Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Problem with Plot

I hope everyone had a good holiday season. As always, I'm attempting to start the shiny new year with renewed vigor. Although I don't have many specific resolutions, unlike the farm animals I've heard, the new year always gives me a reason to re-boot my intentions and take a fresh look at the things I've done and the things I would like to do.

Enter writing.

I was crafty enough with my 2013 resolutions to avoid anything as bold as "write a bestseller" or "win the Pulitzer." Instead, I merely wrote: "make progress in fiction writing." Oh, Anna, you're so smart. "Make progress?" Why, that could be defined simply as having sharpened all my pencils. That would be progress.

Although I woefully slacked in writing anything close to a draft of a novel last year, I worked on some short stories, which is still new territory for me and counts, I think, in my fiction writing progress.

Over the last month, however, I had an idea for a story (scary, I know). The idea came from a delightful book I was reading, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Second in McCall Smith's series on Portuguese Irregular Verbs, this lighthearted book follows a wonderfully sympathetic, academically traditional, and mildly irrational German language professor, Prof. Dr. Mortiz-Maria von Igelfeld, in various escapades, one of which involved a case of mistaken identity. In this story, von Igelfeld is mistakenly thought to be a veterinarian. Not wanting to be rude and cause undue attention to this faux paus, he masquerades as a DVM and expert in sausage dogs. Please, if you are a vet, a dog lover, and/or any other sort of human being, read this story. It is hilarious.

My own idea for a story also involves mistaken identity. And yet, when one works with such a plot device, one also needs a resolution. This is where I'm running into trouble. I don't yet know how the main character reveals her true identity.

Frantically finishing McCall Smith's book in hope of answers on his plot resolution, I was let down. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is really a collection of vignettes, with von Igelfeld flitting from one scenario to the other. Don't get me wrong, this still makes for a very enjoyable read. But if you're looking for tips on how to resolve a crisis such as mistaken identity, you won't find it in this book.

Desperate for some other examples, I thought to look at the father of all mistaken identity stories, the great Bard himself. Shakespeare employed this plot device in numerous plays, frequently in comedies. Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night are just two examples of such plots, but as I reviewed these with a closer eye, I noticed many cases involve twins.

My story doesn't have twins.

And so I'm stuck with an unsolved plot. This got me wondering how other writers solve such problems. Have you ever been gung ho on a story and then came to a screeching halt when you couldn't figure how to work something out? Or, worse, have you been halfway through writing a story and realized you were stuck for a solution? How many story ideas have you scrapped for lack of conclusion?

Not that I'm letting this little issue keep me up at night. Well, it kept me up for two nights. But that's it. One of the many dilemmas for a writer: letting your character's life problems keep you up!


  1. Will definitely check out the book and best of luck with your character's mistaken identity - thinking of a tragic resolution or a comedic one?

  2. Thanks! As far as my character's mistaken identity, definitely thinking of a comedic resolution. When you get around to reading The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, let me know what you think!