a page turner. A former mind-swap expert treks to a remote monastery to look for his ex-wife who’s hiding as a mind upload in a virtual-reality maze where she can never be found.
This novelette – which I’ll call ‘Mind-Swap Monkey Business to save its author’s blushes – had every element of a good story. The mind-swap expert is witness to a terrible (corporate) crime. His story opens with an dramatic fight scene with a monkey in a rainforest, he has a rumble with a monk, and then – at the climax – with the head of ze evilz korporation. It had some hard SF ideas about mind uploading. Every sentence was beautifully crafted.
And yet… well… it took me three hours to read 16,000 words.
So what went wrong?
If you’ve ever played Super Mario Bros on a Nintendo console, you’ll know the plot. Princess Peach is kidnapped and the intrepid hero, Mario, goes on a quest to find her. He treks across the Mushroom Kingdom, leaping giant fires and dodging bottomless pits – WOW! – he fights Goombas – POW! – he goes on subquests to collect big coins – YAY! – he reaches Bowser’s lair, only to discover ‘his Princess is in another castle.’
Mario is just a player-controlled sprite and we don’t care about him (much). We don’t know why he cares about Princess Peach – he just does – and he doesn’t grow or change from his trials. The plot of Super Mario Bros. isn’t going to keep you playing the game – it’s simply there to railroad you through the platforming action, the precision jumps and warp pipes.
I’ve read several stories with the Super Mario Bros. problem, of which the most memorable was Flow – nominated for a 2015 Hugo Award. The main character drifts through a ‘series of unimportant events’ – mildly impeded by nothing in particular.
Super Mario Bros. Plotting happens when the author knows stories need a problem, action scenes, and a climax, but isn’t sure how to assemble them in an interesting way. So they move the narrator from A to B to C, deploying scenery and the occasional punch-up, but without anything fundamentally changing.
In Mind-Swap Monkey Business, our mind-swap expert goes on a magical mystery tour through several literary ‘levels’ – each with a minor challenge to overcome. We have the ‘rainforest level’ where ‘Mario’ fights a monkey. We have the ‘monastery puzzle level’ where Mario mind-swaps a monk to get into the maze. We have the mine cart level! The spaceship level! The underwater/sea level where ‘Mario’ is arrested for three paragraphs and told (pretty much literally) ‘your Princess is in another castle’!
The result is akin to watching someone else play Super Mario Galaxy on Wii. Or, more pertinent, reading about someone playing Super Mario Galaxy on Wii.
Three ways to solve Super Mario Bros. plotting
Set up the stakes… fast
The quite excellent horror short The Three Resurrections of Jessica Churchill begins:
Jessica slumped against the inside of the truck door. The girl behind the wheel […] kept stealing glances at her. Jessica ignored them, just like she tried to ignore the itchy pull and tug […] under her belly button, where the aliens were trying to knit her guts back together.
The story is about, well, body shock and alien resurrection. In Mind-Swap Monkey Business, the narrator spent nearly two pages walking to a monastery and fighting a monkey. Was this relevant? F**k no, not really.
If the reader doesn’t know where the narrator is going, or why, they’re not going to stick around for the denouncement. So you need to set upfront:
- Why does the mind-swap expert – or Mario – care so much about his ex-wife/Princess Peach?
- What will happen if he fails to rescue her?
If this is a short story, this needs to be established within a paragraph.
Make the stakes big… even in a novelette
In the brilliant new Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets, narrator Scur is:
- Trapped aboard a spaceship orbiting a dead planet thousands of years into the future with;
- The man who tried to torture her to death.
Someone needs to find someone because… simply isn’t enough of a motivation. You need to have some life-changing reason why they need to find the other person. If in doubt, crash an evil moon into your planet. Mario must rescue Princess Peach in 24 hours or the Mushroom Kingdom will be destroyed and time will reset.
Make your action scenes matter
Any action scene needs to be the payoff to something. It needs to advance the plot. It needs to make things better or worse for your character. If your character trips over a tree branch, running away, they need to be forced to fight… or be captured. The scene needs to matter. Otherwise, you could write 50,000 words of tripping over tree branches again and again.
And finally… if your character doesn’t give a s**t, make sure the reader does
Two weeks ago, I took the first 15,000 words of my SF crime-thriller A Murder at Perihelion to SF&F writing group Spectrum. Part of the feedback was that – although the writing was ‘propulsive’ – my narrator Troya was wandering from place-to-place, without much urgency and with no hint of a plan. Super Mario plotting in action.
Even if a first-person narrator is – like Troya – so laidback they’re practically horizontal, you need to make clear what the stakes are. Then the reader can peek through their fingers as Troya saunters into danger, is pathologically casual about the trouble she’s in and – at extremis – gets drunk and goes AWOL at precisely the wrong moment.
As to whether Troya’s the best narrator for a crime procedural? Hey ho, a problem for another day.