Plotting in a fallen world

(This post contains spoilers for the 1987 film Throw Momma From the Train, a very funny but sometimes dark comedy which I heartily recommend.)

In the movie, Larry (Billy Crystal) leads a writing class that includes the world’s worst writing student, Owen (Danny de Vito). For instance, Owen submits a murder story to the class and asks why Larry found it predictable; Larry replies that it is three pages long, there are only two characters, and one of them is dead on page 2. Larry suggests that Owen go and watch a Hitchcock movie as a lesson in proper plotting.

Unfortunately Owen picks Strangers on a Train, in which two randomly met strangers agree that each will murder someone that the other hates. Larry’s loathed ex-wife has become a bestselling novelist with a plot that she stole from him, while Owen lives at home with his monster of a mother; Owen therefore gets it into his head that Larry wants Owen to kill his wife, in exchange for Larry killing Owen’s mother.

(Spoiler alert: it’s a comedy, and no one dies.)

Plotting is for me easily the hardest part of writing. I like to be kept on my toes when I read, I never want to know what’s coming round the corner, and so I like to work out my own plots in kind. Which means that the moment I think up a plot development, I immediately lose faith in it, because if I have seen it coming then so will the readers.

That’s why I have to remember we live in a fallen world. It’s only in a neat, well ordered plot that human beings are tidy, rational creatures. In the real world we are anything but. We can be distracted, we can mishear information, we have our own agendas, we may not be nearly as nice as other people think we are. Above all, we are not privy to other people’s thought processes, yet everyone’s thoughts make sense within their own skulls. Hitchcock might not have used these precise terms but he certainly knew this, and that is one of the things that make his plots so simple yet so intricate.

There is absolutely no logical reason in a well ordered, rational world why Owen would jump to the conclusion that he does; but once it has happened, given the character of Owen that has been established, it makes perfect sense.

Ultimately, after a comedy of errors, Larry overcomes his writer’s block by novelising his adventures with Owen. The final twist is that he learns Owen has done exactly the same, and got a publishing deal into the bargain. Just as he is busy throttling Owen to death, Owen manages to gasp out that he has written a children’s pop-up book.

So, make your characters fallen - and remember, time taken to see a Hitchcock movie is seldom wasted.

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher and technical writer.


  1. Great advice Ben. Especially the part about watching Hitchcock Movies. I'm off to find some.

  2. North by Northwest will never be beat!

  3. Very thought provoking. Love your description of our thought processes!

  4. Great post! I LOVE Throw Momma from the Train, one of my favourite films :)

  5. Great post! I am now planning to watch that movie :) Tidy, well-ordered - is the kind of world it's easier to live in, but not necessarily as interesting as the one most of us inhabit. A good thing really. A thought provoking read. Thank you.


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