I recently read a group discussion among writers and editors that asked whether readers cared more about creative prose or an engaging story. The vast majority of respondents chose the story over the prose, and my first reaction was surprise. Without good writing, I said to myself, the story is lost. But after thinking about it, I had to change my mind. The others are right. Simply put, without the story, there’s no reason to write.
So for the next few weeks, I’ll be examining the type of plot elements that we look for in a story.
To kick the series off: Plots that make readers think and/or keep them guessing.
- Think twists and turns that make readers sit up and say, “No way!”
- Think universal themes, turned on their heads
- Think ordinary man/woman caught in an extraordinary situation that makes you ask yourself, “What would I do?”
Example: The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Escape Clause” (November 1959, CBS).
Description/opening narration from the episode:
You’re about to meet a hypochondriac. Witness Mr. Walter Bedeker, age forty-four. Afraid of the following: death, disease, other people, germs, draft, and everything else. He has one interest in life and that’s Walter Bedeker. One preoccupation, the life and well-being of Walter Bedeker. One abiding concern about society, that if Walter Bedeker should die, how will it survive without him?
Bedeker is blessed with health but has convinced himself he’s gravely ill. Despite the doctor’s assertion that his symptoms are all in his head, he complains continually to his long-suffering wife and gripes when the doctor prescribes nothing more than vitamins (and those for his wife). Eventually he asks, “Why does a man have to die?”
As Bedeker lies in bed, fussing, the Devil materializes and offers him immortality (which he phrases as “some additional free time”) in return for his soul, likewise trivialized as a “crumb” of his makeup.
Bedeker is suspicious. Immortality? It seems too good to be true! The end of what he fears most (death) with no real strings attached? In response, the Devil assures him he’ll never miss his soul, and that any aging will be imperceptible. (Funny how Bedeker is more concerned with wrinkles than the loss of a soul. Excellent character development there.)
As a final condition, the Devil offers him an escape clause. Bedeker can call on him at any time to arrange for an immediate and uncomplicated death. Bedeker agrees but says he’ll never have to use it. He plans to be living, well, forever.
The papers are signed, the Devil vanishes, and Bedeker begins to test his newfound immortality by placing himself in harm’s way, frequently, then collecting settlement monies from companies fearing litigation.
It’s not long, though, before he complains about even that. There’s no excitement in immortality. he says. It’s boring. The Devil has cheated him. Bedeker even blames his wife, claiming if she had any imagination at all, she’d figure out a way to make his life exciting. The poor wife, certain her husband truly is ill now, attempts to stop him from yet another crazed stunt, but instead, she falls to her death.
Bedeker, ever unremorseful, even uses this to spice up his life. What better thrill could there be, he must imagine, than facing the electric chair and those powerful volts of electricity passing through the body, then coming out the other side alive and well? So he calls the police and tells them he killed her. The police obligingly throw him in jail.
Fast forward to sentencing, but unfortunately for Bedeker, his lawyer is just too damn good. The sentence isn’t the chair, it’s life without parole. Instantly he sees he’s trapped himself in the one thing he can’t tolerate: an eternity spent in boredom.
At first, I thought that would have been the perfect ending – fade out with Bedeker sitting in that tiny prison cell, staring into the blankness of the walls, forever. But writer Rod Serling was more compassionate than I would have been. Or was he?
The Devil reappears and offers Bedeker the chance to exercise his escape clause: instant death. He accepts, the Devil fulfills the clause, and Bedeker drops dead of a heart attack.
The plot comes full circle. The hypochondriac concerned with protecting himself from harm is so bent on saving himself, he has to choose the thing he fears most: death.
Still, it seemed far too merciful to me, until the camera panned in on the body, and I saw that Bedeker’s eyes were open. Then I realized the truth of the ending: He might have been dead to this world, but he’d already sold his soul to the Devil. What was left for him now but an eternity, in hell? Now that’s something Bedeker hadn’t planned on.
What do you think about the ending? Was it merciful, or clever? Would you have done anything differently? Did this plot make you think about big moral issues, like immortality, or the existence of hell? It did me!
Now that’s a great story.
After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.