Friday, May 20, 2016

The Checklist Trap

Two parts of a story are more important than any other: the beginning and the ending. The beginning is what readers use to decide whether to commit to the whole thing, and the ending is what will stay in their minds most vividly after they finish. Both warrant a discussion of their own, but today I’ll be talking about one particular pitfall to watch out for when finishing a story up. I call it the Checklist Trap.

It shows its colors when the readers see a clear set of steps needed to resolve the plot, and each one happens at the proper moment, as if being checked off the list. If you’re into fiction, you have probably experienced a story that falls for this trap. You’re reading along, excited for the approaching climax, and then . . . everything just falls into place, and the main characters win the day. No twist, or if there was, you saw it coming a mile away. An ending like this feels stale, robotic, as if the writer grew impatient to be done and scrounged up the bare minimum so they could put it on the publishing rack.

Though the Checklist Trap is a mostly amateur problem, established writers are not immune. The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, the season 2 finale of Agents of Shield, and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith are three examples of professional stories that end in a checklist.

Left Behind, a modern fantasy series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins based on end-times prophecies from the Bible, is an archetypal example of a story fallen for the Checklist Trap. The main characters read the Bible, predict what is going to happen, and then it happens. This is repeated for every major event in the whole series. The authors missed so many opportunities for intrigue; no one ever misinterprets the scriptures or misses any prophecies, there is no clash of religious theologies except between Protestant dispensational premillennialism and the made-up Enigma Babylon One World Faith, and the main characters are never wrong about anything. Nothing keeps you engaged, apart from guessing who is going to die, which doesn’t even matter because it is established early on that all of the faithful (main characters) are going to rise from the dead at the end. Forget the ending; the entire 13-book series is one giant checklist.

The problem comes from focusing too much on the ending while planning, and not enough on how the story leads up to it. There are a few ways around the trap, but they are changes to the middle of the story, not the ending. Here are two.

Write a plot twist or two. This one is pretty obvious; if one or more of the items on the checklist suddenly becomes impossible, the protagonists need a new plan. This is extra effective if you make it look like it is going to end in a checklist, and then shatter the readers’ assumptions at a critical moment. I have read some fantastic novels that have pulled this off well, most notably the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

Make the plot more about the characters than the events. Sometimes a checklist is okay, provided what is happening is less important than who is in the scene. This is what Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoilers) did. Nobody cared about the First Order or Starkiller base. That was a background device to pit Rey and Finn against Kylo Ren on a planet about to explode. So when Poe Dameron went in with his X-wing and blew up the thermal oscillator just like the viewers expected, it served to keep the wallpaper from tearing rather than make the ending stale. (End spoilers)

It should be noted that the Checklist Trap is different from having a formula. If you’re writing a story, the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution model won’t do you wrong. But ask yourself if your readers are simply watching you set up the dominoes and then making them fall, because though it might be mildly entertaining, it makes for a dull story. Knock one of the dominoes out mid-collapse, or put the chain in the background, and your ending will be that much more satisfying.

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