Saturday, 16 April 2011

N is for No More Nonsense

Sometimes in a book a character will do something odd or confusing or wholly out of character, but it will be explained later and make perfect sense. The problem for the reader is that they don't know whether the ‘mistake’ is intentional or not. This can sit in the reader's mind distracting them, or even annoy them so much they give up reading the story.

With an established writer most readers will just take it for granted that it will probably turn out okay. It may not, but most readers will give the author the benefit of the doubt. But with a new writer, especially if it's an agency or a publisher that is reading it, so often does it turn out to be an actual mistake, the character just behaving inconsistently, that it is safer to assume that the writer just doesn't know what they’re doing.


So, for example, maybe a character drives a car with great skill at one point and then later drives in an inept manner without explanation, and the reason turns out to be that they are a spy undercover and they know they're being watched so they have to you act like someone who isn't a spy — because these things are all spaced out over possibly many hundreds of pages it only becomes apparent what's going on after you've read the whole thing. It would be nice if the person reading just trusted the writer and hoped for the best. Unfortunately they will have been disappointed by that strategy so often that the likelihood of them doing that is pretty much zero.

But it may be a key part of the plot and something you don't want to radically change or make too obvious. Fortunately there is a very simple solution. 

Have a character within the story notice that something doesn't make sense or seems odd. Even if it's just in passing, a casual comment that goes no further, that doesn't reveal anything and offers no answers, that will be enough to clue the reader into the fact that you have things in hand. If you know it doesn't appear to make sense and you let the reader know you know it doesn't make sense, then the reader will trust you have your reasons and that you will explain yourself eventually.

How you go about this and how subtly you do it is down to individual preferences and the specifics of the context. 

But if someone tells you they don't understand what's happening or why it's happening or that it seems contradictory, and your thought is 'That's how it's meant to be!' and they’re being too hasty in making a judgement and should just read on to find out, try to take into account that an agent or publisher (or much more likely one of their readers) will probably have a similar response and be even less likely to keep reading.

35 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm finding in my current manuscript, it's just things I need to explain a little better, even with just one added line, rather than a continuity problem. Don't worry - I managed to cover all of the other mistakes though!

Elena Solodow said...

I've often thought about this - someone repped by a publisher can get away with it, but a crit partner is going to doubt your abilities, haha. Your suggestion is a great one!

Ella said...

Great point; we have to earn that privilege.

Josh Hoyt said...

I think the value of listening to those who critique our work is very valuable and it is a wonder to me when people don't listen to those critiques. We need to make it our work and not change for everyone but at least consider that they could be right.

Jeigh said...

I've had a few instances of this happening in my MS and crit partners pointing it out. It's amazing how much it does help to have a character say something, even in the character in question avoids the question or whatever.

Kimberly said...

I just had my character do something like this last night. I tried to make it subtle but it definitely comes into play later. Hope it works. :)

Laura Josephsen said...

Excellent point, and as you shared, it really is simple to fix. Thanks for the post!

Brent Wescott said...

I'm trying to remember what John Gardner says about writing character in The Art of Fiction. (Grad school was a long time ago.) Something about how characters can do whatever you want them to do as long as it doesn't contradict what they did before. Which is pretty much what you're saying here. I guess my point is your post made me think of a famous literary critic. How about that?

Sheila said...

Wonderful ideas and advice. This is something that truly can make or break a book or a series. Thanks!


Sheila Staley : Reviewer & Writer
Book reviews and Author Interviews at my blog at http://whynotbecauseisaidso.blogspot.com/

Paula Martin said...

Excellent post, I like the idea of a casual comment by a character to show readers that some seemingly odd behaviour IS intentional - great idea!

Jeffrey Beesler said...

Character inconsistency is the biggest issue I have to work on right now with revision. I just tend to mix up my characters even under the best of intentions, especially if I haven't visited their world in a while between drafts/installments/episodes/chapters.

Thanks for sharing!

the writing pad said...

As a reader I've certainly welcomed the reassurance, even in works by writers whom I trust, of another character picking up on an apparent inconsistency. It avoids all that why? ... but why?? anxt :-)
Great post again. Thanks
All best
Karla

Murees Dupé said...

I have noticed a few inconsistencies like that in books that I have read and it was rather annoying. Great post.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, always nice to know my posts are being read. Cheers,
mood

GigglesandGuns said...

I call those hints my "what the heck..." lines because that's what my critique person says or writes in those spots.

Madeleine said...

I've read some great books where a character reacts out of character in order to create another conflict and that can be annoying/frustrating because the story is otherwise excellent. :O)

Talei said...

I like the rule, that you only write something into scene if it progresses your story. Otherwise, what's the point? ;-) Not sure I stick with it but it makes sense to me.

Nice post, thanks for the tips!

NK said...

I was wondering, are you referring to the protagonist acting out of character? It seems that if, in your fiction, you have a lot of internal dialogue from the protagonist that you could get away with other characters acting out of character as long as the protagonist notes it. Then the reader would understand that this was meant to happen and that the explanation will be forth coming.
If the protagonist is acting out of character or if the work of fiction has little to no internal dialogue then I could see an issue.
Just my two cents. I just found your blog and I love it.

Orlando said...

Usually when I read changes like that it's an error the antagonist made and this is your clue. However, if after I've completed the book it turns out to be nothing, I consider that a large error, and just like you said, that will bother me greatly. As far as the protagonist unless it adds a little flavor to the story, it is worthless. In reality, we all do things that are out of character, on occasion. Nonetheless, in a novel you may not have time for little things like these, unless it's relevant to the story.

Sarah Allan said...

Great N topic! I love your idea of making someone else notice something is odd about the way a character is acting. I tend to write a lot of my work in first person POV, so often I'll include some kind of internal dialogue to help the reader trust where I'm taking the story as well.

xoxo Sarah
http://sarahallanauthor.blogspot.com/

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

This really points out the need for trusted critique partners who can catch things like that before a publisher or agent sees it.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Good points, but sometimes you want to leave a little mystery or something unexplained. I guess you have to do it in just the right way.

Donna Hole said...

Yes, reader/author trust is essential. I'm a fan of having a character acknowledge discrepancies - however briefly - too.

Whenever my crit partners say "I don't understand this but trust you'll clear it up later" I usually re-work the scene so I can leave in the inconsistency without having it feel like a mistake.

At least until more readers than my group trust my writing style . .

.......dhole

Holly Ruggiero said...

I think if it is not explained outright but little clues are left we, as readers, are willing to accept with a promise of explanation later.

Nicole said...

The way you wrote this post reflects the point that you are conveying, which is something I can truly appreciate.

The Madlab Post

Alleged Author said...

I actually ran into this while watching a movie! A minor character claimed not to know the name of the protagonist, but the character later "all of a sudden" remembered that the protag was a dynamo in bed. Hmmmm. Can we say James Bond complex?

The Writing Goddess said...

I think you can make it work if you give the reader small payoffs spaced more closely together. For example, a character who has made a big point of in earlier chapters of loathing mustard can eat a hot dog with mustard on it, if by the end of the chapter he tells another character why, "Granny always takes such pride in thinking she remembers what everyone likes, I choked it down in spite of wanting to to hurl."

If the writer develops a pattern with the reader that "stuff" gets paid off - in the same chapter, a few chapters later, whatever, the reader will be more willing to wait and trust that a payoff for some inconsistency will come, eventually. (And it had better!)

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Amen to that! Thanks for posting this. It's so true. As readers to a new MS, we need to trust the author and be patient! :)

♥.•*¨Elizabeth¨*•.♥

mooderino said...

Cheers for all the comments and different takes on the subject. All very interesting reading.

L'Aussie said...

Great post but I can't say I've ever been overly mystified in the way you say. Perhaps I have and have just stopped reading the book?

Denise<3

mooderino said...

Hey Denise,

It tends to be most common (in my experience) with WIPs and less experienced writers who see the story from a writer's perspective. They know what's going to happen later, so in their mind it all makes perfect sense. The reader only has what's on the page and so it seems a lot less clear.

It's hard to put yourself in the reader's head and unknow what you know about where the story is going.

cheers for reading and leaving a comment,
mood

Ellie said...

Excellent advice, especially for new writers. Thank you!

Ellie Garratt

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

Then there's the character that does a complete turnaround. no one sees that coming.

Langley said...

Very good points. Thanks for the advice.

I’m A-Z Blogging on Langley Writes about Writing and Langley’s Rich and Random Life

Brent Wescott said...

I found the quote about character that I was referring to above, in case anyone cares at this point. It's actually William H Gass (not John Gardner) from Fiction and the Figures of Life, and he says, "From any given body of fictional text, nothing necessarily follows, and anything plausible may." I think the key word that fits in with what you're saying in this post is the word "plausible."

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