Don’t let a rhinoceros in the room smash your plot

Often the setting of a story contains some item that later plays a role in the story’s plot. A strange looking statue on the mantle, for example, may hold some clue or jog a memory, allowing for the story’s mystery to be solved.

When describing the setting, however, be careful not to place a “rhinoceros in the room,” This term is some item or attribute that is obvious to everyone except the people closest to it. It was coined at the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop.

A common example of a “rhinoceros in the room” would be some missing item that is sitting in clear view of all looking for it. Like a rhinoceros, you couldn’t miss it.

But the “rhinoceros in the room” isn’t just limited to items that form the story’s landscape. It can refer to cliché plot lines (such as splitting up in a dark mansion to look for clues), recurring tropes, tics and fetishes. Each of these plot devices and character attributes ultimately cheapen the story because they are contrived. Like that missing item that is sitting in clear site of all looking for it, the notion that someone can’t see it comes off as an artificial plot device.

Having some important item or characteristic sitting in clear view for all to see does make sense in a story – just don’t make the item or attribute so big that its importance should be obvious to all.