where the writers are
The Purposeful Plot
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

Television series have particular problems because of the nature of the medium.  I suspect the writers often have to deal with uncertainty about whether they'll get to finish a particular plot line, or fully develop a character arc, since they can't be sure if their program will be dropped.  This circumstance makes the writing of the series Breaking Bad all the more impressive.

I'm not a big television watcher, except for the news, but upon a number of recommendations, I started watching the episodes of this show, and I'm very glad I started at the beginning!  These writers must be some of the best in the business.  In particular, the arc of the second season impresses me.  In the opening episode, there's a bizarre, seemingly surrealistic scene in which a teddy bear falls into a swimming pool, and one of its eyes comes off and floats into the drain.  I had my doubts about that one, even though this show--full of black humor and dark plot points--is about drugs.  But the final episode reconfirmed my faith in these writers.  I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might decide to watch!  It's sufficient to say that the teddy bear vignette paid off in a big way, bigger than I could ever have expected--and that was at the end of a thirteen-episode season.  It wasn't surreal, wasn't a drug-induced hallucination, wasn't imaginary.  It was big.  And so satisfying.

Why is this important?  Because these writers, evidently, knew exactly where they were going and how they were going to get there.  They could foreshadow the season-ending event because they had it planned.  That's purposeful plotting.  It's not accidental, or let's-just-see-where-this-takes-us.  The one-eyed teddy bear is evidence that they knew in advance what was going to happen in their plot, and I appreciate that more than I can say.

There are so many examples of television series--and book series--that fail to do this that I won't offer any.   But in the very best books and stories, plots have a feeling of inevitability, of every event leading up to the conclusion, of each piece of the action having a specific meaning in the overall arc of the story line.  Agatha Christie was wonderful at this, of course.  So was Mary Stewart.  Shakespeare!  Even Jane Austen, a bit abused of late, had a way of making you feel that she had planned every twist and turn of her plots, as did the redoubtable Georgette Heyer.  Anna Quindlen is a master of plotting, and manages to delve deeply into her characters at the same time--and every characteristic has bearing on the conclusion.

Thrillers excel at the purposeful plot.  Romances often don't, but to be fair, they suffer from the opposite problem--an inevitable happy ending.  A lot of high fantasies, it seems to me, take the greatest pleasure in wandering from place to place, as if the author just hopes to arrive somewhere interesting.  There are readers, obviously, who are content with that, for whom the journey is the joy.  Imagine, though, how much more impact such books can have if they have the purposeful plot, something the author invested time and energy into developing before the actual writing.  Mary Stewart's Arthurian series proves it can be done.

I hope no one misunderstands.  Everyone's process is different, and for some writers, the organic method is the only way.  My own process is a sort of melange--first I write, then I synopsize, then I write again, and the synopsis ends up changing, and when it does, it means more rewriting.  Still, the book will be weightier if it all means something, and if the author--me or any other--knows where she wants to end up.  Random plots don't carry that weight. 

Critics are saying that Breaking Bad is the best thing on television.  It's hard to watch sometimes, and the writers are brutal to the characters, but I have to agree; it's the best thing I've seen in a long while.  It's so satisfying, and that's what I hope my books will be.