Limyaael

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08:43 pm: Some suggestions for revision
Just what it says. This is even less rant-like than some of the others have been.

Increasingly, I’m feeling that they’re not rants, but then a bitchy one will come along, and I have no better name for them. This one is not very bitchy.



Most of these assume a complete manuscript, a rigorously outlined one, or the ability to look ahead and see what you might be doing if you’re in the middle of work on the damn thing still.

1) Disappearing characters. I’ve commented on this before, under the general category of “loose ends,” but I consider a character who simply vanishes from the story a far more serious issue than, say, whether the main character’s sword has one or two jewels in its hilt. And fantasy, since the books tend towards largeness and series and plotlines that may run parallel for a long time before merging, has some particular problems with this.

Yet at the same time, it can be hard to recover the character. The ending is fine. It’s tightly-woven. Introducing a messenger from a distant land with news of the character’s death would just disrupt things. Suddenly doing a POV hop into his head is likewise disruptive, especially if you haven’t told anything through his eyes before. Why mess things up?

There are ways to get back someone disappeared, I strongly believe, without disrupting the actual end of the story:

-Got a spear-carrier who could disappear with no tears shed, but whose function in the plot is essential? Give it to the disappeared character instead. Now you’ve sliced out a minor character (remember, those things breed like rabbits, and putting more than five in the story only encourages them) and put the one who matters in the semi-limelight.
-Where exactly did the character become the Invisible Man? If he was headed off to do some detective work or on a secret mission, which seems to be the place a lot of them walk out of the story, then it won’t be at all amiss to have him come back at some point and report on the detective work or secret mission. This also has an added bonus, in that you may find the gaping plot hole in the ‘tightly-woven ending.’ It’s surprisingly easy for an author to overlook the obvious like that.
-Did he get lost as the protagonists traveled through a great big building, perhaps left behind in an antechamber of the palace? The host or the guards could report, in an easily introduced line, that they found him wandering and rescued him.
-Did his role in the plot alter? Perhaps he was supposed to be the protagonist’s best friend, but someone else popped up and took the spot. Make him more minor, and his absence might not get in the way. I am going to be concerned if the author announces that Eldón is the protagonist’s blood brother and bodyguard and sworn man, but someone else is always beside the hero when he gets in trouble. I won’t care as much if Eldón is just an acquaintance, one who bows out when the trouble gets nasty.
-Is he necessary at all? Sometimes, the answer is no, but he's noticeable because he makes smart remarks or has a vibrant personality, and so would miss him if he went "Poof." In that case, do the hard thing and cut him out before other people read the story. A character who really adds nothing to the story but decoration is that much more clutter.

2) Inconsistent tone. Picture a novel as a great big party for this one. It’s a calm, civil dinner party. Most of the characters are nobles. The author leads me through the story by giving me an observant, cagey character to follow, and he circulates, chats, gathers clues to palace intrigue, and in general uses his brain and maybe his bed to solve problems and get along in the world. The tone is in general calm, distant, detached, perhaps wry, perhaps genteel.

Then, halfway through the book, the protagonist finds the dead body of his informant. And suddenly he’s part of a mismatched group running from half-seen, just-incompetent-enough assassins, swinging swords and shooting crossbows, and every other word out of his mouth is a wisecrack, and every plan he makes is half-assed and rides on luck. The novel’s tone is now smartass first-class.

Um, excuse me. What the hell was that?

The tone may not be the same throughout a huge book, sure, but in cases as severe as this, the problem is twofold: not enough foreshadowing, and the author letting singular plot events, rather than prior characterization and plot and world-building, determine the book’s tone. The first is easy enough to cure. Make sure that you’ve planted enough clues to signal that the book’s tone is going to switch over. Start changing the language around. Your character might respond as a smartass when he’s under pressure, and as the pressure builds, his language and thoughts alter. By the time you switch, the audience should be ready for it.

For the second, there is no reason in the bloody fucking world to change your story into a noir film just because someone is murdered. Nor do you have to suddenly start describing all the colors of everyone’s eyes because two people fall in love. Nor are zombies erupting from the grave enough reason to let the protagonist’s tight-third narration linger on loving descriptions of gore, if before she was the kind of person who turned away and threw up when someone cooked chicken.

I don’t care how much you want to shock your audience. Revise if the change of tone is this radical. The parts of the book will clash horribly.

3) Retrofit. I keep reading fantasy books where the beginning sets up a plot arc that never comes to fruition. There’s a prophecy, and it’s important, and then halfway through the book it gets dropped like a hot potato because the author found another, even better toy—say, a civil war—to play with. I’m told that a character hates and fears the darkness, but then there he is spending chapters underground with nary a mention of the cold sweats he should be in the entire time. Heavy hints are dropped about how the Mysterious Guy is jumpy and staring over his shoulder every few seconds, and then suddenly he mutates into a smiling, cheery back-slapper, because the protagonist’s danger is more important.

Okay, so something obviously went wrong. But the authors of those books seem caught. They like their cool beginning. They like their cool ending. And they can’t decide between them. At best, they might suddenly bring back the prophecy or the phobia or the danger for an encore at the end, or—and this I consider much worse—turn the whole thing into a joke, such as saying that Mysterious Guy was messing with the protagonist’s head for two hundred pages. The major effect of that last is to make the audience feel stupid for ever paying attention and caring about that plot thread.

Which should rule in this case, the beginning or the ending?

Ending, I say.

The logic behind that is simple. You came up with an idea so cool that you altered the entire course of the book for it, or it seduced you enough to make you forget about your original plot arc. Why would you not retrofit, drop foreshadowing hints and change what in the beginning contradicts it and so on, for its sake?

Yes, I know the beginning can be really cool. But it’s cheating to lure the audience in with a hook and then turn out to have the hook not be part of the main plotline. And, obviously, this story belongs to the cool idea that came in later. Take the first cool idea out. You can always cannibalize it into another story later, if it’s cool enough, and maybe this time it will get to rule over the whole thing.

4) Cut out the boring bits. Easier said than done, right? Every author wants to think their book is one huge, absorbing ride from beginning to end. Maybe it’s not a roller coaster, maybe it’s a sedate ride on ponies, but still. The temptation is there.

But I think there are ways to identify boring bits. The best, of course, is to get other people to read the book. If eight people have read it and all of them tell you that Lady Eldorado’s shopping trip is the ultimate cure for insomnia, listen to them, I beg of you.

However, when the author is reading the book herself, she has one advantage that a reader is not going to have unless he’s been listening and listening to the author talk about the book and knows every twist and turn. She knows what purposes the parts of the story have. This conversation is here to characterize the protagonist as impatient under stress, give the minor character a chance to shine, build up the relationship between the protagonist and the minor character, and give information about the world’s background, for example. This travelogue of the countryside is to describe a bit of the world and to show what the narrator notices about forests when she’s bright-eyed and alert. This action sequence shows that the sidekick has the sword skills necessary to justify his position as the heroine’s bodyguard, shows they’re in danger, characterizes the villain(s) who are after them, describes why people are wary of the nasty uses magic can be put to in this world, and shows what the narrator is like in a combat situation and how good she is as a fighter.

Notice the common trait in all of those? They all have multiple purposes. I think the boring bits of a book are most often the ones that have one purpose only, or zero.

Consider infodumping monologues. Most of the time, they say nothing at all about the person giving them; there are no unique twists to the phrases, no places where the speaker stops and rolls his eyes in doubt, no pauses even for bloody breath. Their sole purpose is to get information about the author’s world across the quick and dirty way. And they are almost instantly boring as a result.

Consider places where the author sticks in some experience solely because it once happened to her or she did some research on it and wants to show the research off. This is one with zero or negative purpose, because it doesn’t serve the story and sometimes acts against it. If your character is not one who would whine and scream like a baby because she has a sprained ankle, then don’t make her whine and scream like a baby just because that’s what you did. (This thing right here is why I’m wary of the advice “Put a bit of yourself in each character.” They should be bits that matter and serve the story, thanks).

And, finally, consider whether this sequence in the story mirrors one that has gone before, with no movement either backward (forcing the protagonist into a corner, for example) or forward (such as teaching her something new). The most “exciting” scenes, like battle and sex, become empty if they’re repeated again and again, and if one battle scene or sex scene could be substituted for another. Cases in point: R. A. Salvatore and Laurell K. Hamilton.

Revise these scenes, please. Add extra purposes. Cut them out. Especially, if they’re exposition, long passages of dialogue, or description, vary them so that they also characterize the protagonist whose eyes we’re looking through.

5) Keep an eye on the plot devices. I use “plot device” here to refer to a thing—object, character, event, or whatever—that has only one purpose, and that is to move the plot along. Scenes themselves are under point 4.

Unlike scenes, which I think should really be revised if they don’t have multiple purposes, I can accept the existence of plot devices. But, too often, author build up and build up their dependence on plot devices until I can’t take it anymore, or until my disbelief shatters in small shards all over the ground.

I’m going to single out endings here, because this is a particular fantasy genre convention I despise: the Loophole Ending. The entire victory depends on a misunderstood word in a wish, or a riddle in a prophecy that the enemy, and supposedly the reader, failed to interpret in time—quite often the author is not as clever with the prophecies as she thinks she is—or an amulet that the hero was given on page 50 and forgot he had until page 400, or some minor character charging in and sacrificing himself for no apparent reason. I have not yet seen a fantasy ending where the character makes an “unbreakable” promise and then gets out of it because his fingers were crossed, but it would not surprise me at all to know that one exists.

These are plot devices run rampant, not only helping the plot along but ending it, too. They don’t have just one cause. Depending on the situation, they could be deus ex machina, a reasonable plot device that the author forgot to play up as much as she should have, the author panicking and saying, “Screw it, let’s do this!”, or the author flinching away from a confrontation/decision/battle that would have hurt her protagonist too badly for her to deal with. I don’t care. They are evil and stupid and must be killed.

So, some ideas for revising a story where you have to have a plot device:

-Please, don’t drop heavy hints. Plot devices are one part of the story that could use less foreshadowing. Instead, integrate them into the plot as soon as possible. Rather than having the hero just use the amulet once on page 400, let him gradually use and test its power and get comfortable with it.
-Make the plot device interesting in and of itself. I am at a loss how you make the usual heart-shaped locket interesting, but I am sure someone could find a way. If it’s a character, give him or her a personality. If it’s an event, make it humorous, or grand, or fascinating, or have it introduce setbacks as well as advantages for Our Heroes (in which case I would no longer consider it a plot device, really).
-Mention it pretty often. No, every page is not reasonable. But neither is once beforehand, or, alternatively, thirty pages before the ending where it saves the day. Out of the blue endings are what many people get when they try to write surprise endings, and it’s really not a good idea.
-Beware fuzzy language. Like character introductions, like romantic relationships, like battle scenes, this is another one where “somehow” and its cousins “for no apparent reason” or “something told me to do it” are the bane of unwary writers. If it’s a total coincidence that the plot device comes rolling into your story, you still have to make it not look like one.
-Rein them in. I would prefer one plot device per fantasy story, or none. It starts to get a bit ridiculous by the time you pass two, which is one reason that I hate stories of the “find the Four Artifacts Named After the Elements” type.



…Never mind, that was quite bitchy. I guess I can still call them rants.

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