Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Plot Devices


I am quite enjoying Rick Riordan's The Battle of the Labyrinth. (Side note: Did you know he has a blog? It's true!)

One thing I have noticed, however, is that Percy is relying on a lot of new information in this book from his dreams.

Now, I'm not done with the book yet (got about 75 or so more pages to go), but I have noticed that the dream plot device is quite frequent in this book. Riordan may have a way to cleverly explain this--maybe Morpheus, god of dreams, is going to play a part or something--but in all, I've found this plot device to be rather weak and distracting for me. Every time Percy starts dreaming, I find myself rolling my eyes and saying to myself, "What amazing and otherwise-unknowable thing are we going to find out about now?"

Which isn't very fair. This device was a major plot point in Harry Potter, for example (if you're counting visions as dreams). So why does it bother me now?

I think part of it is that I expect more from Riordan. I expect his plots to be ingeniously clever, and I expect there to be an amazing reason for why things are the way they are. Which does mean that I'm jumping the gun a bit to be critical about this plot device, considering I've not finished the book yet.

But...I don't think there's going to be a way to salvage it for me. Because, you see, even if there is some sort of ingenious plot twist to explain why Percy is receiving such vital information through his dreams, I don't really care: I already dislike the plot device. And the reason why I dislike isn't fair, either: Harry Potter already did it. That was the plot of Book 5, remember--Harry getting all this info from visions and such, and deciding whether or not he can trust it. And there was a twist in there that explained why--the mental connection between Harry and Voldemort.

Nevertheless, even though it worked there, it doesn't work here for me. I absolutely recognize that it's not fair. I absolutely admit that, had I read Labyrinth before HP5, I might not even notice. But now, just because it's been done once before, I find the whole device cliche. Also, I just keep noticing that it's a device, and wondering if there was some other way to have Percy discover that info.

So, word of warning to all of us writers: Beware of using a plot device that's been done before. Just one repeat can make it a cliche.

3 comments:

PJ Hoover said...

I just can't get myself to agree with you only because it's Rick Riordan. But I agree in theory.
In book 2 of my Emerald Tablet series I had this entire dream thing going on which totally got yanked in a revision back in April. Thank God.

Justus M. Bowman said...

If authors could know all the contents of every book, they might find your warning impossible to heed. Certainly Potter was not the first character to have visions.

Personally, it surprised me that Storm Front's main character is Harry the Wizard, though I found more strange coincidences than that in the book.

Doug P. Baker said...

I shouldn't comment, because I haven't yet read Battle of the Labyrinth. Still, can't help myself.

I have read three of the Olympian books, and found them all charming and utterly enjoyable, yet I could never shake the feeling that they were terribly derivative, relying both on HP and on Gaiman's works, especially American Gods.

Still, they are written for an age group (to which you and I don't belong) that cares not a scrap if a book is derivative. If they did they wouldn't finish the HP series and then begin reading Charlie Bone books.

Still, the dream and vision element in Rowling's books was absolutely fascinating, and it set a very high standard.

Both in the dream link between Harry and Voldemort and in many other aspects of the Hogwarts world Rowling left a great deal in the realm of mystery. She did not feel that everything had to be explained in pedantic detail. This is entirely enchanting and realistic, for mundane life is never fully explained, nor do we want it to be.

But in fiction this is very hard to pull off. Writers either explain too much (American Gods did, I thought, while Coraline left more in intriguing mystery) making us feel that they think us stupid, or they leave gaps that seem to disrespect our desire to understand. Either way it feels to the reader like the author is selling us short. This is a very tricky business and few pull it off so sparklingly as Rowling did.

So it sounds to me like the problem in the dream series is that it is not coming across as a legitimately mysterious element but rather feels (to the reader) like a lazy attempt at real mystery. If this is right, then reading it probably feels a little bit like being insulted by Riordan.

Just my thought, it is an intriguing problem. Now I have to actually read Labyrinth to see how it plays to me.