Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Old Plots, New Plots

This turned out to be a long entry so Thriller Guy is going to break it up into two. He'll be putting the other half up in a few days.

TG has spoken many times about the difficulties in coming up with great plot ideas. Oh, how many times have the Little Ones gathered at his knee and pleaded, (pled?) “Oh, TG, tell us your secret, how can we too come up with killer plot ideas?” Constant readers of TG's thoughts know that he is a big fan of Gin when it comes this question, and he ascribes to the Four Bs of Creative Cognition – that's Bed, Bath, Beach and Bus – which are great places for ideas to suddenly spring into one's head. Don't forget to keep that notebook somewhere close so when brilliance strikes in the middle of the night you can get up and write your brainstorms down. If any of you pros out there would like to share your secrets vis-a-vis plot concoction, send them in and Thriller Guy will post them for the edification of us all.

TG reads a ton of books, and most of them are running through the same old plots, mash-ups and ripoffs. As he pointed out in last week's entry, he is heartily sick of Da Vinci Code imitators and all their secret codes and other paraphernalia. TG understands that there is a solid core of readers who love this sub genre and he is happy to point them to the best (and warn them away from the worst) of this material, because that's TG's job, but personally, he's mighty tired of these books. Most of the military adventure genre are still cranking out copies of Tom Clancy and Larry Bond, although the spy books are being refreshed by a new bunch of British writers who are using terrific writing to reestablish themselves as the heirs to not only le Carre (though le Carre is still writing beautifully) but all the other classic espionage guys.

But instead of continuing to rail against the paucity of today's plots, TG is going to reprise an old plot and give you some new ones he likes over the last year's reading.

Clive Cussler used to be the master of the over-the-top, bizarro plot. He's still cranking them out (plots, that is) but back in the day when he was probably still actually writing his own books he really stretched the limits of credulity, even when most readers are/were happy to suspend their disbelief. Take for example, the plot of Cussler's 1992 Sahara. Click here if you really want a long Wikipedia dissection of this complicated plot, but let TG summarize...

It's 1865 and the Confederate ship CSS Texas takes on a special prisoner and fights her way out through a Union blockade. Flash forward to 1931 when Kitty Mannock is flying over the Sahara in an attempt to set a new aviation record. She crashes into the dessert and records in her diary finding an “odd ship in the sand.” Enter Cussler hero Dirk Pitt (still going strong today) who is in Egypt searching for the source of a strange pollutant that is causing an overgrowth of red tide that, dare we say it, threatens the existence of the world. Much mayhem ensues as Dirk is taken captive, escapes, taken captive again, escapes again, builds a wind powered sand yacht out of pieces of Mannock's airplane, then...

OK, TG is too tired to go on. Suffice it to say that it turns out that Abraham Lincoln is the prisoner on the CSS Texas and he and the ship itself have ended up in the desert. That guy who got shot in Ford's Theatre? That was an actor who was hired by Edwin M. Stanton.

The point is, it's one hell of a plot. It must taken a serious amount of gin to come up with it. Crazy? Lincoln captured by the south and the ship carrying him away ends up in the Sahara desert? Totally whacky. But Cussler pulls it off because he's not afraid to plunge ahead in the face of believability through sheer balls and a story that refuses to slow down. Could you pull off like this today? Hard to say. Maybe. TG is happy to read what you come up with.

Next up: More about Cussler and his son and co-writer Dirk Cussler (yes, he named his kid after his series hero) and three new plots TG thinks are pretty cool.


  1. I think coming up with an original plot is almost an impossibility these days. Everything has been done before. Many times. But if you throw together enough polarising ingredients then you have a chance of creating something that brushes originality. But chances are all those ingredients have been used elsewhere too, even if no one else has put them all together.

    Still, we writers want to be different as much as readers want us to. I was at a writing event in the summer where I got talking to another writer who told me about another writer who, while writing his latest book, had read a recently released novel by yet another writer, only to discover that the plot he was currently working on was very similar to the book he had just read. So he rewrote the whole thing. At first I thought this was an extreme reaction, but on reflection I probably would have done the same, though I also wonder how many readers would have noticed the similarities, and how many would have really cared.

    That Cussler plot sounds fun but utterly crazy, and would probably be a bit OTT for my personal tastes, but I can't fault the originality of it.

  2. I always enjoyed the adventures of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt while growing up, starting with Raise The Titanic, and always looking with anticipation at any movie adaptations. I always enjoyed the 'he's never wrong & never beaten' heroics of the protagonist. The recent movie 'Sahara' managed to capture a lot of that caper nicely, in my opinion.

    As to suspension of disbelief, these stories were for entertainment, like any good pulp adventure. Speaking of which, Dirk Pitt crossed swords so to speak, with the thinly veiled antagonists that ranged from a retired James Bond, Doc Savage, a German WWI fighter ace, and a number of other characters borrowed from other books and history. And who could not help but smile at the author meeting his character in every one of his stories? :)

  3. i just finished reading sahara thought it had a slow beginning but it turned out that i had a hard time putting it down and it was a little ott

  4. We lost you there at the end, Anonymous. If by ott you meant odd, yes, TG agrees with you, it's one hell of an odd plot. And yet somehow it works. Props to Mr. Cussler.