Plot and Motivation: Climb Aboard the Railroad!

After a brief break, it’s time to hop back in the saddle!  For that, we’ll start with today’s Plot and Motivation article looking at a plot device that is perhaps one of the weakest form of plot available to storytelling: the Railroad.  The Railroad or, more commonly used as a verb, Railroading is the simplest of plots, consisting of a straight line of events from Introduction A all the way to Denouement Z.  Now, that alone might sound a bit staid but not necessarily weak and that is true.  The other important element of Railroading, however, is totally negation of character agency.

I’m not talking necessarily about a ‘prophesy’ or ‘destiny’ as the conflict either.  Man vs. Fate can produce some impressive stories as a conflict.  A Railroad plot literally barrels through all other plot points, conflicts, and characterization to keep the protagonists moving forward.  The writer ignores all other considerations and allows no deviations.  Does the protagonist’s characterization run opposite of the course of action needed to further the Railroad?  Tough, the protagonist does it anyway and nary a word is mentioned about the antiethical character choice.  What about that subplot from a few chapters back that has returned?  It should logically disrupt the train and alter the …. oh crap, the author just punched right through it, dismissing it in a few pages.  All logic is thrown away because the author either doesn’t realize what he/she is doing or believes the overarching plot is too important to have happen in this particular way.

The reasons why Railroading is bad for your works are mostly obvious.  Constantly overriding established characterization weakens your characters and counters reader investment in them.  Ignoring other parts of your own plot is obviously sloppy writing and sends cracks through the suspension of disbelief.  Anything aside from the Railroaded plot is seen by the reader as a waste of time to read and causes plot fatigue and boredom as the reader starts to skip past anything that isn’t the main plot, knowing it has no consequence.

The most damaging thing about Railroading, in my opinion, isn’t immediately obvious.  The fact is that what the author thinks is the most important plot and the most important characters are not always what the majority of the readers identifies as such.  It is far from unheard of for the fans of a media series or a book to instead identify and love characters and plots the author had dismissed as secondary or unimportant.  If you Railroad through your works, you are trying to take control of what your readers like by shoving a particular thing in their face and, if they actually like something else entirely about your book, you will almost immediately alienate them.

So, always consider as you plot out your works to be aware of the possibility of Railroading, even if it’s just through a few scenes.  Always take into account character motivations, subplots, and the overarching possibility that what you think is important isn’t what the readers will think is.  If you have any questions, comments, or examples, please feel free to comment below.

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2 comments

  1. This is why I don’t outline or “plot.” Stephen King (another “organic” writer) likened plotting to a jackhammer. I think it can also be used like a shoehorn: if a writer keeps shoving the characters’ personalities and motivation into the wrong-sized plot, it’s going to pinch and blister, and the story will develop a bad limp.

    I started writing my first novel at a point that turned out to be about 2/3 of the way through, and although I wrote the end scene fairly early on, at that time, I didn’t know exactly how the story would begin, and I sure as heck didn’t know how the two were connected. The characters took me to all kinds of frankly unpleasant places in between that I wouldn’t have planned to write about.

    My WIP is a historical, so there’s a framework of facts, which is the closest I’ll ever come to an outline. But there’s just enough fuzziness between some of those facts, for my characters to be in the right places to take the decisions that changed the course of history, from what it might have been, to what we know happened.

    The “rebellious” characters you read so many complaints about are not “out of control;” their writers are out of touch. Writers negate their characters’ agency at their own risk.

    1. I definitely agree about “rebellious” characters. Characters going their own way is a last ditch warning that the author is taking his works the wrong direction and he had better step back and heed that warning.

      Personally, I work with a loose outline, but I never let myself be wedded to it. I don’t think outlining is necessarily bad as long as the author doesn’t turn it into an iron cage to limit his creativity or his characters’ agency. Thinking about it, what I consider an outline would probably match up to your historical framework: a loose series of core facts, with the actual events and outcomes based not on the framework, but on the characters and their own actions.

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