Literary Laziness

Predictable plots are downright irritating.

When we were newlyweds, Dear Husband was often shocked at how frequently I could predict plot twists in movies. But unfortunately it is all too easy to do, if you know what signs to look for. If you don’t already have, and don’t want to have this self-spoiling plot twist radar, you may want to stop reading now.

Still with me? Good. First, it’s important that you don’t lose yourself in the story. Don’t get so caught up in the scenery and the romance and the fun of it all that you forget that you’re a person who is sitting on a couch, probably eating junk food, and you’re watching a product that some writer created while they were also most likely sitting on a couch, eating junk food. That is even more true in this pandemic era.

Don’t think about the movie. Think about the person who wrote the movie. Think like a writer who is in desperate need of a paycheck. That’s got to be stressful. And stress often makes one lazy. When writers get lazy, myself included, they become predictable.

Ask yourself what destination that writer is trying to reach. And what is the shortest, and thus most profitable route to that destination? That is the well-trodden path that most storytellers take. You could walk it in the dark, such is the groove that it has imposed upon the landscape of humanity.

For example, I genuinely believe that murder mysteries are the simplest things on earth to write. All you have to do is write them backwards. Start with how the evil deed was done. Then think of what clues would be necessary for someone to figure out who the culprit is. Then go back and scatter those clues, subtly and strategically, throughout the preceding chapters, along with just the right amount of red herrings to throw them off the trail. Maybe distract your readers with a bit of sexual tension for good measure, and throw in a lot of superfluous characters, but make them seem important. And there you have it. Murder mystery.

Also, keep in mind that there are 7 Classic Story Archetypes, and they have been around since before stories were written down. Shakespeare’s plays all fit into them, as do the books of the Bible, and the vast majority of all the foundational myths from every culture throughout the world. On the most fundamental level, there really is nothing new under the sun.

Armed with that knowledge, you only need rely on your pure instinct to take the final steps to arrive at a conclusion. If something seems off to you in a story, there’s most likely a good reason for it. Trust your inner voice.

Did a character bring up something that seemed random or unnecessary to you? Did you wonder why that thing even came up, since it didn’t seem to advance the plot in any way? Then rest assured, that thing is significant. If you’re watching a romance and they suddenly have a brief discussion about elephant’s toenails, then rest assured that elephant’s toenails will figure prominently in the subsequent twist.

Also, if a character seems to be demonstrating a particular quality over and over and over again, that’s significant as well. Is the writer really going out of the way to try to convince you that someone is lovable or heroic or evil or sneaky? (A good writer would trust the viewer to do more of the heavy lifting, but a lazy one will beat you over the head with the information.) Odds are good that the twist in the end will be that that person is exactly the opposite of their ham-handed portrayal. Someone who seems weak or foolish will turn out to be strong and wise. If the writer keeps having the main character do saintly things, you can bet your life that that character is actually a sinner.

I don’t think all wordsmiths are lazy. When one manages to surprise me, I have nothing but admiration for her, him, or them. When a story feels fresh and unexpected, I know that I have truly been given my money’s worth, and then some. I am always grateful for that gift.

But if you’re playing the odds, the information above will let you win more often than not, if knowing how a story is going to play out can be considered winning. Most of the time it’s kind of a disappointment. Sometimes it’s downright irritating. But on a positive note, those lazy writers sure do make me appreciate the good ones. Talent should never be taken for granted.

Hey! Look what I wrote!


Humor Expires

I used to know someone who would tell the same jokes and bad puns over and over and over again. They were funny the first time or two. But as the years went by they kind of got irritating. Then I started feeling sorry for him, because I’d see the looks on people’s faces when he’d trot out the same hackneyed quips.

I guess he figured that if they worked once, it was best to stick to the tried and true. But trust me: humor has an expiration date. Especially topical humor. I’m sure there were jokes about Abraham Lincoln, for example, but who would laugh at them now? And some humor stops being socially acceptable with time. (“I beat my wife up every morning. Ha!”)

The most annoying thing is that I can still hear him telling these stupid jokes in my head when the circumstances are right. That makes me grit my teeth. It’s like I’m stuck in a bad joke feedback loop and I can’t get free no matter how hard I try.

So here’s my advice for people who like to make others laugh: change your material frequently. The funniest people have creative minds. They are in the moment. They adapt to circumstances. If you stick to one never-changing routine, people will get sick of hearing it, whether they admit it to you or not. Predictable isn’t funny. Just saying.

old joke.jpg

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“I’m Bored!!!”

I was just the right age to be tortured by the Watergate hearings. I was 8 years old in 1973 and those hearings pre-empted daytime television for weeks. At that age, it felt like years. I had no idea that a gripping piece of political history was unfolding before my eyes. I thought I would lose my mind, since television was one of my primary forms of after school entertainment back then. I remember wailing, “I’m bored!!!” to my mother, and she’d reply wearily, “Read a book.” Usually I’d just sit on my swing and cry. I was such a brat.

I have no idea where I got the idea that I should be entertained at all times. It’s insane, when you think about it. Saying you’re bored is like saying you are entitled to constant pleasure. I don’t know anyone who enjoys that level of privilege. Even the super-rich have to suffer through board meetings and long flights to Australia. Boredom visits us all.

I suspect that Generation Z will have an even harder time coping with boredom, because they have so many different ways to avoid it. If they’re treated to presidential investigations (fingers crossed, here), well, there’s always Netflix. I would have killed to binge watch something, anything, I Love Lucy, whatever, back in 1973.

Nowadays I’m kind of grateful for boredom. Please, God, give me a routine, predictable day with no surprises. Because the older you get, the more you experience those moments of “un-boredom” that are exciting little tastes of hell. The death of loved ones. Waiting for medical test results. Those times when your kid drops off the radar. Political shenanigans. Work SNAFUs. That strange noise in the back yard when you’re home alone.

You’re not bored at those moments, believe you me! Not even a little bit! That’s when you realize that boredom is actually a luxury.

So boredom can visit me any time it wants. I’m always grateful for an excuse to take a nap. And yeah, okay, my mother was right. You can never read too many books.

Watergate hearings

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I recently got screamed at for leaving a fingerprint on a microwave. It rendered me speechless. I am always shocked when people react all out of proportion to a situation. I mean, it’s a fingerprint, not toxic waste. It took me less than a second to wipe it off. And that whole time, the world continued to revolve around the sun.

According to, one of the many definitions of proportion is “symmetry, harmony, or balance.” Perhaps that’s why I get so unsettled when things are out of proportion. I thrive on balance. I don’t like unpredictability. I like to be in an environment where the emotional energy is flowing smoothly, without sharp peaks or valleys. Is that so difficult?

Recently I was in the midst of a typical bantering session with someone whom I love dearly. We’ve been friends for 14 years. He’s one of my favorite people in the world. Apparently I said something that touched a nerve. That wasn’t my intent. It was a subject we’d spoken about in the past. It was, to my mind, a mere sentence fragment amongst the millions we have exchanged over the years. But it caused him to remove himself from Facebook and cut off all contact for the past two weeks.

I e-mailed him and apologized for hitting that nerve and expressed surprise that he could think so poorly of me, but have had no further contact. That makes me profoundly sad.

It should be something we could talk about and easily resolve. It should be a mere blip on our emotional radar. Instead, my friend, who is a wonderfully big guy, seems to have painted himself into a very tiny, prideful, childish corner. Proportion? In essence, he’s taken his marbles and gone home. The longer this plays out, the harder it will be to repair this damage, and that breaks my heart.

I always viewed this person as my rock. The stable one. The go-to guy for advice. Now I am having to see him as unpredictable, and it has left me confused and more than a little tearful.

Maybe if I understood, I’d know what to think and how to act. And to complicate the issue, the very person I would have asked for input on this type of situation is the very one who is no longer speaking to me. I’m baffled.

Maybe proportion takes more work than I realized. Maybe symmetry, harmony, and balance aren’t the default positions I always thought they were. This is a very bewildering concept to try to digest at the age of 50. I’m struggling.

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