The other day, my walking buddy and I were discussing various bad-plotting mistakes made in various TV series, specifically the sort that used to be called “hack writer’s gambit.” I say “used to be called” because a quick series of googles found very little in the way of modern references for the term.
So I’m evidently going to have to start by defining the term, if I want to talk about it. Taking it in pieces: a hack writer was, back in the days of the pulp magazines, a writer who cranked out stories on demand, supposedly without regard to subject or quality. It’s a term you still hear, though not as often as in the past. “Gambit” is a strategy, technique, or ploy.
The hack writer’s gambit is a particularly bad ploy for getting oneself out of the corner one has written one’s hero into. It was especially common in the old serials (both in print and at the movies) where each episode but the last would end in a cliffhanger, often one that seemed to show the hero’s death. The next episode or segment would open with the same scene, but with an extra thirty seconds of footage or a paragraph that showed the hero diving off the boat seconds before the explosion destroyed it or slipping out of the handcuffs and escaping through the back door before the building was set on fire. Another example would be the previously unknown and unmentioned witness or relative who shows up at the very last minute to exonerate the hero(ine) or reveal the truth about the family secrets.
The classic example comes from Scott Meredith’s how-to-write book, Writing to Sell: A serial writer is contacted by his editors because the current installment of the series ends with Lance O’Neil in a pit with sides too steep to climb, sharp spikes moving in to crush him, and molten lead pouring in from a pipe in the ceiling. The editors aren’t sure the writer can get the hero out of the mess. The writer shrugs and hands them the next installment, which begins “With a mighty leap, Lance O’Neil sprang out of the pit.” (Meredith’s version is two pages long in the copy I have, and much more entertaining, but that’s the gist of it.)
Generally, the unexpected and unreasonably easy escape is immediately followed by a bunch of fast and furious action – chasing down the guys who blew up the ship, set the house on fire, or stuck Lance in the pit – to take the readers/viewers’ minds off just how outrageously they’ve been suckered. The only time this kind of thing actually works is in a parody, where the whole point is that one outrageous or unlikely or downright impossible thing after another keeps happening. If the story is sufficiently light and/or sufficiently action-centered, and getting out of the cliffhanger isn’t totally ridiculous (as it is in the Lance O’Neil example), the author can sometimes get away with it. Rarely.
These days, you don’t see many unlikely physical exploits – heroes making mighty leaps, or sneaking out past guards when we’ve already seen (we thought) that it didn’t happen that way. Readers and viewers expect more consistency and foreshadowing than that, and writers know it. If the hero makes a mighty leap out of a death trap, he has to have done similar feats in less dire circumstances before, so that the escape becomes a matter of the villain having totally underestimated the hero’s physical prowess, rather than the sudden revelation of an ability he’s never had before (unless, of course, the hero got bitten by a radioactive spider right before he was shoved into the pit, and the escape is as much a shock to him as to the reader).
What you do see are other sorts of unlikely rabbits being pulled out of hats. The villain gloats that he’s erased the critical data on the hero’s computer so thoroughly that it is unrecoverable – and then someone conveniently shows up with a new bit of software that can magically recover the data anyway, just in the nick of time. Or a previously unknown and unmentioned hacker has a fit of conscience for no particular reason and turns up with the data he stole from the hero’s computer just before the villain wiped it. Or a character who’s been dead for two seasons or eighteen chapters turns out to have set up a secret backup system that is still running, even though she hasn’t been around to maintain it.
When this kind of thing happens in a television series, it is sometimes understandable. Often, the logical place to plant the information about the software or the hacker or the backup system was several episodes prior to the one in which it becomes necessary to pull the hero out of the swamp, and by the time the writers need it, it’s too late to plant it. (That’s the problem with serials in general, really – they take a lot more careful planning than one may realize in the early stages.) When you have something like this happening between the front and back cover of a single book, there’s really no excuse for it. Yes, it’s a lot of work to go back and find places to plan the hacker or the software guy and his project or the secret backup system, but if you ever thought writing was not going to be a lot of work, you really ought to have gotten over the idea by the time you got to the end of your first draft and realized you needed some plot handwaving to get your hero out of whatever hole you’d written him into. Heck, that’s half the reason why there are second drafts in the first place – so the writer can get the reader out of some corner without having to leave obvious footprints all over the fresh paint on the floor.