I have a major pet peeve about the conceits writers employ in fiction, especially suspense thrillers and mysteries. Let’s begin by defining what a plot conceit is: In drama and other art forms, a conceit of a work of fiction is the underlying fictitious assumption that must be accepted by the audience with suspension of disbelief so a plot point may be seen as plausible.
Here are my top five implausible conceits:
Number 1: Two people are madly in love. One develops a brain tumor with a dire prognosis. To ensure that their partner will not suffer the angst and emotional pain of living through their beloved’s slow, painful death, the ill partner makes up some foolish excuse for leaving them, often telling them they no longer love them. However, we all know that isn’t true!
Number 2: This is a variation on the tumor theme. One partner is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, often in a location where it can be surgically repaired but at significant risk to the patient. The operation is successful only about 50 percent of the time unless you’re in Hallmark Hall of Fame land. However, when successful, it may still leave the patient with severe neurological and physical impairments. Not wanting their partner to suffer either from their death or to live with their physical impairment, the patient tells no one of their dire condition. Naturally, the other partner finds out and convinces their beloved to go ahead with the operation, which proves to be a success!
Number 3: This conceit we experience in numerous genres. The mafia, the Sinaloa drug cartel, zombies, aliens, or a local nut job is hunting two people, usually lovers or soon-to-be lovers. The hero tells his girlfriend to remain where she is because it is both safe and secure. He leaves her to confront the menace, so what does she do? You’re absolutely correct—you’ve seen the movie, too—she defies him. She leaves her secure location in a vain attempt to save her pet Pomeranian. While the boyfriend is out having a beer, she is hunted by the…Oh, you know the rest of the story (they mocked this idiotic conceit in a recent TV ad with a mad chainsaw murderer). It was hilarious but so on point.
Number 4: There’s a common conceit often found in suspense thrillers and police dramas. Our hero—a female police officer, a male private detective, or just some armed good Samaritan—is rescuing a hostage from a gun-wielding whack job. While the gunman is holding the hostage with a gun to their head, the armed hero attempts to bring down the temperature by talking sense to the criminal, threatening to kill the hostage. The hero responds, ‘Look, I’m putting my gun down so we can talk. Trust me, we can work this out. No one needs to get hurt.’ The gunman thinks this is the most beautiful gift he’s ever received since getting his first issue of Playboy magazine as a teenager. A competent gunman would blow away the now defenseless hero and then kill the hostage, but not our lousy guy because he is a creature of the put-down-the-gun conceit. He listens to reason and surrenders, or, what often happens, a red dot appears on his forehead, and a police SWAT member blows his head off. Police officers are trained to never surrender their weapons (Never!).
Number 5: The last conceit is another favorite of mystery writers. The model for this conceit is Dame Agatha Christie. Read any of her novels, and the killer in her cozy mysteries is always the one you least suspect of being the killer. This conceit is the heart of many formulaic Hall of Fame mystery genres. However, I’ll give you the secret to identifying Dr. Plummer with the candlestick in the conservatory. Always look for a character in the book or made-for-TV movie who you hear from or see only sparingly. They probably will only have a few moments on the page or of screen time, but the more minor their role is, the more likely they are guilty of murder. A typical case of literary misdirection!