Friday, December 04, 2009

Plotting: The Murphy's Law Method

The Murphy's Law Method
"What Can go Wrong SHOULD go Wrong."

If you want an easy way to plot out a story that your readers can't guess the end to by the fourth chapter, then THIS is the method for you!

You begin with a character and something they desire.
 -- They go after their desire which immediately sparks complications which become a Problem that your character has to solve.
 -- Once the character applies their chosen Solution to their Problem, Murphy's Law kicks in. The Solution triggers yet another problem.

This pattern continues--Problem > Solution > Problem--so on, and so forth until All the problems are solved and your character either reaches their goal, achieves an even better one, or dies.

This method is extremely effective when plotting out Adventure stories of any kind. In fact, Van Helsing, National Treasure, Inkheart, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, the James Bond movies, most RP video games, and almost all Horror stories and films follow this pattern.

Murphy's Law Adventures
Basically, the story begins with a Goal. Our hero goes after said goal which spawns a problem. Once our hero figures out a solution and gains the goal, the worst possible thing (or person) happens to snatch that victory right out of their hands.

This forces our hero to figure out a new solution to regain their goal, and uncovers yet another problem--a worse problem. They find a solution to that problem and achieve said goal only to have Murphy's Law strike again to snatch their victory away, plus present them with a new and even worse problem to solve.

Rinse and Repeat until you reach The End. 

This is also known as "Impressive Failure".
 -- From: Screenwriting Column 08 by Terry Rossio
"Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is perhaps the greatest action hero in the history of the movies, and in his debut film he flat-out fails from beginning to end.

• He loses the golden idol.
• Marian is kidnapped and he's unable to rescue her.
• He finds the Ark, but it is immediately taken.
• His bluff to destroy the Ark is called, and he gets recaptured.
• He can't even look upon the Ark when it is opened.
• And the government ends up with his long sought-after and much suffered-for prize.

This guy's an action hero?

Yup, because he fails so damn impressively from start to finish. Indy fails so well in fact, the audience is impressed as hell, and hardly aware of the fact that he's failing. The defeats are just setbacks that create more opportunities for heroism. As an added benefit, Indy wins the audience's sympathy -- the poor guy's trying so hard, you can't help but root for him."

In the Murphy's Law method, Impressive Failure happens over and over until the very end of the story where our hero is completely out of solutions--except the one thing they really, really don't want to do. This one last thing solves everything--usually with a casualty--and the story ends on an ironic note.

Sound like fun?

Murphy's Law Romance
The Murphy's Law Method is also surprisingly effective when plotting out an Angsty Romance!

Example: Romeo & Juliet
Set Up: Once upon a time, a boy and girl fell in love.
The Goal: Each other.

Problem: Their parents hated each other, and none of their friends liked the others' friends. No one approved--in fact, it was forbidden for them to see each other. (Insert Lover's Angst.)

Solution: Secret marriage.

Next Problem: Their relationship is discovered and they are forcibly separated. (Insert Separation Angst.)

Solution: They arrange to meet in secret to run away together.

Next Problem: One lover is late to the meeting. (Insert Abandonment Angst.)

Solution: A sympathetic friend (who happens to be the priest that married them,) is waiting with the other lover (the one that isn't late.) Said friend decides to go out and discover whether or not the late lover is going to show up.

Next Problem: The waiting lover is "marked for death" should they be found within the city limits, (which they are.) Because the friend is out hunting down the late lover, this "marked" lover is left alone and unprotected. (Insert Unfairness Angst.)

Solution: A potion that fakes death. If they were dead, no one would bother them.

Next Problem: The late lover misses the searching friend and arrives alone to find their beloved out cold from the potion. They immediately think that their beloved has committed suicide because they were late. (Insert "It's all my fault" Angst.)

Solution: They decide to join their lover in death -- by committing suicide.

Next Problem: The lover that was out cold wakes up to find their beloved draped across them Dead. (Insert more "It's all my fault" Angst.)

Solution: They commit suicide too.

Conclusion: The parents find the dead kids. (Insert Even MORE "It's all my fault" Angst.) They decide to stop the feud between their families

The End

Writing Murphy's Law
The key to using this method effectively is ONE Point of View, normally the Hero's. This keeps the reader firmly in the driver's seat and focused on what the Hero is doing. It also allows surprises to pop-up and Suspense to build. "Is he gonna get it this time?"

If the reader has been in the Villain's head, for example, and already knows what's going to happen next--where's the Surprise?

Memorize this:
Suspense can only happen when the Reader
DOESN'T know what will happen next.

So don't tell them by head-hopping, damn it!

The only real problem that one could face when using this method is the possibility of the author painting themselves into a corner by creating a problem the character Can't solve. This often triggers the heinous Deus Ex Machina--when something or someone comes out of nowhere to save the hero's butt.

The solution of course, is to make a LIST of the problems and their solutions--and STICK TO IT, unless of course, you find a better solution. Just remember to make a better problem to go with it!


Morgan Hawke

1 comment:

  1. As always-excellent post! Thank you Morgan.
    XXOO Kat