Monday, 5 December 2011

Writers Who Know Everything

A problem I’ve been coming across a lot recently when reading and critiquing on various writing workshops is the writer using his knowledge of future story events to guide present ones. 

This is a fairly simple thing to fix, the problem is more in trying to convince the writer they are in fact doing this. It’s one of those things where if the person isn’t aware they’re doing it, proving it to them can be very difficult. They just can't see it.

The reason this is something to be aware of is because misusing that knowledge can make the story lose credibility. If a character just happens to go to the right place at the right time, or if they assume or guess or hope for the best — and luckily everything works out in a way that's very convenient for the story, it will feel contrived and fake. Here's an example of what I mean:

Let’s say a man goes to the store and when he gets there he gets involved in a robbery, and by saving the day becomes a hero blah, blah, blah. That’s my story.

I need to get my character from his home to the store. How do I do that? My answer is, I don’t care. The story gets interesting once he gets to the store, so how or why he’s there isn’t important or interesting to me. I’ve got loads of ideas for how he overpowers the gunmen using stuff he finds on shelves. It’s brilliant. But as for why he’s there, let’s say he ran out of milk, as people do, so he goes to his local store. Makes sense, right?

The problem is that’s not how a reader will see it.

For a reader there is no wild and exciting armed robbery. They can’t see into the future the way the writer can. For them, the story becomes about a man who has no milk in his house.

You may think, well keep reading, you’ll get to the good part, but the reader thinks like this: These first three pages are pretty dull, I’m going to assume the next 297 are likewise. Next!

That’s not to say you should just cut those first few pages and start the story with him walking into a  7-11 and see a guy with a shotgun. Pace doesn’t mean put your foot down and hit the turbo button. Narrative requires ebb and flow, up and down. But each section requires a realistic set of purposes and motivations.

Whenever a character just chooses to do something, or randomly decides to go to a certain place, it will feel contrived. Yes, people in real life do those sorts of things, but in real life there isn’t a person with a laptop arranging the best possible outcome for them.

That knowledge of where the best place for a story to go next can really screw up a good story if the writer allows it to interfere. The thing about knowledge like that is that once you know it, you can’t un-know it. So what may seem like reasonable behaviour from the writer’s perspective (of course she’s going to go to the high school reunion, that’s where she’s going to meet the guy she falls in love with) can read like a huge jump in logic for no apparent reason to a reader (why is she going to a high school reunion when she just had that conversation about how she hated school?).

Another classic oversight in this vein are when the writer knows future events will prevent the character from carrying out their plan, so they never come up with one. If the bank robber is going to get arrested when he enters the building, then it doesn’t really matter what he had planned to do to get past the super high-tech security system. But the bank robber doesn’t know that.

There are in unimportant parts for the reader. We read the book in the order it’s written. Every weak part is a clue to what the rest of the story is like (rightly or wrongly) . The writer will have a sense that it’s worth reading on despite any dull bits because they know there  will be a pay off. The readers don’t.

The thing to remember is to focus on the thing a character is doing right now, not where it leads to or the importance of them being in the right place at the right time, but the small moments and consider why is she doing this? What if she didn’t, just changed her mind and went home, could she get away with it? Because if non-compliance with your writerly wishes has no consequences for your character, then something’s missing from your story. 

If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Karen Lange said...

Thanks for this post! Been spinning my wheels a bit with the WIP and I DON'T want to do this very thing. Getting a few ideas as we speak. Thanks for your help! :)

Fairview said...

I never thought of this. Thanks for pointing it out. This is extremely helpful!

Lydia Kang said...

So true. When I see that in a piece, I always want to say, "you should know better!" to the writer.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That makes sense. We have to plan everything, from the logical flow and explanations to the stuff that doesn't even make it into the story.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! Well done. I have been guilty of this and my trusty editor pointed these events out to me. You're so right the author does not see these things. I'm thankkful for that second set of eyes to proofread my MS.

Diane Carlisle said...

This is so true. I can't always put my finger on why something feels made up and fake when critiquing, but it's usually the laziness of the author not thinking about the plot and the character motivations.

Very useful post!

Angela Brown said...

Okay. I can see your point. I can also see how it would be difficult to get someone to realize they are doing this. But...I must admit that writers who truly want help with their writing will try to have an open mind to understand something like this when a critique partner/beta readers points it out.

Now off to my own manuscripts to see if I'm guilty of this :-)

KarenG said...

You bring up an excellent point! It's important to lose the writer brain and think like a reader. Great tips for me as I'm undergoing final edits.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant post, Moody. Not only did it crack me up in places, you proved your point perfectly.

I'll linking it on Friday.

Donna Hole said...

. . and thus is the problem with my first novel; it starts in the middle of a crowded room. I know I need to start a bit before so the reader can understand WHY she is there if she doesn't want to be; but it is action and most people will say this is where the story starts. With the action.

A conundrum for me. I hate beginnings . .

"but in real life there isn’t a person with a laptop arranging the best possible outcome for them. " This is so true . .


Sophia Richardson said...

This post speaks the truth. And my first thought about why the guy needs milk so urgently was that he has a lady-friend asleep in his bed and wants to show that she wasn't a one night stand, so he plans to make her breakfast. Has the nice bonus of upping the stakes when he gets held up at the store, because how bad will it look when she wakes up and he's disappeared like a jerk?

Julie Daines said...

Thanks for this advice. It's definitely something to think about as I write!

Julie Daines said...

Also, I linked back to this post and an older post on my blog.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

I dunno if I agree. 1Q84 is off to a pretty darn slow start but I'm waiting for the big reveal that I know is coming. So far a girl stuck in traffic climbed down from an elevated expressway to get onto a train. In the next chapter an editor gave some pretty interesting writing advice that struck home in talking to another writer and they decided together to rewrite a high school girls novel.

Both of these things are not particularly exciting. But I continue on because I know that it's supposed to be awesome because of things that others have said, right? I have high expectations :)

Sevastian Winters said...

I don't trust writers who know what's going to happen next. I know where the story is going to end when I'm writing it, but road is twisty and windy and untravelled. I wake up and write to FIND OUT what's going to happen next in the stories I am writing. The characters inform the story in a well-written story.

LD Masterson said...

Good post. This one definitely goes in my "things watch for" file. Thanks.

Jason Runnels said...

I really like this tip. Great thing to look for while editing.

mooderino said...

@karen-glad to be of help.


@Lydia-it's one of those things where people can't see it themselves.

@Alex-complicated sci-fi stories especially.

@Stephen-yes, having an editor helps. Wish I had one.

Suze said...

A-a-a-a-nd, then again ...

Mood, I don't always agree with your posts but at least you've earned my respect.

mooderino said...

@Diane-it can be tough to remember not everyone knows the story as well as you do. Or laziness.

@Angela-you're right, an open mind is essential unless you're a natural genius. Which I guess some peopel are.

@KarenG-yep, but tough to do if you have a complex story.

@Stina-thanks, always enjoy your links post.

@Donna-I think the whole idea that you have to start in the middle of action is overblown. Hardly any of the books i read start like that. I don; tthink readers (unless they're agents) care about a slow start to a story, as long as it's interesting.

mooderino said...

@Sophia-did that happen to someone "you know"?

@julie-thanks, very flattered you linked to my posts.

@Michael-just wait...

@Sevastian-it's not so much that they know, it's that they assume the reader knows too and write accordingly.



LisaAnn said...

Great post, Mood! This is always a concern for me when I feel like I have a "really GREAT idea." :)

Nancy Thompson said...

This is where understanding the meaning of organic really helps. Great post!!!

Lydia Kang said...

More wise Moody words. Thank you!

Susan R. Mills said...

I just came over from Stina's blog. I have to say this is a timely subject for me. Great post!

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