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07:53 pm: Rant on authorial nitpicking, part two
Continued from the post yesterday. More things that I think authors need to watch out for.



10) You are responsible for elaborating the characters’ emotional scenery. No one else. I read a story recently that had a character mentioning a few times that she was unhappy, then meeting the ghost of her dead son. She had no reaction at all. The story was mainly about her struggle to get out of the computer that had put her in touch with the ghost. Once she was out, the story was over. No emotion. No gestures. No facial expressions. No conversation about the experience with her husband, who was her research partner. Just over.

Authors who do this are lazy. Lazy, lazy, lazy—there’s no other excuse. Yes, I might be able to imagine what the experience of meeting her dead son would do to someone who (it was hinted, but never confirmed) was responsible for her own child’s death. But the thing is, I don’t know your character. She could have her own totally unique reaction. She should, if she’s a living person. And I don’t have that experience. Fantasy is full of experiences that only a limited portion of your audience, or no portion at all, will share. It is up to you to show us how your characters react to them, as their unique selves, in that unique time, in that unique space.

No reaction at all could indicate that the character is emotionally cold, too focused on survival to be able to react right now, in shock, or any of a myriad of other personality traits. It could. But if you don’t give your audience anything to grasp hold of, only action, they are probably right in assuming that the action was the important thing to you. In that story, there was nothing to grasp hold of. The character simply tried to stay alive, which was probably what anyone would do in that situation.

I want to know what happens. You don’t get to have drama that’s supposed to affect the audience if it doesn’t affect the characters.

11) No skipping over the problem-solving. Another recent story: The character pulled off a brilliant bit of political maneuvering to save his country. What was the brilliant bit of political maneuvering? I can’t tell you. The author just said it was brilliant, and left it at that. And then he’d solved the problem, and people who’d been shrieking at each other pages before were ready to compromise like rational individuals, because of the brilliant bit of political maneuvering.

Can you see me sticking out my tongue from here?

Thought so.

I don’t care how tight a corner the plot is in. I don’t care if you originally planned to have the character do one thing, and now he can’t do it because he’s lost the object he depended on or the person who would have solved it for him is dead. I don’t care if you’ve had writer’s block for three months. This is a bit of paint slapped on over a gaping hole, and the moment somebody looks, they will see the hole.

Take as long as it needs to make the main conflict get solved in a credible way. It has to be credible before it’s anything else—cool, exciting, lyrical, a comeuppance for the villain. If it’s not, then you’ll need to tear bits out of the story and rebuild it to make it fit the plot resolution you want.

12) Where is the tyranny? Many fantasy authors that I read now seem to have finally realized they can’t just tell the reader that someone’s good. They show that person being good. This might include nauseatingly sweet acts, such as saving puppies from drowning and giving candy to beggar children, but at least they’re meant to demonstrate compassion, and I can appreciate the author’s trying.

Why does that same care not go into the acts of evil?

The author tells me the king was evil. Why? She tells me he hurt people. How? The author indicates that the government controls the citizens’ lives and is ruthless. Um, yes, but your heroes were just rooting out the secrets of the government a second ago. That’s one careless control freak government.

If there’s going to be evil in your story, even as a looming background presence, it has to have a little detail. More than that, it has to reasonably interact with the other elements of the story. If the government stops at nothing to protect its secrets, I would expect it to have shot at the hero for trying to get those secrets in the past. You can’t let the hero do whatever he pleases, mention once that the government is secretive and guards those secrets well, and then let it pass. That’s a weak attempt to give a story some conflict partway, while really you’re getting on to the cool stuff.

Make the opposing side—government, natural force, villain, rival, whatever—seem like a threat, please.

13) Waiter, there’s farce in my tragedy. Mixing and matching tones is pretty easy in a novel, where an author can have a light, humorous chapter and then go on to one darker in tone without spoiling the humorous chapter. It’s much harder in a short story. I’ve lost count now of the number of stories I’ve seen where the author has a character “driven and bent to his goal” do stupid things that endanger that goal but are meant to make the audience laugh. Or the stories that start out in one style (such as archaic Dunsany pastiche) and then switch to another (such as noir) halfway through with no rhyme or reason given. Why is the author doing this? Who cares??? It’s funny, right???

Even in a novel, this can become a problem. If the author builds up and builds up to the final confrontation between the protagonist and the great evil, only to have the great evil defeated by a bucket of paint, the whole story has just become a pretty sad affair. (And yes, that is a real novel). It’s probably a deus ex machina in and of itself, and more than that, it makes the previous “danger” seem flat and unreal. What was with the brooding darkness? Why not just tell a light story of friendship, which the opening chapters in this case were? Why not put the protagonist in more danger, such as by using the supposed villains as a front, instead of dissipating everything like so much smoke? (In this novel’s case, there was another group that would have served as an excellent major threat). I have no answers. And when the tale turns entirely bouncy at the end, I am simply left flabbergasted.

Watch for this at any major point in the story when you switch tones, at the climax, and at the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with switching tones in and of itself. It’s when the new tone appears to invalidate the previous one that I think it damaging. And most of the time, as in the short stories I mentioned, the author probably didn’t even notice.

14) Does this need to be told the way you’re telling it? I grit my teeth and mutter, “Oh, God,” when the story I’m reading goes into a flashback. My mind automatically takes a step away and forgets to immerse itself in the story’s world, because I’m watching alertly for the point at which the back-timed scene rejoins the flow of the main narrative. Sometimes, I can’t find it. Then I’m left wondering whether the flashback was a flashback at all, or if I missed something, and rereading obsessively—not because I admire the author’s craft or really want to reread the previous scene, but because I’m sure I missed something until I can make sure I didn’t. Sometimes I can find the point I missed. Sometimes I can’t find it at all, and then I don’t know what timeframe anyone is in for the rest of the story, and it makes me cranky.

Does your story need flashbacks? Ask. For that matter, does it need to be told in a mixture of past and present tense? Why not stick to one or the other? There should be a compelling reason. If you can’t find the compelling reason, then ask yourself how the story needs to be told, and tell it that way. Style for the sake of style should only be done when it makes the story better, as opposed to worse, and when you’re already a good enough writer anyway that people are interested in getting through the style to see what’s at the bottom.

Even tougher, ask yourself if you have the right character telling the story. It might seem natural to take the spymaster’s viewpoint, because he knows almost everything. But in knowing almost everything, he ruins the suspense of your story, and you wind up with a piece that’s pure infodump.

It might make sense, at first glance, to tell the story of the heroine who defeated the dragon. But perhaps she just doesn’t come alive in your hands; there’s nothing you can really write about her that’s different from the thousand other stories of dragon-killing heroines out there. (See point 17). But her little sister is also in the story, and she has a personality. Every scene with her in it is on fire. She has limitations of knowledge and ability, sure, but those limitations are what make her interesting. Perhaps her story of how her sister killed the dragon is the one you really should be telling.

Ask and answer, about every question that profoundly affects the telling of your story. A “Why not?” is not good enough.

15) Characters are more than looks and a potted history. I may know, after reading your story, that Julia is 6’2”, has green eyes and blonde hair, and is 26 years old. I may know that she was raised in a poor kingdom, ran away to join the army, and had a little brother who died of consumption when she was 12. I may know that she’s a captain now, and that in the course of your story she defeats an enemy scout who’s discovered new magic to sneak past her side’s lines.

But I may not know anything else.

This attaches to point 10, in a way, but a character can “curse” and “frown” and “cry,” and I still may not know them. This is where the author tries to put in emotional scenery, but doesn’t go beyond the words. I feel nothing. The author spends more time describing the way the character’s eyes flash than she does describing the way the character thinks, lives, is. Her past is there, but it’s past. The author doesn’t show me any way that it affects her actions, beyond the memories appearing. Okay, she had a brother who died of consumption when she was 12, and she thinks about him a lot. But why? Why does this memory return to her so often? What did her parents think of it, and what does she think of them thinking of it? How did it affect her family? Did it have something to do with her decision to join the army? Does she see his ghost and speak with him at night? Does she feel somehow guilty for not preventing his death?

This is why, even though I use them myself, I distrust character profiles. They give authors a list of fields to fill in. A list of fields is not a person. The way a character looks and what happened to her in the past are not who she is, though they are the characteristics that fantasy authors tend to concentrate the most on. (Fetishes for traumatic pasts that the characters replay over and over again are especially common). Two people can look awfully similar and share a lot of experiences, and yet react in totally opposite ways. What is your character’s soul?

If you catch yourself concentrating solely on appearance and memories, happy or traumatic, without elaborating any further, stop. Show the character to someone else. Ask what they know about her, what they guess about her, beyond what you’ve said in the story. If it’s “Nothing”—or if you, yourself, know nothing else about her—you need to come up with someone who’s alive.

16) Know your rhythm. I’m sick of stories with rushed climaxes. I really wish that authors would learn to pace themselves. If you’ve spent 10 pages on describing the problems that your character faces, and how deep they are, surely you could spend at least a few on showing how he solves those problems, instead of tossing an unlikely coincidence in there and then declaring the story done. The denouement gets cut out altogether, and the reader suddenly hurtles from a nice, leisurely pace into a whirlwind tour that may not clarify every aspect, and then is tossed into a brick wall for the ending.

If a tale grows in the telling, let it. If it’s impossible to let it grow too much, because you have a word limit or a deadline, then please cut the hell out of the story and not the climax. The story should have natural changes of pace and transitions between differently-paced sections. Perhaps it is necessary for the climax to be faster than the rest, but in that case, you’ll have reasons in the body of your story for it, and perhaps even a gradually accelerating pace that will have begun long before those all-important five pages, or fifty, or two paragraphs. And if you don’t need a denouement, I’m sure you’ll have set up your ending so the reader can see why you don’t need one.

You’ll have done that, right?

Back in the rant on beginnings, I stressed how important they were. Well, so are endings, because they’re usually the place where plot threads are tied up, conflicts are resolved, character arcs manifest, et bleeding cetera. Please don’t dump all your creative and critical effort into the middle.

17) Know how to beat them as well as join them. So you want to tell a story in [insert mode here]. Or in the tradition of [insert author here]. Or you want to take a storyline that many, many people have handled before, like the hero going to kill a dragon, because you’re confident you’ll put your own unique twist on it. There’s no need to step out of that mode, or that tradition, or that storyline, just because they’re a bit overused. You can’t avoid all the clichés anyway, so you’ll absorb them and tell a story that’s entertaining anyway.

Here’s where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, because if you only have a little knowledge, you could recreate the wheel in all innocence. You might want to write a story set in Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos, but there are lots and lots of Cthulu stories. What will make yours stand out? You might want to write a noir homage, but there have been thousands of noir homages. What about the form appeals to you? You might want to write a story about the hero and the dragon teaming up to scam villages into hiring the hero as a “dragon-killer,” and think it’s the first one ever, but there is at least one famous story with that exact plot (“The George Business” by Roger Zelazny). If you haven’t read in the field, and only know some of the conventions, you might write nothing stand-out because you don’t know what it needs to stand out from.

This is one reason that authors from the mainstream who think that writing an SF novel is a matter of “adding robots,” or that writing fantasy is a matter of “adding dragons,” get mocked so often. It’s not that easy to step between genres when you have no knowledge of the genre you’re stepping into, or, worse, active contempt for it.

You’ll encounter clichés, sure. It’s impossible to escape them, sure. But before you throw up your hands and say, “Can’t beat them, might as well join them,” ask yourself if that’s necessary. There’s a middle ground between writing a novel that comes off distorted in an attempt to escape all clichés and a novel that’s indistinguishable from bloated, dying high fantasy. My favorite authors (Kay, Martin, Berg, Brust, and Pratchett) occupy it regularly. Lots of good stories I’ve read occupy it. Lots of other good novelists do something fresh with the ground even while writing solidly in the “best” mode/tradition/storyline. Find it. And have the knowledge as well as the self-knowledge to say if you can produce something actually fresh in the mode/tradition/storyline you would like to occupy, or if you’re better off adding and subtracting and mixing until you’ve invented a mode/tradition/storyline of your own.



…That was one long-ass rant.

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