Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life is an Analogy: The Two-Faced Friend

(May 24th: Apologies!  We're suffering some technical difficulties here at Seeking the Write Life... this post has pushed itself to the top.  For the most recent post, please see the Laughter is the Best Rule-Breaker  post below...)

Remember that friend you had back in high school who was always really nice, but when she said things like "Your hair looks really good that way," you got the impression she didn't really mean it?

Or the Manager at work who, every time you ask him about impending layoffs, smiles and tells you not to worry... in a way that makes your blood run cold?

What about the woman whose kid is bullying your kid, yet insists their child 'never has a problem with anyone else'?

My point is, we all have instincts.  There are times we know things aren't necessarily the way they seem - and just having someone tell us something doesn't mean we'll believe it.

I belong to two writer's groups, so I read a lot of WIPs.  One of the most common mistakes I see in early drafts (and have been prone to in my own first drafts especially) is the tendancy to replace plot development with character narration. 

Uncertain or unable to figure out how to lead the reader to a concept via events and 'showing', the author replaces the necessary foundation building with protagonist ruminations.

Or worse, rather than building the story layer by layer, characters just suddenly 'realize' something - something they know with absolute certainty, despite the fact they've been given little or no evidence to prove it.

Let me tell you, the reader sees through this easier than a plastic-wrapped toilet at a frat party.

The phrase 'suspension of disbelief' doesn't mean a reader parks their intellect and intuition at the book cover.  Quite the contrary - the best authors use a reader's natural instincts to help them build the case (so to speak) for whatever technically implausible plot-twists are coming. 

Suspension of disbelief means the author has given me (the reader) so much practical, logical and reasonable evidence or plot-foundation, that when the impossible creature is revealed, the improbably super-hero power is brought to bear, or the incredibly executed murder is solved, I don't question it for a moment.  The story and characters are so solidly grounded in reality, that to question the impossible is unnecessary.

So, while this means we as authors absolutely must put the work and brain-time into figuring out how to lay trails rather than blaze them, it also means we can trust the reader to understand.

They might not register the tiny clues when the tiny clues are presented... but when your twists, reveals and climactic events unfold, they'll remember them.  And applaud you for your skill and dexterity.

Yes, that's right.

You got skillz.

Oh, and PS: Those of us writing for YA need to be particularly careful.  A teenager's Crap-o-Meter is usually on high-alert.

Your Turn: Which books have you read which so perfectly directed (or misdirected) the reader that the great reveals were both satisfying and surprising?


  1. Jodi Picoult's Nineteen Minutes was awesome at misdirection as well as her book My Sister's Keeper.

  2. Great post, Aimee. I hate getting to that moment in a book when the MC goes, I just knew, deep in my gut, that if I hopped on my left foot while waving my hands in the air, my magical mystical powers would save us all.

    To which I say, Whaaa?

    Ok, so hopefully I will never read that in a book, but when I read similar versions of this, it almost seems like the author has written themselves into a hole and without a plausible way to get out, turns to the rabbit out of a hat theory.

    I did a post a few days ago on foreshadowing, and I think it's quite similar to what you're saying here.

  3. Great post as usual. Love the part about the YA-Crap-o-Meter...too funny. But so true. I have a teen daughter and she will send a story packing quick and she loves to read.

  4. combine the words "head, nail hit and right on"

    This is one of my "radar alert" annoyances.

    Treat the reader with a little skills please. don't overload us with "subtle" hints because most likely your subtle hints are like elephants in a china store. Bright pink, noisy and clumsy.

    You are right, if we don't get it then, we will get it at the reveal.

    Treat readers like idiots and we will pull out of the story and go into "author edit mode" and go WTF??

    No really good examples at the present off the top of my head, just wanted to support what you say.

    Love your posts, they are awesome.

    Sarah ketley

  5. I have to say, I find this quite often in Jodi Piccoult's books. She drops subtle hints that work perfectly then comes right out and states what you'd already worked out. Very frustrating!

    I think it's important to note, though, that not all character narration is bad. Readers (like me) will stop caring if there's too much action without understanding the characters' emotions about what's happening. It's how you present these emotions that's the key.

  6. Great post. This drives me crazy. All those scense were it's like "And SUDDENLY, Jack knew what he had to do. All the little nudges ballooned in his mind and he was amazingly certain..." And you're just like "wait...what? really? Cuz I didn't get that AT ALL." I'm definately gonna share this with my writing group. Who knows, I may even link it in my next post. :-)

    <3 Gina Blechman