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

June 22, 2011

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?