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.
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