“If we do not understand what would happen if everything went right, we are not going to care if everything starts going wrong.” You may not have realized it yet, but one of my goals in this series is to explore common misconceptions about “good” writing and to try to explain why I find it so completely asinine to attend workshops or read the large majority of unpublished work (or even published work).
I’m paraphrasing a quote that I cannot, unfortunately, place, but it is central to quite a few arguments regarding “background” in literature. The idea seems to be that the reader must establish a logical attachment to the characters in a story based on the author’s ability to convey subtle contextual clues in a manner that is internally consistent and plausible—i.e., if you have enough money to build an immensely powerful space station, you probably have enough money to hire someone to double-check that there are no air-ducts that firing a proton torpedo into would result in the destruction of said station.
In fact, the Star Wars corollary is particular apt because of its multitudinous plot holes. Is the story “bad” as a result? If you say yes, George Lucas has a few billion dollars that says you’re wrong. The simple argument would be that we do know what would happen if the Death Star functioned, so we do care and cheer when the Rebels throw a spanner in the works.
What about more egregious errors in literature, the hackneyed stories you read in your freshman creative writing course where the main character lacks even simple motivation and just gets thrown into situations beyond her control and responds to them like a third-grader muddling through his first Choose-Your-Own Adventure book?
That is where it becomes more complicated. To me, the best “inciting incidents” are fairly simple. A character is driving his boss’s daughter to school but is car-jacked and forced to play the role of a get-away driver.
Problems arise when you have a situation where a courier is carrying an unknown MacGuffin, but gets hit by a car and dies tragically. This sends ripples through a chain of the police who process the hit and run, the crime lord who needs the MacGuffin to build his Earth-Destroying Laser of Deadly Doom, the unwitting private investigator who was trailing the courier on assignment from the courier’s wife who suspected an affair, and the brilliant but tortured inventor of the MacGuffin who had a change of heart and was trying to get it back for herself. What would have happened if the courier did deliver the package or at least hadn’t been hit by the random car? Who the hell knows? I doubt the author of that story could even figure it out with so many moving pieces.*
Still, I bet the second story would be awesome and Michael Bay would definitely buy the movie rights and it would probably involve Shia LaBoef and a Victoria’s Secret model.
The problem does not lie in the missing or complicated motivation, but in the execution. Why didn’t the Eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mt. Doom? Labyrinthine ret-cons aside, there really isn’t a good reason, but the execution of the story allows you to forget about the problem and enjoy the ride. In the end, that’s the difference between “good” and “bad” story-crafting. I don’t really care what would happen if it all went right; just make sure you do a damn good job of taking me down the path of how it went wrong.
*My guess would be that the PI would pose as the recipient of the package suspecting it was filled with evidence of the affair and the Criminal would see him. Meanwhile, the Inventor knows that the package was delivered, so she goes to the Police to tell them about the Criminal. The Courier goes on about his business and stops at Subway for lunch. The Police ignore the Inventor and go to Chuck E. Cheese instead. The PI realizes that the MacGuffin has nothing to do with his client’s affair, so he tosses it in a garbage can in the Bowery. But the Inventor feels responsible, so she goes after the Criminal, encountering the PI accidently and falls in love with him. After a while, the Criminal kills the PI, but not before asking him where the MacGuffin is, which the Inventor hears because she is hiding in the closet. At this point, the PI couldn’t tell the Criminal where the MacGuffin is because he doesn’t remember, so if the Inventor just forgets about the whole thing, the story could probably end. But of course, she can’t forget, so she starts looking for the MacGuffin, causing her to get arrested. The Police still think she is crazy, so she gets sent to a psychiatric ward where she meets a fellow detainee who believes her. Together they escape and go on a quest to find the MacGuffin, ad nauseum. Remember, this is my interpretation of what happens if everything goes right in the first place instead of ‘wrong’. You hear me, Michael Bay? This script is a gold mine.