By David Flin
How many times have you seen it? The villains come up with a scheme that has more holes than Swiss cheese, or they ignore the most basic precautions when constructing a defence. They fail to include fall-back options in case something goes wrong, It is very, very boring if a hero’s plan works perfectly without any hitches. The examples I quote here are all taken from works that I have read. Be warned, gross stupidity is involved.
How many times have you read about a situation where the heroes need to dispose of an enemy sentry, and manage to do this? And, once they have done this, they are able to sneak through without anyone realising. When I come to that point in a book, the book usually takes a curved trajectory from my hand to strike the wall opposite when annoyance and frustration at the stupidity of the author defeats my normal calm demeanour.
Gentle reader, only the most inexperienced of people have a sentry who is not under observation from someone further inside the complex. Any semi-competent commander ensures that the sentries have people watching them, and if anything untoward happens to a sentry, an alarm is automatically triggered. It’s basic. At an absolute minimum, sentries are in sight of each other. This is because, over the years, people have worked out that sentries can be vulnerable, and if they are eliminated, the complex is vulnerable.
And yet, time after time after time, authors insist on writing scenes in which sentries are eliminated, and those attacking can then sneak in totally undetected. Thump goes the book against the wall.
It’s quite simple people. Put yourself in the position of the villain, and try to think of everything that could go wrong, and work out ways of countering that. Try to think of what the heroes might do and how to cope.
The second thing to do is to work out what the villain’s objective is. Have them act consistently with that. If, for example, they are holed up in a complex, trying to recover after a major setback, then they are going to be paranoid over possible attempts to scout the position out. When the heroes send a helium-filled birthday balloon across the complex carrying a camera (somehow miraculously floating at a height low enough for the heroes to recover the camera by throwing a knife at it), then the villains don’t just shrug when they see the balloon, and assume it’s just an escaped children’s toy and nothing to worry about. Under such circumstances, villains with half a brain cell shoot the balloon down. If it’s just an escaped child’s toy, no harm done. If it is something more sinister, well. Why wouldn’t they shoot it down?
Another example: the villains are holed up and planning, and an unidentified car drives slowly past the hideout. It then pauses, turns around, and slowly returns, before driving off. Do the Villains ignore this, deciding that it’s probably just an out-of-towner who has managed to get lost? Do they carry on, without taking extra precautions, just in case it was someone scouting things out?
Another book arcs its way across the room to strike the opposite wall.
The heroes approach the villain’s position, and find a nice approach between strong defensive positions through dead ground. Luckily, this leads them straight to the heart of the villain’s defensive position, and mayhem ensues.
Another book arcs its way across the room to strike the opposite wall.
When arranging a defensive position, the defenders will try to set up “kill-zones”, where any attacking force is drawn into an area where, well, the phrase “kill-zone” is a bit of a clue. Apparent open routes, well, any self-respecting commander will talk a look at positions from the outside, and will spot such approaches, unless they have the brains of a plank of wood (or a second-rate writer). I’ve done such tours, many times. Trust me, apparent dead zones, well, dead zone is an appropriate phrase, just not in the way some writers seem to think.
Then there are the occasions where you can’t quite work out what the villain is trying to achieve. They’re evil; they burn kittens for fun and make prisoners watch the odd-numbered Star Trek movies, and they cackle malevolently, but they don’t seem to have any objective. Sometimes there is an objective, but the reader is left with the impression that it’s not been entirely thought through.
“Ha! I’m going to destroy the entire world!”
“Excuse me, where do you live?”
Killing their henchmen and lieutenants for a failure. I guess the author needs to prove that Evil McVillain is actually evil, and how better to do this than by killing off everyone who makes a mistake when working for them? Have you noticed how much more effective henchmen are with crushed skulls?
It’s generally not a good idea to make the heroes job easier, and these henchmen can be useful for, you know, fighting the hero.
Similar to the dead-ground issue, there’s what I refer to as the Exhaust Duct issue. Why have an exhaust duct directly connected to the main reactor core that a single bomb dropped into the duct causes a distinct downturn in the Mighty War Machine? Rather than relying on TIE fighters and turbolaser gun emplacements, use a sheet of chicken wire, and goodnight, Rebel base.
How can you avoid these basic errors? I’ve mentioned putting yourself in the villain’s place, and trying to work out their plan. What I do when working out a villain’s plan is get a piece of paper, and across the top I write what their objective is. That way I have always got a reminder of what they’re trying to do, and don’t end up constantly digressing.
Then I note down how they intend to achieve their objective. For example, if they plan to become dictator of Britain, their plan might be to gain a monopoly on all ice cream sold anywhere in Britain, and then during the summer holidays, threaten to remove all ice cream from sale, until children across the country badger their parents into making him dictator.
Clearly, this brilliant scheme will involve acquiring the means of production of ice cream and stocks of ice-cream, and digressions into buying up a coffee shop would need careful consideration. It may be appropriate, more likely not. For example, the Villain may have fallen deeply in love with one of the waitresses in the coffee shop. Stranger things have happened. It’s possible that the Villain actually defeats the Hero, only for the waitress to plead for sanity to return, because she couldn’t love someone who took ice cream away from children, he relents, the ice cream is restored, and everyone lives unhealthily ever after.
You’ve heard of the expression: “Show, don’t tell”? That goes double for plans, whether from the Hero or the Villain. If you have a character describe a plan of action such that the reader knows what the plan is, then you can’t have that plan taking place like that. It’s duplication. If you tell the reader what the plan is going to be, when the action comes, something will go wrong with the plan and it will turn out differently.
That happens in real life all the time. The empty hilltop you’ve been sent to take possession of isn’t actually empty, the reinforcements you’d been promised have had to go somewhere else, the chap you’ve met to get a situation briefing from is under the impression that you’re the one briefing him on the situation, and neither of you have a clue what’s going on.
However, there’s one point on the wall opposite that is especially heavily dented. The hero has a love interest. The hero also has an arch enemy. The arch enemy and the love interest meet.
Gosh. The love interest is attracted to both the dark, brooding, handsome, misunderstood arch enemy and the sweet, handsome, honourable hero.
This cliché needs to be taken out and shot. Not just shot, but beheaded, shot again, cut up into little pieces, torn apart by ravening, rabid carnivorous rabbits, shot again, burned to ashes, put into a rocket and fired into the heart of a sun and, for good measure, having the sun go nova.
The cliché exists purely to provide an extra layer of tension for the protagonist. It turns the love interest from a character in their own right to being, in effect, a plot token.
If you really must go down this route (don’t), then make sure that you’ve set it up beforehand such that it makes sense. Maybe the arch enemy is someone that the love interest knew when they were children, and enjoy reminiscing about old times, and have a shared connection that the hero can be jealous of. Maybe the arch enemy shares a skill set with the love interest (one is a doctor, the other a nurse, for example) and they have a professional connection and a shared technical jargon. Maybe, well, there are dozens of ways you can pull it off, but the love interest suddenly being faced with indecision over a choice between two bowls of ice cream (and it’s probably wisest not to go down the road of having the love interest decide to eat up both bowls of ice cream to the very last drop).
If you'll excuse me, there's a hole in the wall opposite me that needs mending.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow