A lot of people use the term plothole incorrectly. And the people who are most likely to use it incorrectly are also the people that believe that a plothole trumps every other aspect of the story. So, what is a plot hole?
Plothole A gap, inconsistency, or contradiction in a storyline that breaks the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.
As a writer, plotholes are the bane of my existence. When I find a contradiction in my story, it sometimes makes me want to tear my hair out. Sometimes a plothole isn’t very difficult to fix, once you find it. But others do indeed make the entire story fall apart. The existence of that latter type is why some people think that anything labeled plothole completely invalidates the story.
There are many other kinds of gaps which people confuse with plotholes. Those include:
- things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
- character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
- things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
- things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
- things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,
Let’s tackle these:
Things you wish didn’t happen. I have great sympathy for this issue. There are almost always things that I wish didn’t happen in any story I read or watch. Characters you wished to live are killed, or characters you thought should get together don’t, or a villain you thought should suffer more doesn’t. It can be very upsetting when a part of the story you care about doesn’t go the way you want. But that isn’t the same thing as an actual plot contradiction. And if it makes you feel any better, often the author is just as upset about the direction a story goes as you are. Seriously. When I was writing the first draft of one of my books, there was one scene where I was bawling my eye out while typing, because I didn’t want that character to die, sacrificing himself so his daughters could be saved, but everything in his story had led to that moment, so that’s what I wrote.
Character doesn’t behave the way you think they ought. When a story grabs us, we usually find ourselves identifying with many of the characters. And we’ll imagine a version of the character based on what we see in the early stages of the story. When we don’t realize is that we are also basing the character on things that aren’t actually in the story, but that appeal to us. Sometimes we overlook hints of things in the character’s personality that are less pleasing to us. So when that particular aspect of the character’s personality become a major plot point, we yell “out of character!” and “that contradicts everything we know about them.” Sorry, no it contradicts things you imagined into the character, not what was actually in the story. A subset of this problem is that sometimes we forget that humans are impulsive and make decisions based on emotion and hunches. Humans make mistakes. No one in real life is 100 percent consistent, so we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be, either.
Things that contradict your political/moral preferences. One of my favorite movies is a silly comedy released in 1991 called Soapdish. The story contains, among other things, a supporting character played by Carrie Fischer that is my favorite thing she’s ever done outside of Star Wars. I laugh myself to tears every time I watch it… except it has one problem. A major running sub-plot is resolved in a quite transphobic way. Even in 1991 I was a bit troubled by it. More recently, I have to brace myself for it, and I no longer recommend to movie to people without a content warning. But, despite that thing being problematic, it isn’t a plothole. It is perfectly consistent with the rest of the story. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy the movie less because of it, again, yes. In this case, I’m able to enjoy the rest of the movie despite this problematic bit. I understand perfectly if other people can’t. But, it isn’t a plothole. It’s a failing of the narrative and demonstrates that some of the characters are a bit less open-minded that I would like.
Things that the author plans to explain later. For example, in one of my works in progress, one of the protagonists is a shapeshifter. But they don’t advertise the fact. At different points in the story, their hair (color and other qualities) is described in different ways, because their hair changes slightly with their mood. It looks like an inconsistency early on, but it is eventually explained by the end of the book (and there is one big hint in the opening chapter). Other dangling unfinished bits you notice at the very end may be intended for a sequel. If the unfinished bit doesn’t invalidate the resolution of the main plot, then it isn’t a plothole.
The author thought your critical thinking skills would fill in the gap. Not everything has to be spelled out. For one thing, trying to do so would add hundred of thousands of words to any book. The author has to make some judgement calls about things the readers will figure out, and things that need to be explained. The author will never guess correctly for every single reader. If, when you explain your plothole to a friend, and they immediately say, “Oh, I just figured that Y happened because of X,” you’re probably dealing with something the author thought you would figure out on your own.
Any of these reasons, of course, are a valid reason for you to dislike a particular story, movie, show, or book. But it does not mean the authors left a big plothole in the middle of the narrative road. And it doesn’t mean that the story is inherently, objectively bad.
First, let’s deal with the song a bit. If you aren’t familiar with the song (which knocked the Beattles off the top of the pop charts for 4 weeks in 1967, then went on to make it into the top twenty of the Blues chart, the Soul chart, and finally the Country chart), you must listen to it once before we talk about it. Even if you are familiar, you really should listen again, and try to listen to it as a short story, rather than just some song:
The song is often retro-activily classified as Country, but at the time it was more clearly pop with a heavy blues influence. I think people classify it country because the story of the song is set in the south and she lets her Mississippi accent through.
Anyway, as a short story, it’s pretty phenomenal. And part of appeal of the song, clearly, is the mystery at the center of the song: what did the narrator and Billie Joe throw off the bridge earlier in the week, and why did Billie Joe commit suicide?
Over the years, Bobbie gave a very consistent answer: she didn’t know and it didn’t matter2. Many times she explained to interviewer, “It’s a MacGuffin. Alfred Hitchcock called the object that moves the plot along but isn’t really important on its own a MacGuffin, and writers have been using that term since the 1930s.” The song wasn’t about what happened, rather it was about unconscious cruelty. The family is sitting around the table discussing the suicide of someone they all know as casually as they ask each other to pass the biscuits, completely unaware that the suicide victim’s girlfriend is a member of their family, sitting right there listening to them.
The something that the narrator and Billie Joe were seen “throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge” is one type of MacGuffin. It is something another character saw, and a third character comments on, which draws a connection in the minds of the audience between other events in the story. But exactly what it was and why it was thrown off aren’t important to the tale that the writer is sharing.
You’ll find a few different definitions of MacGuffin out there (also spelled McGuffin and Maguffin). My definition is:
- A story element that draws the reader’s attention to certain actions and/or,
- Drives the plot of a work of fiction (usually because several characters are willing to do almost anything to obtain it), but,
- The specific nature of the object may be ambigious, undefined, left open to interpretation, or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that in a thriller the MacGuffin is often a necklace (a small object which can be worth a lot of money, but may also hold sentimental value or be coveted for its beauty), while in a spy stories the MacGuffin is usually some mysterious papers. The important thing (storytelling-wise) about the MacGuffin is what it motivates the characters to do, not what it actually is. In the example of “Ode to Billie Joe” the thing thrown off the bridge is important because apparently it contributes to Billie Joe MacAllister’s decision to commit suicide, probably motivates the preacher to come tell Mama the news of the suicide, and draws the audience’s attention to the connection between the narrator and Billie Joe.
One might wonder how MacGuffins relate to subplots. As I’ve discussed before, subplots are sequences of events with plot-like structures that happen within a larger story an are sometimes only tangentially related to the main plot. And sometimes a way you can connect subplots more closely to the main plot, or even connect subplots which aren’t otherwise related to each other is with the use of a MacGuffin.
For example, many years ago when I became the editor-in-chief of a small sci fi fanzine, I inherited a project started by the previous editor. She had come up with a framing tale to allow contributors to write a large group story together. This allowed contributors who had trouble coming with with plots an easy situation to write some scenes about their characters in, for instance, and encouraged contributors to work with each other. When I became the editor, there were about 40,000 words worth of writing from a whole bunch of people… and most of it did not fit together very well.
I went through the whole thing, taking notes and trying to come up with an outline that would fit all the disparate pieces into the original framing tale. One of the contributors (and an Associate Editor), Mark, regularly wrote a lot of the stories we published, and had written several sequences with different characters which could have been turned into interesting plots on their own. So we talked at length before bringing the proposal back to the rest of the editorial board. There would need to be a lot of new stuff written to tie the pieces we had together and push the whole thing to an ending, and I proposed two MacGuffins to help us out.
A lot of the existing sequences (and the framing tale) involved a criminal deal (worth the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars) gone wrong. While the initiating event for the non-criminal characters was an anniversary party to celebrate the original maiden voyage of a spaceship. So, one MacGuffin would be the 36th Century equivalent of a bearer bond: a physical object containing some kind of encryption key which could be presented to a particular financial institution and be exchanged for the hundreds of millions of dollars—that could be cashed by anyone. The other was an anniversary present which the pirate captain charged his first mate with making certain was delivered to the captain of the ship celebrating the anniversary.
This gave us two packages that were both in the possession of one of the criminal leaders early in the story and then became separated in the chaos of the shoot out and the inconveniently times major earthquake. Many of the criminal characters believed that either of the lost packages was the fabulously valuable bearer bond, but weren’t sure which one. Other characters had no idea when either package was.
A lot of the sequences which had no other connection to the established plots could thus be connected merely by adding a few sentences where one or another of the characters came into contact with a package that looked important, and then losing it. Other sequences got a more firm connection to the plot by adding a few sentences where one or more of the characters was trying to find one of the packages.
The two MacGuffins on their own didn’t solve all the problems. We spent a few months dividing various sequences and subplots to members of the editorial board to write additional bridging material5. And then Mark and I would each re-write these sequences to make them fit with the others. After a few months of this, I started sensing a bit of dread from the other members of the editorial board when we got to the standing item of this story6, so one meeting when we got to that point I immediately said, “I think we’ve reached the point where I should take over and finish weaving the rest of the tale together, and then Mark can do a clean-up pass.” At least two members of the board audibly sighed and said something like, “Thank goodness.”
We published the final tale as 24 chapters in consecutive issues of the ‘zine. The final word count was a bit shy of 250,000 words. And those two MacGuffins really helped. In the penultimate chapter, one MacGuffin finally ended its journey, and I managed to make the delivery of the lost bearer bond to the pirate captain into the punchline to a joke. The other MacGuffin never made it to where it was originally destined, but it served as the final punchline to the entire story.
The objects themselves were not really important, particularly in light of the number of characters who were killed in the course of the tale7. But the objects provided through-lines for may subplots and kept the reader guessing until the very end.
1. The opening lyrics of the song are, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day”
2. Please don’t ping me to tell me that the 1976 movie based on the song reveals the answers. It doesn’t. Through a series of events involving a later minor hit of Ms. Gentry’s that was the theme of another movie, a studio approached her with the idea of making a movie based on her first hit. Per the agreement, her only involvement with the movie was they would use an existing recording of her singing the song in the soundtrack, and she would have one meeting with the screenwriter. Only one. He reported afterwards that the first question he asked her was why did Billie Joe commit suicide. He said Gentry laughed and told him, “I have absolutely no idea. That’s not why I wrote the song.” Then he asked her what they threw off the bridge, and she repeated that she had no idea. Left with no information he could use, the screenwriter made up a rather convoluted plot, and named the previously unnamed narrator of the song Bobbie, so that audiences would believe that the song was autobiographical3.
3. Which it wasn’t4.
4. In a very early interview about the song, when the interviewer was not happy with Bobbie’s explanation that it was a MacGuffin and pressed her repeatedly for an answer, Bobbie said, “I really don’t know. Maybe it was a ring or a locket that represented an engagement or something?” But clearly at this point she admits that she is guessing, too.
5. A lot of the authors or co-authors of some of the sequences had left the project, but we had permission to use the material, without always knowing how the absent writer had intended to end their sequence.
6. Yes, we were technically a fan project, but we had regular meetings and I had agendas for the meetings and we took minutes and everything. I’m that kind of editor!
7. It was a natural disaster story and the story of a criminal deal gone wrong, with multiple shoot-outs—of course characters died!
8. Edited to add: I should have linked to the podcast. Cocaine & Rhinestones Season 1, episode 4, “Bobbie Gentry: Exit Stage Left”.
When I wrote previously about subplots, I searched for other blog posts and articles about it to link to for other perspectives, and was surprised to see a few pieces of what I considered bad advice being repeated in a lot of them. For instance, many such articles insist that subplots must be resolved before the main plot. A few allowed an exception for a subplot that is intended to carry across multiple books (perhaps to become a main plot of a later volume), but most didn’t even mention that. And that’s simply wrong.
Let’s review a few definitions: the main plot is an obstacle, puzzle, or problem which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved by the protagonist’s own actions at the end of the story, and is the thread that ties everything else together. A subplot is a subordinate plot taking up less of the action than the main plot, having fewer significant events occur, with less impact on the “world” of the work, and often occurring to less important characters. A resolution is the point where the outcome of a plot or subplot is revealed (or sometimes only suggested). And remember that a resolution isn’t always a solution in that the character can fail to solve the problem; which makes your story a tragedy.
Now, subplots can end before the main plot. In a novel many of them will as a matter of course, because some subplots are literally distractions and additional obstacles your protagonist encounters while pursuing their main goal. In order to rescue the enslaved knight, your protagonist may first need to get information from a mystical oracle, which may involve enduring some hardship just to consult the oracle. Then the oracle may tell her that she has to find a magic artifact, an ancient spell book, and a blood relative of the enslaved knight. Obtaining each of those involves a mini adventure and thus a subplot and resolution along the way, and so on.
But some subplots can also be resolved at the same time as the main plot. In the same fight that the protagonist frees the enslaved knight, a supporting character may rescue his children also captured by the main villain, while another supporting character avenges himself upon the minor villain who is a minion of the main villain, and so forth. Several subplots all being tied up at the same time. Pulling that off with a lot of the subplots, getting them to converge on the main plot, makes for a very satisfying climax to your novel.
However, a few subplots can also be resolved right after the climax, in the part of the novel known as the denouement. Time for another definition!
The denouement is that portion of the story where all the loose ends are tied together. Side note: the word comes to English from the French dénouement meaning to untie something—isn’t language funny? To get back to the main point: in most modern novels, the denouement is usually a single chapter at the very end, after the outcome of the main plot is revealed. It’s the time to assure the reader that the characters who survived and triumphed have actually gotten their happy ending, to show that the villains are indeed suffering, and so on. One of my university literature teachers described it as the time for the reader to catch their breath after the excitement of the resolution and say good-bye to their favorite characters.
I think the reason so many of those other blog posts and articles think that the subplot has to resolve before the main plot is because their authors conflated the resolution with the denouement. Which is easy to understand, because in short stories the resolution and denouement often happen in the same sentence. In plays and movies the denouement is usually in the same scene, comprising only a few lines of dialogue or the like after the resolution.
I mentioned above that most modern novels accomplish the denouement in a single chapter after the resolution. But that hasn’t always been the case. A great example of the old school way of doing it is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, in which the denouement goes on for nearly a third of the final book!
Some of your subplots will be those loose ends tied up during the denouement. Loose ends don’t always require an entire scene for a resolution, they can sometimes be handled by a couple of lines of dialogue. “But what happened to the elephant?” “I found him a good home with that druid we met at Gobsbridge.”
And yes, some of your subplots will be left unresolved, carrying over into a future installment. They can even, technically be introduced in the denouement! That moment when a supposedly minor sycophant of the main villain is shown to somehow have survived the explosion and is clinging to some floating wreckage down river, perhaps. Horror movies and the like often have the cliché of a single hand reaching out of the smoking wreckage, indicating one of the supposedly dead villains isn’t. You get the idea.
If you decide to emphasize that a subplot is going to continue into the next story, don’t lay it on too thick. You don’t want to overshadow the happy endings for those characters who got one. Remember, the denouement is a time to let the reader catch their breath. It’s a way to ease the reader out of the excitement and anxiety of the main plot. Yes, you want the reader to be interested in what happens in the next book, if you plan to write one, but they’re most likely to do that if they feel good about the ending of this one. That isn’t to say that everyone always has to get a happy ending. I’ve set denouement scenes at literal gravesides of heroes, as well as the bedside of two children being read a bedtime story by their grandfather who is taking them home to their mother with the news that their father was killed saving them.
So bittersweet and tragic endings are fine. But any indication you give that there is another adventure ahead for some of the characters shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if the protagonist accomplished nothing.
Readers may not remember everything that happened during a story. They won’t remember a lot of the lines, scenes, plotholes and such that you worked hardest on. But they will always remember how you made them feel.
For another perspective on subplots, you might want to check out this blog: Writing and Such: Tackling Subplots
Which is not to say that characters we put in our stories aren’t or shouldn’t be based on real people. Many characters are amalgams of many people that the author has encountered throughout their life. Quite often the author can’t name all of the sources of a character because many were people we encountered without getting to know well, plus half assembling of the personality quirks happened in the writer’s subconscious. Other times, we knew exactly who we got a particular mannerism or figure of speech from. And sometimes it’s a lot more than one or two things.
I made a conscious decision with one of my novels to (in most cases) loosely base characters on specific people or characters from other works. It started out as just a whim, and for a while was kind of a fun game, and then it became something I did without thinking. I’d need a new supporting character for a particular scene or subplot, and start writing them, only to realize many paragraphs into the first scene that I was basing some aspects of the character on that person.
Some people don’t want to do that, at all. And I’m sure that you can find someone out there who will adamantly insist you should never base a character on a real person that you know. They will list off several good reasons for this advice. One of the things those annoying shows I mentioned earlier do get right is that if friends and acquaintances guess or suspect a particular character is based on them, and that character if portrayed in a less-than-flattering way, that can cause a bit of resentment in your real life.
My counter argument is that certain people in your life will, when they read something you wrote, sometimes think that you have based a character upon them whether you consciously did so or not. And if they take offense, whether you meant to base the character on them or not isn’t going to matter. You can attempt to explain the way every character in fiction is, to an extent, a pastiche built from your imagination as well as observation of real people, but it may not convince them.
One of my favorite villains in my current WIP is a character named Mother Bedlam. Parts of her personality, mannerisms, and relationships are based on at least three real people I have known in life, all of whom have since passed away. Other parts of her come from a variety of crass, conniving, and criminally depraved characters and historical figures. She’s intended to be a comedic villain, despite also doing some vile and violent things and propelling serious plot points along. Many of her traits are exaggerations for comedic effect. If any of the people I have consciously based her on were to read my stories (which they never will, because they’re all dead) and recognize themselves in her, I might have an awkward situation to sort out.
As it is, one time when I read one of her scenes to my writers’ group, another member of the group who had laughed a lot during that scene, told me later that if he didn’t know better, he would have been convinced I had somehow spied on his childhood and one particular despised teacher he had in grade school. At subsequent appearances of the character he would bring that up again. One time another person’s critique of some new scenes was that Mother Bedlam had been over the top—that no person would really treat one of their underlings that day. The other guy jumped in to say that his teacher had done almost exactly the same thing to one of the children in her care.
There are at least two lessons to take from this example. First, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, there are only actually a few people in the world, we just meet many of them again and again. The other is that this illustrates why some character you think of as wholly original to you might make someone you know insist that the character is based upon them.
And I know I am hardly the only writer who has ever based a minor character whose only purpose is to die brutally to further the plot on a real person who gave us some sort of trouble at some point in our lives. My most vicious middle school bully has leant his name and or personality to a number of characters who have met such brutal deaths. Then there is one person who caused so much trouble for both myself and several people I know, that I made him into a character who is brutally killed in one book, brought back as an undead creature, and variously maimed, burned, re-killed, and so forth a few times in subsequent books.
Some people call it petty. I call it do-it-yourself-therapy.
We tell the story that we have to tell and we tell it the best that we can. The whole point of storytelling is to tell the story to someone, right?
So the audience isn’t superfluous to the process. A writer who thinks that the audience doesn’t matter—or even worse, a writer who holds their audience in contempt—is not doing the best in any way. Of course you don’t contort the story to cater to the wishes of every reader, but respecting the reader is not the same thing as catering to them.
I most often think of this topic when I find yet another example of queer-baiting. But queer-braiting is hardly the only way that storytellers show contempt for at least part of their audience, and I’ve been seeing a lot of examples lately in television (though it also happens in book series).
I understand that with a television series (or web series or movies or plays) you don’t have a single storyteller. It’s a collaborative process where the writer, the actors, the director(s), the designers, the show-runners, et al work together. But it is still storytelling. And just because it’s a collaboration doesn’t mean that no one is to blame when the reader is cheated, mocked, or otherwise abused. And when decisions are being made out of cynicism, that is what you’re doing to at least some of your readers.
You disrespect the reader when you mislead rather than misdirect. You disrespect the reader when you play on their feelings by raising hopes you intend to dash. Not every story has a happy ending, but you can tell a tragedy while still playing fair with the reader.
The usual counter argument is that the storyteller is simply putting the reader in suspense. ”We’re supposed to keep the reader’s attention, after all!“
The word people are missing there is ”keep,“ not just to the big reveal. The stories I love are tales I come back to again and again. Not because they always ended the way I wanted them to, but because they made me care, and the ending—even in the tragedies—rang true.
Yes, we focus on keeping the reader turning the pages until the end, but as artists we should want our stories to settle into the reader’s heart and make themselves at home. Stories don’t do that when the storyteller intentionally kicks some readers in the teeth then points and laughs at those readers.
If you can’t be moved as a writer to treat all your readers with respect out of artistic integrity, think of this: A reader who decides, midway through a story that it isn’t for them puts down the book and finds something else to read. They may never pick up another book by that author again, or they may simply wait to get recommendations from others before taking the plunge. But a reader who gets the feeling that the writer is cynically baiting them or otherwise comes to the end feeling mocked, used, and/or abused, is someone who will emphatically warn other readers away from your work for the rest of their lives.
So tell your story. Tell the story you want to tell. Tell it the best way you know how, but tell it truthfully. Build suspense honestly. Payoff the misdirections with integrity. Make the reader go, “I should have seen that coming! Wow!” or “What a great plot twist!”
Don’t treat reader as an enemy, and they won’t become one.
I like to repeat the adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Storytelling is, among other things, the craft of weaving an illusion. You are attempting to evoke in the reader a dream. You want that dream to be similar to the one you’re holding in your own mind as you craft your story. It needs to feel real, while also making sense—narrative sense. In a narrative, the events that happen are always connected to each other and to the overall story. Things happen for reasons that relate to the intent of the participants and the meaning of the plot. But the real world seldom makes sense narratively; real life events that take place near each other are often unconnected, for instance.
The paradox of storytelling is that you can’t achieve that sense of reality and making sense by slavishly imitating the real world.
That is especially true in dialog.
So, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk. It is about creating the illusion of the way people talk, while omitting parts that don’t move the story forward. To get back to the list that’s being shared around: it isn’t that you can’t use any of those suggestions, it is that you should not dump all of them in just because they’re on the list.
If, like me, you read a lot of fanfic and self-published fiction, you see a lot of these awkward efforts to replicate in dialogue certain quirks and eccentricities of expression that people make in real life, or that actors do as part of their delivery of lines. Unfortunately, these replications often serve as a distraction rather than characterization. For example, in dialogue you might mention that when a character responded to a question with the word “yep” that the character popped the p at the end of the word. If the reader has ever known a person who does that in certain circumstances, or seen an actor doing it in a television series, say, they get it. If they don’t, they’re just puzzled. And during that moment that the reader is trying to figure out what it means, they are no longer in your story. You’ve bounced them from the narrative. You have destroyed the illusion you were so meticulously crafting. You are inviting the reader to stop reading your tale.
And if you do more of those things, you aren’t merely inviting the reader to leave, you’re actively chasing them away!
In real life people say “uh,” “um,” and similar non-words a lot more often than we realize. It’s a pause when we’re trying to pick a word, or figure out how to respond to something or just thinking through the situation we are discussing as we’re talking. If you put those non-verbal filler sounds in as often as they happen in real life, it becomes very annoying to read. Part of the reason we don’t notice is because the tone of voice and the cadence of the sentence (and if it’s a face-to-face conversation, facial expressions and other body language) give those non-words meaning to the listener. But the reader isn’t getting all of that. So, when writing dialogue, we use those non-verbal sound indicators more sparingly. We deploy them when we want to indicate the speaker is at a loss for words, or is uncomfortable in the situation, or something similar.
In real life we repeat words a lot. We may put the same word in to a sentence more often than it is needed. Like, we really can, you know, say what we mean to say, like, really, you know, in a really messy way. You know? And you can write a character talking in that manner, but you’ll find it’s difficult to keep up the pattern. And again, the reader needs to know why you’re doing it. If you have a character that is supposed to be annoying your protagonist, having all of their sentences ramble and repeat can make your reader as annoyed with the character as your protagonist is. Again, the key is to choose the non-standard grammar for a narrative reason.
Then there are facial expressions and gestures. I have a really bad habit during first drafts of having my characters nod a lot. You can read through a scene I just wrote and sometimes a third or even half of the switches in dialogue begin with the character who is about to speak nodding. And it’s really annoying after a while. In real life, people nod their heads, shake their heads, tilt their heads, waggle their heads and so on while talking. But just as with “uh,” we need to use it a bit less often than it happens.
The first time someone pointed that out in a rough draft, I went through and changed all of those “so-and-so nodded” to other things. I changed each and every one to a different thing. So the first character, instead of nodding, grinned. And then the next character wiggled his hand to indicate indecision. Then the first character frowned and tilted his head. And so on. When I read the scene to myself aloud after revising it, I started laughing part way through, because it sounded as if the two of them were dancing around each other in an elaborate musical number. So I had made it worse, not better. Not every line of dialogue needs a description of what the character is doing with their body. It is perfectly okay to use “[name] said.” Multiple times.
It’s also all right, if there are only two people in the conversation, to skip the name altogether every now and then. But don’t do it more three or four lines in a row. The reader will get confused, and it is really annoying to have to go back and count, “Susan, John, Susan, John…” when you lose track. And it is super duper annoying when you do that and find it doesn’t work. You get to a line that by your count should be John, but it says ‘Susan frowned in thought. “I don’t think so,” she said.’ I have had that happen in a book published by a large publishing house. I assume that during an edit round some lines of dialogue were removed, and the author didn’t double-check that everything still flowed.
On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things in dialogue that don’t fly in the narrative portions of the text. People talk in sentence fragments and make grammatical errors, so you can do that in the dialogue. But make sure you know why you’re doing it. And don’t over do it.
While we’re on the subject of dialogue: someone sent me a link to this excellent blog post on how to punctuate dialog. Even if you think you know how to punctuate dialog, go take a look. Everyone can use a refresher every now and then.
Since 1995 I have written an original Christmas Ghost Story that I then read (or otherwise perform; one required ukulele, there have also been costumes) at the annual Holiday Party “sponsored” by the Tai-Pan Literary and Arts Project. Some years the ghost story is set in the Tai-Pan universe (which makes it fun, since that universe is a hard sci fi universe; I’ve had to be a bit creative about the definition of a ghost), some have been set in universes of my own creating.
I have a rather long document that I keep adding Christmas Ghost Story ideas to, so even though I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, I’m not out of ideas. That’s actually the problem, I have so many ideas, that trying to get myself to focus on one and finish it is always a little bit of a struggle. Thus the many times I have posted a comment to social media in the wee small hours of the night before the party that I have finally finished this year’s…
Anyway, I’ve kind of narrowed it down to four that are speaking to me this year, and still trying to decide. So, I’m turning to the wilds of the internet and giving you a chance to weigh in. Read the titles and teasers below, and pick the one that you would most like to hear on a spooky winter’s night:
Some notes: in the past some friends have at first declined to vote because they didn’t feel that they were sufficiently familiar with the universe or stories. Please don’t let that stop you. People who are familiar with my work will have a really good guess who at least one of the protagonists above is, but don’t feel you have to be in the slightest familiar with me or my work to cast a vote.
I don’t guarantee that the winner is what I’ll work on. Some years I spend days nearly finishing one story, and then have a blast of inspiration that results in my writing a completely different tale. But I can’t decide, so maybe you can help!
Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.
In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.
Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.
In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.
I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.
To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.
Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.
Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.
When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.
“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen
Brandon Ambrosino, writing for Vox, asks, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” He’s writing specifically about the recently released movie, “Old Fashioned,” though he mentions a few other recent examples. The full article is worth a read, but I want to focus on a couple of points:
As Daniel Siedell, Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City, notes, “For [Evangelical Christians], culture is a tool, a more effective way of getting at political realities, or winning the battle of ideas in the public arena.”
Siedell uses the following analogy with his students to explain what he means.
Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what’s inside.
Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad they are.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn’t matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.
Ambrosino eventually disagrees with this point, but I don’t think he does so as vehemently as he should. Quality is not just the packaging. Quality is an inherent property of the entire work of art. When you think you can make a work of art and treat the artistic qualities of the work as superfluous, you are not making art. Period. I understand the mind set of the evangelicals, believe me! I was raised in that sub-culture, and once people noticed I had what they considered Talent, everything I wrote and did was evaluated through that lens of whether they felt it was proclaiming the message of Christ.
I tried to make one of Ambrosino’s points at the time: if the quality of what we produce is a turn-off, it doesn’t matter how important the message is. People will never listen to your message if they are bored by your story/movie/what have you. But it always fell on deaf ears.
Part of the problem with both my argument then and Ambrosino’s now is that we’re conceding something that we know is wrong. In order to try to make the argument that they should try to be better at making art in order to get their message across, we are buying into the fallacy that art is merely a means to deliver a message. It’s their argument:
Brian Godawa, Christian screenwriter, thinks it’s important to note that Christian films aren’t the only ones that are explicitly preachy. All films, says Godawa, “have messages to some degree or another, and writers and directors know full well they’re embodying those messages in their storytelling.”
I’ve written before that it is impossible to create art that is true to yourself without your values informing the work. That’s not the same thing as a message. I know that I’m a big believer in hope, so my stories, even when I write things I considered very dark, always have some hint of a glimmer of hope. But that isn’t the same as a message. I don’t write a story because I wish it will make other people feel the same way about hope as I do. I write stories because the stories want to be told. My own perspective will always be to look for that glimmer of hope, so I see the stories that way.
But each reader will have his or her own perspective, as well. And even though I am the storyteller, it’s their story, too. Their interpretation of what the story means (to them) is just as valid as mine.
And while I often have very strong opinions about the stories, art, and music I love; I understand that they are my opinions. I may think that your opinion about that particular piece of art is utterly wrong, but I will defend your right to express it. I may debate you about it, but I expect you to argue back.
That’s the difference between trying to send a message and letting your belief inform your artistic endeavors. I don’t consider it a failure if a reader doesn’t agree with me at the end. I don’t even consider it a failure if some readers don’t like the story at all. I especially don’t consider it a failure if a reader feels compelled to tell me just how much they hated one of the characters, or that they are angry at me about how the story ended.
Because in order to hate a character, you have to believe in the character. In order to be angry about how the story ended, you have to become invested in how it ends.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing from readers who tell me they liked something, or that they found a particular character adorable. Someone told me that recently about a pair of characters in one of my stories, and I just about died from pure happiness. But you know what? A few years ago when one reader wrote to tell me, in regards to a particularly ruthless character I had written about, “I don’t trust him at all!” and others wrote to tell me how much they loved the same character, I just about died from glee.
The people who are delivering messages want one and only one reaction to their story. You must agree with them. If you don’t agree with them, you have failed to learn the lesson they are so desperate to teach you.
And that’s completely backwards from how it ought to me.
I’ve written about how having an “idea” is not as important to storytelling as many think, and why specific questions about “ideas” can be so misleading as well as off-putting. As at least one commenter pointed out that while those posts show that focusing on ideas is the wrong thing to do, I don’t explain what the right thing to do is.
Except I did.
I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.
In the first post I said that focusing on ideas is like a carpenter obsessing over a single nail instead of getting on with the task of building a house. And that analogy has the answer, if you just stop and ask, how does a carpenter learn how to build an entire house from scratch? The answer is that there isn’t a short simple answer. You have to learn about how the tools work. You have to learn about which building materials go where. You have to learn about foundations and framing and supports and seals and scores of other things. You have to practice. You have to have someone look over your work from time-to-time during your practice and tell you whether it seems to be working. You have to build little projects and then put them to the test—see if they do the job you intended them to do and how they hold up against the elements.
It’s not a simple process. No one, not even someone as awesome as Neil Gaiman nor as wise as Ray Bradbury, can tell you in only one or two sentences exactly, step-by-step, how to be a successful storyteller. We can tell you things that work for us. We can point you in the correct direction. We can offer encouragement.
We can give you truths in a nutshell, such as, “The way to be a writer is simply this: write.” But you have to understand that those sorts of truths are like zen koans. The answers come from you struggling with the simple statement and the unspoken complications within.
We can write articles and blog posts about our process. We can point you to excellent books on writing (Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, to name but a few). We can try to answer specific questions. But there are two very important things to remember about that. First, we’re humans trying to get along in life just like you, and time we spend giving advice to you is time that we aren’t writing or otherwise earning our own keep. Second, what any of us know took us years of trying, failing, trying again, and slowly learning how to fail less often, and you’re asking us to give you this hard-earned knowledge for free.
I got in trouble several years ago on a writer’s forum for stating one very important truth underlying all of this process. I haven’t mentioned it in a long time. That probably means its about time to bring it up: if there has never been a time in your life when you read voraciously—when getting to the end of a particular book was more important than sleeping or eating, when you rushed to get to the end of one book so you can start another, or when you read multiple dozens of books and even more short stories in a single year—then you can’t be a writer. You don’t have to read like that all of the time, but in order to understand stories you have to have been consumed by them, been enthralled by them, been so caught up with them that they seemed more real than you yourself.
There’s even neuroscience to back that up. Certain areas of the brain simply don’t fully develop if you don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure.
You also have to spend some time looking at some of the stories you love and analyzing how the author did it. You need to spend time looking at some stories you hate and analyzing why they don’t work for you.
You have to write. Get one word down after the other until you reach the end of the tale. Then you either set it aside (and start writing something else) for a while until you can pick it up, look at it objectively, see both the flaws and the good parts, and figure out how to do better. Doing better might by re-writing that story. Doing better might mean tossing that tale and moving on to others. You have to let readers read your stuff every now and then and find out whether it works. You have to learn which reader advice to ignore, and which to take to heart. You have to keep writing and trying to get better.
And by the way, when I said look at your work objectively, seeing both flaws and virtues, I mean exactly that. Too many look at their own work and see only flaws, and despair. Others look at their work and see no flaws at all, and think they have nothing to improve. Every work has some flaws, but every work has something in it that isn’t bad. If you can’t find both, you aren’t being objective.
This is as succinctly as I can put it without sounding like a platitude. And there is so much more I could say about each point. But all of this is really just me trying to unpack, just a little, a profound truth that that late, great Ray Bradbury like to say:
Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.