Photo: One of the banners from www.strangehorizons.com.
This is a partial list of plot elements seen way too often in the business, from Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine. Click the link to see the whole list, which I'll blog in partials. (Strange Horizons allows this list to be published, in case you were wondering about copyrights.)
After every story of this genre I write, I check out this list (of 51 things, most of them sub-headed, which will, as I said, be blogged about later as separate blog entries) and make sure that none of my stories in any way comes close to matching any of these. You would think that this would be difficult, right? Surely there's something in my story that has to match one of these. Actually, no. And stop calling me Shirley. Sorry. Anyway, upon a close inspection, I see that time and again, my stories do not match any of these main plot elements. This doesn't mean my story is any good, of course, but it at least means that it won't get rejected solely for being one of these things.
If you've read as much of this genre as I have, or if you've watched as many movies or shows in this genre as I have, a few of these may remind you of one of the stories, books, shows or movies that you already think of as one of the worst you've ever come across. I've read a lot of amateurish stuff--much of it self-published--that fit quite a few of these. And they were all very, very bad.
And so I offer these to you, should you ever want to write and publish in this genre. How many of them do you recognize in something truly awful? (Not that you would ever do this, but comparisons to my published writing will earn an immediate delete when I moderate the comments!)
P.S.--2a sounds familiar, especially in lots of Stephen King's works, but I would argue that it's not the main plot element. Jack Torrance in The Shining, for example, definitely has writer's block, but it's due to the evil of the Overlook messing with him, plus a healthy dose of the recovering man's blues. Besides that, he was able to type "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" several thousands of times, sometimes in poetic form.
- Person is (metaphorically) at point A, wants to be at point B. Looks at point B, says "I want to be at point B." Walks to point B, encountering no meaningful obstacles or difficulties. The end. (A.k.a. the linear plot.)
- Creative person is having trouble creating.
- Writer has writer's block.
- Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
- Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
- Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
- Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.
- Visitor to alien planet ignores information about local rules, inadvertantly violates them, is punished.
- New diplomat arrives on alien planet, ignores anthropologist's attempts to explain local rules, is punished.
- Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.
- In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
- In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
- In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.
- An AI gets loose on the Net, but the author doesn't have a clear concept of what it means for software to be "loose on the Net." (For example, the computer it was on may not be connected to the Net.)
- Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
- Office life turns out to be soul-deadening, literally or metaphorically.
- All technology is shown to be soulless; in contrast, anything "natural" is by definition good. For example, living in a weather-controlled environment is bad, because it's artificial, while dying of pneumonia is good, because it's natural.
- The future is utopian and is considered by some or many to be perfect, but perfection turns out to be boring and stagnant and soul-deadening; it turns out that only through imperfection, pain, misery, and nature can life actually be good.
- In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
- In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who's lived a non-electronic life.
- Protagonist is a bad person. [We don't object to this in a story; we merely object to it being the main point of the plot.]
- Bad person is told they'll get the reward that they "deserve," which ends up being something bad.
- Terrorists (especially Osama bin Laden) discover that horrible things happen to them in the afterlife (or otherwise get their comeuppance).
- Protagonist is portrayed as really awful, but that portrayal is merely a setup for the ending, in which they see the error of their ways and are redeemed. (But reading about the awfulness is so awful that we never get to the end to see the redemption.)
- A place is described, with no plot or characters.
- A "surprise" twist ending occurs. [Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.]
- The characters' actions are described in a way meant to fool the reader into thinking they're humans, but in the end it turns out they're not humans, as would have been obvious to anyone looking at them.
- Creatures are described as "vermin" or "pests" or "monsters," but in the end it turns out they're humans.
- The author conceals some essential piece of information from the reader that would be obvious if the reader were present at the scene, and then suddenly reveals that information at the end of the story. [This can be done well, but rarely is.]
- Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, they're born.
- Person uses time travel to achieve some particular result, but in the end something unexpected happens that thwarts their plan.
- The main point of the story is for the author to metaphorically tell the reader, "Ha, ha, I tricked you! You thought one thing was going on, but it was really something else! You sure are dumb!"
- A mysteriously-named Event is about to happen ("Today was the day Jimmy would have to report for The Procedure"), but the nature of the Event isn't revealed until the end of the story, when it turns out to involve death or other unpleasantness. [Several classic sf stories use this approach, which is one reason we're tired of seeing it. Another reason is that we can usually guess the twist well ahead of time, which makes the mysteriousness annoying.]
- In the future, an official government permit is required in order to do some particular ordinary thing, but the specific thing a permit is required for isn't (usually) revealed until the end of the story.
- Characters speculate (usually jokingly): "What if X were true of the universe?" (For example: "What if the universe is a simulation?") At the end, something happens that implies that X is true.
- Characters in the story (usually in the far future and/or on an alien planet) use phrases that are phonetic respellings or variations of modern English words or phrases, such as "Hyoo Manz" or "Pleja Legions," which the reader isn't intended to notice; in the end, a surprise twist reveals that there's a connection to 20th/21st-century English speakers.
- Someone calls technical support; wacky hijinx ensue.
- Someone calls technical support for a magical item.
- Someone calls technical support for a piece of advanced technology.
- The title of the story is 1-800-SOMETHING-CUTE.