Using a “Straw man” plot in fiction. What’s your opinion?

I posted a status about this on Facebook yesterday, but I didn’t get the kind of response I was hoping for. So here’s my attempt at a larger audience…and an opportunity to explain myself better.

I want to know what you feel about the use of a “Straw man” plot in fiction. If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, I’ll explain. I’m not sure if this technique has an official term in literary circles…but “Straw man” is what I’m calling it. The term comes from the informal logical fallacy of the same name. Wikipedia describes the “Straw man” fallacy as:

“a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

How am I applying this to fiction? A “Straw man” plot is a fake plot used in the exposition to mislead the reader. When the real plot comes into play, the fake plot is completely discarded as irrelevant. A “Straw man” plot usually ends with a “WHAT THE!” moment, blowing the reader’s mind and perception of what’s happening, and skews the story in a totally unexpected direction. The “Straw man” plot is never mentioned again. This is not the same as having sub-plots or plot-twists. Sub-plots continue on, and usually have some significance to the overall story. A plot-twist is an unexpected change to the current plot. A “Straw man” plot is fake, insignificant, and tossed aside in favor of more important things.

I haven’t been able to think of any books or movies that have pulled this off. Please let me know if you can think of any, because I’d like some examples. But one of the best examples I can think of comes from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess video game for Wii. At the beginning of this game, Link is asked to deliver a special sword to Hyrule Castle. He goes through a few rudimentary training exercises, and a short adventure in preparation of this journey. And just before he leaves…a black portal opens up in the sky, everything is thrust into a dark twilight-dimension, and Link turns into a wolf. WHAT THE! Forget delivering the stupid sword to the castle. The world now has bigger problems. This “Straw man” plot is never mentioned again. In fact, the only connection to it is that Link later goes back to his home village and steals that sword so he’ll have something to beat up monsters with.

So what do you think of using the “Straw man” plot? Does it work for you or not? Can you think of a movie or book examples that have succeeded using it? Can you think of movie or book examples that have bombed using it? And would you consider using this in one of your own books? What’s your opinion?

-k

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7 thoughts on “Using a “Straw man” plot in fiction. What’s your opinion?”

  1. Still can’t think of an example… but I still think I do it. For instance… in Hall, Diana has a “vision” which her grandfather says is probably the future. Her mother just think she’s going insane. So she goes through most of the book concerned about these two issues. However, she later finds that the visions have nothing to do with the future. To be honest, I put them in as a reason for kicking her out of the Hall, which starts the book’s adventure. The real enemy doesn’t do anything significant (directly or through minions) until the sequel. So I needed something to cause tension and get people moving so I totally invented that issue. Granted, I have a character who does indeed see visions of the future – but that’s never one of Diana’s abilities. The Hall itself is sort of a facade too, but I won’t give that one away. So, yep, I love sending my characters on wild goose chases.

  2. Hmm. Luke Skywalker, farmboy, is saving up his meager earnings from working his uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine so he can apply to “The Academy:. Yet, by accident, a couple of droids his uncle buys send him on a search, and while he’s out tracking them, his aunt and uncle are killed. Luke drops all plans of attending “The Academy” to team up with the crazy old recluse, Ben Kenobi, running off on some cockamamie mission to return a droid to a planet that later ends up vaporized. Gee, how dare he drop his plans for higher learning. It’s never mentioned ever again. The Rebellion leaders even make him a Commander without benefit of formal education. Incredible.

    ( I do believe the story I just described would be considered a success. Not sure if this fits your definition or not.) Characters SHOULD have lives and plans and be doing things before the “real” story starts. It is unrealistic to ever show characters sitting around waiting for the story to happen.

    1. See, I don’t consider this a “Straw man” plot, because the audience has an idea of the larger happenings before Luke is even introduced. The point is to misdirect the audience.

  3. Isn’t this kind of like the way first acts should be? One of the views of the first act is that the MC should be doing something… he should have a plot already. People don’t normally sit around doing nothing until a story happens along. But the first plot point drives them out of that plot and into the plot you want to write about. Some people keep the first plot on as a sub-plot, others drop it (though I think a lot of people are scared to because they don’t want to leave loose ends hanging). This is kind of what Caprice was talking about.

    I like the idea of using a Straw Man plot (good name, by the way) a lot. As for examples… I am not really thinking of any off the top of my head. Though I am speculating that many apocalypse type stories would be like that in a way. I haven’t watched it, but Battle for L.A. seems like it might have something similar to what you are talking about.

  4. Kevin,

    If you are talking about a series of books, I believe that:
    A.) This plot type would either have to be carried from novel to novel
    B.) Even if you believe it would lose its effects, you’d need some critical major or minor points from the straw plot to show up somewhere on the other end (whether relevant or not, ie “LOST”).
    (both A and B are assuming that you want the reader loyalty to carry on into the next work)
    I know that when it comes to books or stories or any kind, although I love the puzzles and mysteries, I feel I need for resolve. And even if venturing out into postmodern literature styles, I’d need to know that I’m connected with the story somehow by having read up to that point. So the idea of bringing back the swords in the other work you were talking about is in my opinion, absolutely necessary!

    Aside, character perspective is also a neat way to create a storyline. I am not a big fiction reader, as you know, but for time. However, I think the “twist on the twist” are movies like “Hide and Seek” and “The Others”. These are interesting, as they are perpsective differences. There is a less gruesome one called “FLIPPED” or “flip” where you see through the eyes of an adolscent boy for 1/3 of the film, then to the adolescent girl across the street, for 1/3, then it ties together. I guess your new work, it would like what is seen on one side of the fantasy world through a character, then on the other side in “the real”-

    What you’re talking about would be popular, I believe, but appeal to a more narrow reader base. If you’d do this, I’d make sure that as with Winter, to develop characters that can connect to as MANY people as possible. ~ Amy

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