Currently, I am watching Alias with a friend. I’m a long term fan but she’s never watched the series before. So we decided that she needed to watch it ASAP in order to appreciate the glory of supersecret spy melodrama. In between our giggling at the way over-dramatic dialogue, mooning over how gloriously bastardy Mr Sark is, and trying to keep track of the ridiculously convoluted plots, one particular conversation between us stands out.
Sydney had come out of her supersecret spy headquarters and was in the undercover car park walking towards her car. My friend (Let’s call her Lauren… because that is her name) turned to me and said with absolute confidence, “Someone’s about to start shooting at her.” I tried to keep the absolutely neutral face of the non-spoily friend but sure enough maybe a minute later there were guns blazing and desperate hiding behind ridiculously expensive-looking cars.
When I asked Lauren how she’d known, she looked at me and deadpanned, “If something’s not going to happen in the car park then they wouldn’t show it.”
It was around this time that I started to believe that she was secretly a genius.
And so we come to what I would like to term as the ‘Car Park Law’ whereby every scene or event in your story must serve a purpose even if it’s a totally clichéd one like having a gun fight in a car park.
Car Park Law violations (when events and scenes not relating to the plot occur) are especially common occurrences in fanfiction. Fanfic is an elaborate (and awesome) excuse for us to spend more time with the characters we love. So why not take a small detour from the plot and send the characters to somewhere you’ve always wanted to send them? Like the beach! Or maybe to a club so they can get drunk off their faces! Or maybe (If there are kids involved) to an amusement park so they can eat lots of sugar and go on stupid amounts of rides! It’ll be great! And in the next chapter you can return to the plot all refreshed and ready to continue.
Unfortunately, plots don’t work that way. Or, at least, they shouldn’t.
A plot is a series of related events that work together to form a narrative. There’s some jargony terms in there so I’m going to break them down a little. Events are things that happen (gasp) but may not be related. For example, my cat bites me (An event. Also, ouch) and my next door neighbour decides she’s going to cook duck for dinner (Also an event. A delicious event). These two things are events but they aren’t part of a plot. My cat scratching me causing me to yell out a bad word which my neighbour hears and through rhyming association decides she’s going to cook duck relates these events. This can make them part of a plot but not a particularly interesting one. The thing that brings it all together into an interesting narrative is conflict.
Conflict is the most important part of any story. It doesn’t have to be a traditional conflict with two people fighting. It doesn’t even have to involve anyone except your main character. Your character could want something and the conflict of the story is as simple as them not having it.
For example, using my previous plot we’ll say that I can smell the duck and it happens to by favourite food. So I begin plotting to break into my neighbour’s house and steal the duck (We’ll just say that I can’t ask for some because I don’t have a great relationship with her. Possibly due to excessive, high-volume swearing). Now we’ve got our conflict. My neighbour has the duck, I want the duck, I must put my evil mastermind skills to work in order to obtain the duck.
Has everyone seen the diagram before? The one that looks like a particularly drunk triangle? It’s simplistic but it’ll do for now. Simply through its design it shows some important assumptions we make about plots. Firstly, they’re linear. One event leads to the next which leads to the next. All of these events lead to the peak of the plot diagram (or climax if we can bear to use the word without sniggering) where the conflict comes to a head and is resolved, leading to a slide down towards the end. The plot diagram also shows that there is a clear beginning, middle and end to stories.
If we were to add a Car Park Law violation in the form of a phone call from my mother (and the incredibly witty conversation that would entail) the plot would look something like this.So instead of a drunken triangle that builds tension up until the climax (snickersnerk) you’ve got something that breaks the mood and takes away from the linked, coherent plot stopping the logical rise in tension.
Now, of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. This is where detective, whodunit and even twist stories can excel. By introducing a detail or scene that seems to be an unnecessary car park scene and making it significant later you can create an even stronger narrative.
For example, what if my mother and I talk about our cats and the hijinks they get up to and she mentions that her cat is always stealing her food when she’s not looking. I laugh at her and we exchange a few more incredibly witty lines before the conversation ends.By adding in that seemingly random car park in the form of a conversation and then emphasising the significance later you can surprise your audience while making the climax even more… climatic. Yeah.
You can see lots of instances of the Car Park Law in action in television shows. You may notice that I use a lot of television as examples for writing techniques. Mostly it’s because I grew up with television and because I assume more people would have watched X random show than read X random book. But it’s also because you’ll find some of the tightest and best plotted writing in (good) television for two simple reasons: They have limited time and EVERYTHING costs money. In your average television show they’ve got 40 minutes to tell a complete story that somehow fits in with the rest of the show’s overriding story arc. Everything they show you on the screen takes up some of that 40 minutes and (more importantly) every new location they film at costs money- you have to find or build the set, pay the actors, pay all the technicians and that’s before you’ve even started filming and editing. So you can be sure that if something’s on screen it’s got a good reason to be there. Television writing follows Car Park Law because they have to.
A good game to play to really emphasise the point is to watch episodic detective shows and notice whenever the camera focuses on a random detail on the set or when the characters are having a seemingly inane conversation. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be the one predicting gun fights in car parks.
It should be noted that the Car Park Law holds true especially for oneshots (short stories for the rest of the world) and for stories with only a few chapters. The larger the percentage of the story the unnecessary car park takes up, the more noticeable the break in the story’s plot is. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore the Car Park Law in larger stories but it does mean that you’ve got a bit more leeway.
I should also note that all of the plot diagrams I’ve drawn are really really simple. They follow one plot with no regard for subplots or other characters. In longer, more complex works simply tracking everyone’s movements can leave a plot diagram looking like this.
As for identifying Car Park Law violations in plots like that? You’re on your own.
(Though with Tolkien you could probably start with all the songs)