We’ve all been there: watch a new episode of a TV series or the like, where the characters do stupid things that serve no purpose other than to prolong a misunderstanding and put off the resolution of a subplot until a later episode. A subplot which could easily be resolved if one character simply told another character a piece of information that we, the viewers, already know. And usually a piece of information that would naturally come up in conversation if the two characters simply sat down and talked.
This particular storytelling problem isn’t just limited to television shows or similar serialized stories—but it is prevalent in such narratives because of a perceived need to use up screen time and prolong the suspense so that the viewer will keep coming back.
I say perceived because that time could be used showing the characters having the conversation, reacting to what they learn, and so forth. The counter argument is that viewers/readers don’t want to watch that sort of thing. Yet, as alluded to in the screencap of the blog post above, tens of thousands of readers and viewers create and read tens of thousands of fanfic stories that do precisely that. One of my favorite fanfics is 45,000 words of two characters processing some shared trauma and learning to trust each other. They aren’t just talking, things happen and other characters are involved, but at its heart the story is about these two getting to know each other and decide whether they are going to be friends or something more.
I totally understand the need to create suspense and keep the reader interested. But you don’t have to do it my creating these contrived circumstances where the characters who normally interact all the time just keep not speaking about something that both of them are very upset about. Because if the issue causes suspense, that means any revelation about it will have consequences. And you know what? Whatever those consequences are, they will also be new things to create suspense about!
Instead of finding ever less believable reasons that the characters don’t talk, let them talk. Then let the chips fall and see what happens next.
A concept we often talk about when critiquing someone’s fiction is the “willing suspension of disbelief.” The phrase was coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when he said that if a writer could infuse their tale with a human interest and a semblance of truth, the reader will react to even the most fantastic tale as if it were real. The semblance of truth means, among other things, that events within the story don’t feel out of place. Once we have accepted that frogs can have a passionate debate about the nature of government, for instance, we are not at all surprised when later in the tale a stork expresses a different opinion. The suspension of disbelief is broken if the writer introduces incongruities or forces the reader to stop following the tale to try to understand a confusing phrase. One friend often phrases it as, “bounced me out of the story.”
There is a flip side to this concept of being bounced out of the story. It is implicit in the relationship between a reader and a story that when one first opens a book (or opens a reading app, et cetera) the reader is ready to give the story the benefit of the doubt. Which isn’t to say that a reader is obligated to keep reading if they don’t enjoy the story or it becomes confusing or whatever. It just means that for the first sentence or so the reader will accept what is being offered.
Different readers have different definitions of that initial willingness to accept the story. I once had an English teacher insist that a good story shouldn’t begin with a compound, complex sentence. An arrogant smart aleck student in the class1 pointed out that the classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with a single very long sentence:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
One reason that opening works is because it doesn’t sound, in one’s head, like a run-on sentence. It has almost a musicality to it that builds and builds as it goes along. My favorite bit is the “we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Somedays when I read the news, I find myself convinced that we’re all going that other way and in a handbasket of colossal proportions.
The notion that someone could trademark an adjective and forbid other people using that word in their stories (or even just the titles of stories) is a chilling one. I hope that, like the “space marine” trademark issue from five years ago, that this trademark bully will be stopped.
Because that’s what this is: bullying. The cocky author has been sending cease and desist messages to any other romance author who has used the word in a book title, including books that were first published long before she started writing herself. She’s been threatening to issue takedown notices to Amazon (just like the space marine trademark bully did years ago), which can result in lost sales as well as messing up their review and ratings histories, even when Amazon re-instates the listing. Also, some books were taken down when the cocky author contacted Amazon directly without first sending a letter to the author. The RWA and their lawyer has since contacted Amazon, to ask them to stop taking action on any cocky romance books until the legal matter is resolved. Fortunately, the books were restored.
It’s also a likely case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the notion that incompetent people aren’t able to recognize their incompetence. In this case, I say that in part because of how the cease and desist messages are worded. Rather than having an actual lawyer draft the letters (which would cost money), she is writing her own, and her messages include the statement, “my lawyers have advised me that I will win all the monies you have earned on this title, plus lawyer fees will be paid by you.” Which clearly is not a statement a competent lawyer would make. The lawyer might say that if she prevails in a lawsuit that she might be entitled to the money earned and so forth, but they would never say they were even guaranteed to prevail.
And someone has already posted a parody book called, Too Cocky for the Law: Cockier Than the Rest (Cocky Legal Book 1), and have included the word cocky and many synonyms in the description. I have heard that the proceeds of the book are going to help with the legal fees of the trademark challenge, but I wasn’t able to confirm that.
I have been very tempted to create a parody e-book with the title Cocky Space Marine, but since I have crazy deadlines at my day job and a couple of fiction writing deadlines also looming, I really shouldn’t… even if the story almost writes itself…
I posted a while ago about many of the ways that the cliched advice of ‘show don’t tell’ is actually bad advice. A lot of people take it to mean that all exposition is bad. The usual ways of implementing it creates fiction that is only accessible to people who—because of the culture of their upbringing or through study—are privy to a specific set of presuppositions. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nugget of truth in the advice, rather that the advice itself is an oversimplification and many of its proponents are pushing (whether they mean to or not) an agenda that excludes many people and cultures. The nugget is worth digging into.
There is no clear consensus of who first used the specific phrase “show don’t tell,” but it is possible that it is a reduction of a longer piece of advice from Russian author Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Of course, in this longer form, it is a bit more obvious that the problem isn’t exposition of all sorts, but rather flat or boring exposition. If you merely tell the reader, “the moon was shining” and nothing else, that’s a pretty generic image, and doesn’t set much of a scene. But if instead you say something like, “moonlight glinted off the broken glass on the floor” that gives a more specific image—and raises some questions. Why is there broken glass on the floor? What happened?
You show the reader that the moon is shining by telling them that moonlight is glinting off broken glass. And you’re going to show the reader what happened by telling them more. As I said in the previous post, being a storyteller requires one to tell stories.
Anton Chekhov is more famous in English-speaking writer communities for another piece of advice: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The idea is that when certain objects, events, or utterances occur in your story, you raise expectations in the audience that this thing is going to be important. Another way to look at it is, if you’ve shown your reader something that seems important, you should eventually tell the reader what happens to that thing.
Anton Chekhov knew a lot about writing. He’s best known now for a few significant plays, but he wrote an unbelievable number of short stories, short-shorts, vignettes, and other tales. When Chekhov was a young medical student, his father got severely into debt, and Chekhov started writing and selling short, comedic stories and sketches of Russian street life in order to pay for his own tuition and to assist his parents. Eventually, his writing output was so prodigious, that he paid off his parents’ debts, was supporting several of his adult siblings, his own wife, at least one kept mistress, and he was treating medical patients for free. He considered his important life work to be the medical care, and the writing was just to pay all of those bills.
To get back to his advice about showing the reader things: while it is important that your telling of your story paints vivid pictures in your reader’s mind, it is equally important that everything you show the reader serves a purpose within your story. It’s a balancing act.
Many years ago I was asked to give a critique of a draft story by someone in one of the writers’ groups. The story was set in the late 1800s in a “wild west” town, and it had a sex scene. The scene included several pages of beautifully worded and painstakingly specific description of the layers of cloths the woman was wearing and just how much work was involved. There were more than a dozen paragraphs dealing with the unfastening of a set of buttons on a single garment. It was excruciatingly clear that the author had spent many hours researching period fabrics and design and construction of women’s garments in the period. And the author was determined that the reams of information gathered in the hundreds of hours of research would all explained to the reader.
The author claimed, during discussion, that the plot was her protagonist needed to get a piece of information from this guy, so she seduced him. Unfortunately that was completely lost in the very elaborate description of the clearly frustrating undressing process. A case could be made for a humorous story answering the question “can the protagonist get herself undressed and have sex with this guy before they both die of old age?” but that wasn’t what the author was going for—and even then, there was too much detail to support such a punchline. As it was, neither the difficulty of the undressing process nor any of the details of the clothing had anything to do with the author’s intended plot.
It should also be noted, there was no description of the man’s process of undressing. He got his clothes off in less than a sentence at the beginning of the scene. Which is why more than one person in the group thought that the story was meant to be a humorous parody of a bodice-ripper.
I usually have the opposite problem—I don’t describe things enough. So an important part of my revision process (once I get the first draft done) is look for places where painting the picture will make the plot, character motivations, and so on more obvious to the reader.
If you tend toward the more elaborate form of description, than you will need to pay attention to the other side of things during your edit and revision passes: look for abandoned guns. If you’ve described someone’s clothing in detail, ask yourself why? Is the scalloping on the hem of his cloak important to the story? Sure, if you need to establish that this character is well off, and has a flare for fashion, give some details. But maybe that little digression about the type of stitching should be trimmed. If at a later point some property of the cloak is going to be important to a plot point, yeah, show us a detail that at least hints at that possibility.
Similarly with the way a character looks, or the visual details of her home, or the contents of her desk, or the design of any weapons she carries. Show enough for the reader to imagine the character. Show enough to get the reader an outline of the way the character does things. Show the reader things important to the plot without drawing a bullseye on things that will telegraph plot twists.
Paint the picture, but only the picture that is relevant to the story.