Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bedding-In The Premise

Any idea, no matter how crazy, can be made to work in a story. As long as you set things up well enough, the reader will buy whatever you’re selling.

That doesn’t mean providing any old nonsense will work, but it does mean any old nonsense can be made to work, whether it's how the impossible murder was committed, or why the billionaire fell for the 6/10 brunette, or the guy who claims victory by using The Force.

The important thing to remember is it’s the stuff during the build-up that will make or break the story, not the explanation after the fact.

Explaining that the killer was able to enter a locked room and leave again without leaving a trace because he was an alien with a teleportation device will not be satisfying if you spring it on the reader on the last page. 

Yes, it technically does explain everything, but when you reveal that the murderer is an alien the reader should be thinking, Of course! not If you say so...

Laying the foundations of what’s to come without giving things away is a difficult skill.

If you have 290 pages of questions, and ten pages of answers, that’s going to feel unbalanced and rushed, even if the answers all make perfect sense.

The advantage you have as the writer is that once you know what happens and why it happens and how it happens, you can go back and work in details that support those elements. It’s a bit of a trick, to know which card was chosen and then go back in time and make sure you place that card where you’ll be able to get at it.

As a reader, you only see half the trick. As a writer, you need to be able to plant the information in the right places. The reader doesn’t have to be aware of what the information means, or they may think it has another purpose entirely, but it has to be there.

One of the ways to make sure the narrative doesn’t end up being so full of unknowns that the reader stops caring altogether, is to make the characters aware of things that might be troubling the reader. 

If the murder seems impossible, have a character mention it. If the new boyfriend (who’s turns out to be a werewolf) acts weird around cats, bring it up. You don’t have to reveal the reasons behind the weirdness, but making the character aware makes the reader less annoyed.

What you mustn’t do is just let it go because it get’s explained a couple of chapters later. You know that, the reader doesn’t, and more importantly, the character doesn't. And characters who just accept not being given answers come across as contrived and unrealistic.

“By the way, I know who killed the President and why, but first let’s enjoy dinner, okay?”

Not okay. If you want to delay a reveal for some story-related purpose, you need to come up with a plausible reason to do it. And that can be quite a complex thing to construct. Just getting the character to accept the wait, perhaps with some kind of mental self-persuasion on the part of the MC (He's already dead, I guess another couple of hours won't make a difference and I am hungry...) is a lot easier to write, but much harder to read.

Why people do things is a key part of the story. The fact you don’t want to reveal until the end of the book that Mortimer always freaked out whenever he saw a cucumber because of  an unpleasant experience he had when he was a child is fine, but having him just start screaming every time someone makes a salad, and then in the very last chapter have six pages of explanation is not going to work.
You need to construct the world around his behaviour. People who talk about it, try to help him, those who know but who are sworn to secrecy, his own excuses as to what’s going on, and a whole host of other ways of making it feel real.

What you can’t do is just have everyone shrugs their shoulders and wait for Ch.36 when all is revealed.
If you found this post of interest, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I definitely found this post interesting. I'm pretty sure I accomplished this tactic without knowing that I was setting out to do this, but I think I'd have to disagree that people will always believe it. There are always going to be some who get mad at the explanation because of personal experiences or beliefs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Building up and a few answers along the way helps!

mooderino said...

@Michael-true, there are some people who are never going to see it your way.

@Alex-a few answers along the way, even if they lead to more questions, always helps.

Jason Runnels said...

Thank you for tarnishing my innocent image of cucumbers ;-)
Great post!

mooderino said...

@Jason-cheers (no cucumbers were harmed in the writing of this post).

LD Masterson said...

I thing I've got my cards in place for the readers, going back to make sure the MC saw them too. Thanks.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have realized that answering a few questions along the way goes a long way in building a rapport with readers. Springing everything on them on the last page is a huge no-no.

Beverly Diehl said...

Personally, I love going back and planting little Easter eggs that will pay off for the reader. It's a lot of fun as a writer to do this in the editing process, find out where to slip them in so they seem innocuous, but actually have a purpose.

mooderino said...

@LD - welcome.

@Rachna - it's a long time to wait if you get no answers until right at the end.

@Beverly - works well if they seem to be there for an unrelated reason, but turn out to have additional meaning once you get far enough into the story.

Catch My Words said...

It's good to know that anything can work. I'll keep that in mind the next time I get a crazy idea. As far as the planning and planting, that advice sounds a lot like the advice I got from Newbury winner Linda Sue Park.

mooderino said...

@Joyce - Plagiarism! I will notify my lawyers immediately.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Agree completely, so I just need one of my characters to say 'because it's in the script', and all is explained :)

Elise Fallson said...

"Laying the foundations of what’s to come without giving things away is a difficult skill." <=== Yes! I agree anything goes as long as it makes sense, but pacing is definitely important and difficult. I don't want to reveal too much but at the same time I don't want readers to get frustrated waiting for answers, it's a tough balancing act.

Also, I wanted to let you know I passed on the 7X7 Link award your way. You may not have time for these sorts of things but I did want to give you a shout out because I really like what you are doing here with your blog. Thank you for all the great information and advice you pass onto us. It is much appreciated. (:

mooderino said...

@Charmaine-if you're writing post-modern fiction, yes.

@Elise - thanks for the award and the kind words.

Lydia Kang said...

It's true. You can put some crazy stuff in there, but if it's crafted well, anything can work.

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