Monday, December 28, 2015

Mistakes As Plot Devices? Big Mistake

Sacchi Green

Nope, not going to talk about my personal mistakes. Sure, I’ve made plenty, learned from some, and repeated some even after I should have known better. I’m still making new ones, too, but I’d just as soon not wallow in that particular mudbath right now.  Instead, I’ll take refuge in discussing literary uses and misuses of mistakes.

The misuses come first to mind, but to be fair, plots driven by mistakes have ancient and honorable roots. Oedipus made a big mistake in killing his father and marrying his mother, and even though he had no way of knowing who they were at the time, and in fact had been sent away as a child to try to circumvent a prophecy of exactly what did happen, he was punished.  Romeo and Juliet made big mistakes in faking their own suicides. Mistaken identities have been essential to “comedies of errors” from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan to Wodehouse to The Princess Bride. Mystery and detective novels by their nature require mistaken theories and misleading clues—“red herrings”—before their cases are solved. In the right contexts and the right hands, mistakes are perfectly valid elements of fiction.

In the wrong hands, though, and for the wrong reasons, mistakes can be, well, big mistakes. Hack mystery writers with nothing better to offer often overdo the red herrings, although that sort of mystery may be pretty much outdated these days. Romance novels, however, are far from outdated, and I’ve heard from various sources that the mistake trope is alive and well and downright annoying in all too many cases. This applies to erotic romance as well. Those annoying book blurbs in question form that ask, “Will (insert name) and (insert another name) ever resolve their misunderstandings, reveal their secrets, and find happiness together?” seem to be everywhere, and of course everyone knows the what the answer will be.  So how does the author delay the joyous dénoument long enough to fill enough pages? All too often with misunderstandings, misperceptions, and concealments of things for mistaken reasons. With erotic romance the sex doesn’t need to be postponed, and in fact does its own part to fill the requisite pages, but there still needs to be some impediment to a final meeting of hearts and minds, and mistakes of one flavor or another still fill—and over-fill--that function. Apparently plenty of readers don’t mind that at all, but some do, and it seems as though a writer with no better ways to fill those pages might try harder to think of some.

Short fiction doesn’t need as much in the way of mistakes for padding, but as an editor I do sometimes come across that sort of thing, as though new writers have seen so much of it that they think it’s required. No! In fact, including anything they’ve seen that much of is, in my opinion, a mistake.

All this ranting, of course, is superficial, and anything I complain about can be, and often is, done very well indeed. Good writers can make tired tropes fresh and compelling. But writers who don’t recognize when these things are overused, or who don’t care enough to try to do better, are making a big mistake.


  1. Everything about romance is overdone, Sacchi.

    Encouraging so many people to write it was the real mistake!

  2. A very shrewd and insightful take on the "mistakes" theme, Sacchi!

  3. For an example of mistakes and red herrings put to good use, try Marisha Pessel's "Night Film". She's not the perfect writer, but does things in new and different ways. Much of it obviously planned yet fresh.

  4. LOL! When Shakespeare wrote "The Comedy of Errors," mistaken identities and resulting misunderstandings might have been a new plot device. (Or maybe not. Apparently he was imitating Roman and Greek comedies.)
    However, misunderstnadings happen in real life, and they can destroy relationships if not resolved. (See my post of today on the Erotic Readers and Writers blog).

  5. I feel like your point illustrates the key. A good writer can make just about anything work, and might deploy tired tropes deliberately, to play with them. But doing stuff lazily tends not to work so well. It's the most generally applicable writing advice I know.

  6. I do realize that the title for my post, and much of the post itself, are unfair and overstated. I don't go along with the "rule" that all fiction must include conflict, but some plot and/or character arc of change is often the best way to go. Having all the challenges and barriers come from outside the characters rather than from their own minds and acts may have worked for the old times of Greek Gods playing power games and decrees of the Fates, but not so much for more contemporary settings.


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