Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

Concept vs Execution in Fiction

Any productive creative effort consists of concept and execution. Concept is, of course, the idea behind the thing, the description of it, or the mental image that we have of what the thing is meant to be. Execution is what happens when we try to actually produce the thing, as in: “His execution of the dive was flawless”. Or it is the final fleshed-out form of the thing, as in: “While the architect’s vision for the building was sound, the execution is marred by awkward flaws.”

And my point, of course, is that concept and execution can be either good or bad (or so-so) independently of each other. The overall value or quality of any creation derives from the interplay between concept and execution, in ways that vary depending on the field or medium involved. Some creative fields are more concept-driven, some less, and different crafts and art-forms may be more or less tolerant of inexpert execution depending in part on the audience.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Fiction covers a lot of territory and so does the relative importance of concept and execution in fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you’d better have top-notch execution. For genre fiction, this can be less important. Some genre fiction readers are very forgiving as long as the story contains the genre-specific tropes and elements they’ve come to enjoy. The importance of concept to readers also varies. Science fiction readers may demand something truly new in the concept department, whereas readers of mystery or romance – or even literary fiction – may not really care about that. How much readers of any stripe care about concept versus execution depends basically on the extent to which they read to get new thoughts and ideas versus reading for the experience of reading. And of course, they may be after both. But the one place where concept really trumps execution is in getting agents and publishers to look at a manuscript from an unknown author, which is something I find a bit problematic.

It can be a little hard to say exactly where a fiction manuscript’s concept leaves off and its execution begins. The core of the concept consists pretty much of what can be fitted into the infamous “elevator speech” – the nutshell-sized description that’s used to “sell” the manuscript to an agent or a publisher. One might extend concept to include the set of plot points that go into a synopsis or outline of the story, although this begins to grade into execution. Any sample pages or chapters that may be allowed as part of a submission clearly speak to execution, but they really provide only a glimpse of it. The truth is that execution consists not only of the quality of the writing, and things like “voice” that one might see in a sample chapter, but actually includes all the word choices and phrasing, and all of the details of how the writer has chosen to unfold the story – from beginning to end. Basically, execution is the whole thing, and the only way an agent or acquisition editor can fully assess the execution of a work is to read the entire manuscript – which isn’t going to happen unless they’re “sold” on the concept. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a lot of agents don’t even look at the synopsis, let alone the writing sample, if the first paragraph of the query letter doesn’t “grab” them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is so: there are just too many manuscripts. Agents are inundated, and they just don’t have time to read everything that comes their way. Plus, they really shouldn’t take on manuscripts they don’t think they can sell to equally busy and concept-oriented acquisitions editors. Still, it means there’s a possibility of works being passed up that are well-executed but have ordinary-sounding or hard-to-pin-down concepts. This is clearly a loss for those readers who value the experience of reading a rich, nuanced, and well-crafted tale, over the whiz-bang of nutshell novelty. (You can guess where my preferences lie.)

There are people – agents and others – who argue that the essence of any novel ought to be reducible to one or two brief sentences. I simply disagree. Consider these two familiar works in the fantasy genre: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both works have essentially the same core concept: A young girl is transported to a magical land where she has a series of adventures before managing to get home again. Yet these two works are in no sense the same story, and in fact could hardly be more different in execution.  I could easily add a few choice details to the nutshell description that would tell you instantly which book it represented, but that’s not the point. To begin with, the plot of Alice in Wonderland is scarcely important in capturing the work. How could I convey the cleverness of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, or the book’s wild non-sequiturs? The Wizard of Oz is more conventional in its plot-reliance, but simply stating the elements of that plot hardly captures the charm and nuance of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale.

To be honest, I first became aware of how much traditional publishing is biased towards concept years ago when I tried querying book one of The Nagaro Chronicle. That discovery is one reason why I’ve opted for independent publication. My work’s strength lies in its execution. Producing a short, plot-based, nutshell description of the first book that made it sound in any way unique or special proved challenging to the point of exasperation.

So what are your thoughts? As a reader, where do you come down with respect to concept and execution? If you’re a writer, where does your own work fall?

On Leadership and Followership

These are ideas that I elaborated some time ago in a completely different context, but in an election year, they seemed apropos.

Not everyone is, or can be, or even should be, a leader. What is a ship at sea full of nothing but captains? Everyone wanting to give the orders and nobody wanting to follow them? Chaos. Deadlock. The world needs followers. It needs them in greater numbers than it needs leaders, in fact, because it isn’t actually possible to be a leader without followers. You’ve got to have at least one follower, or there’s no one for you to lead.

Now, I know the word “leadership” has become so bloated in its meaning that it is now applied to almost any positive item on a person’s resume. But, in my view, leadership is not selling the most insurance policies, or finding your company a cheaper source of ink, or even developing a new algorithm. Nor is it finding a path over the mountain, crossing the finish line first, or being the first on your block to buy an electric car, or even being the first person in the world to understand that unchecked human population growth is a threat to every living being on the planet. A leader, in my book, is the person who can stand up and say, “I think this is what we should do,” and have most or all of the other people in the room stand up, too, and say, “All right, then, let’s go!”

In broad terms, leaders are the people who shoulder the responsibility of making decisions for a group of people, or for choosing a course of action that their followers then pursue. Do that, and you’re performing the role of a leader, but if those people are only doing what you tell them because of authority vested in you by some third party, I’m still not impressed with your “leadership” ability, even if I am impressed with your decisions. This is because real leaders have the power to rally the troops, to move people, to motivate, and even to inspire.  Because leadership is all about the effect a person has on the ones who follow.  Which brings us back to followers.

The world needs followers, as I said, and more than that, it needs good followers. The first responsibility of a follower is to choose carefully whom to follow. Because a leader can accomplish nothing, good or bad, without followers, and leaders can definitely be either good or bad – and not just with respect to how much of the magic spark they have that makes them leaders. Hitler was a good leader in the sense of moving people, but he was not a good leader in the sense of where he led. A good leader must be an altruist, not an egoist. A good leader need not be charismatic; capable will do. She need not be eloquent, she must only be able to communicate, somehow, in a language her followers can understand. A good leader must have a worthy goal and a workable plan for getting there, but he need not be a visionary as long as he knows a good vision when he sees one. She need not know everything, as long as she knows enough to seek whatever knowledge is needed. He need not be wise as long as he is wise enough to listen to the wisdom of others. She need not have all the ideas, as long as she is open to ideas. And he need not be perfect as long as he can admit his mistakes and correct or learn from them.

And here I am going to introduce the concept of “followership.” Good followership means stepping into whatever task or role is given to you, and doing it to the best of your ability. Followers are the hands that shape, the backs that carry, the feet that march. Followers have the skills that actually get things done. Followers are potentially the sources of the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the ideas, sometimes even the words. A good follower is not a sheep; a good follower asks questions. A good follower uses his head. A good follower chooses a worthy leader and supports that leader. She anticipates the leader’s needs whenever possible. He is alert to problems, and, if he can’t solve them himself, communicates them to those who can. A good follower lets the leader know if she believes the leader is making a mistake. If the leader should stumble or lose faith, a good follower is there to comfort and reassure, because a good follower respects and appreciates the burden of responsibility the leader bears.

Followership isn’t even a word. It gets no recognition these days, except when it is, paradoxically, called “leadership.” Being a “leader” seems to be synonymous with everything good, while being a “follower” is somehow bad. But the truth is that leaders and followers are quite distinct, and both are necessary. Followers are, in fact, absolutely essential to every organized human activity. A mediocre leader will do in a pinch. You can even soldier along for a while with just a written plan, but without followers nothing will happen at all. And good followers are worth their weight in gold.

What do you think? Are you a leader? or a follower?

Cover for “Gift of Chance”

Gift 1AjsqThis is the cover design for my forthcoming debut novel Gift of Chance, the first book of the Nagaro Chronicle. I decided to make it very clear that it was Book 1 by numbering it right on the cover. The intention is to keep that black bar at the top of the covers of future titles in the series, with sequential numbering: 1, 2, 3, etc.. so it’s easy to keep them in order. I intend there to be six or seven titles depending on how I divide up Nagaro’s story. And it is all one story, covering ten years of his life from age 18 to age 27. (The most interesting years of a very interesting life, trust me.)

Readers should not fear to give Gift of Chance a try just because it’s the first in a series. The ending of this first book brings the protagonist to a safe harbor (literally). While there are obviously plot elements remaining to be pursued, the book does not end on a cliffhanger. So if you’re not completely taken with Nagaro by the end of Book 1, you can easily walk away. But if you do like this young man… hey, there’s more! I have his entire story written, and Book 2 is already going into the final editing stages even as Book 1 moves towards publication. I intend to get these books out one after the other, as fast as the publication team at Cor Corvorum can push them. I know nobody likes a long wait between books in a continuing story.

Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?

There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.

Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.

And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.

What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.

So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?

Lessons in the Past Perfect 6: Flexibility and Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople experience life as events in time – present, past, and hypothetical future. To me, being able to clearly define the temporal relationships of events in a story is essential for effective storytelling. And verb tenses are part of what we use to do that. That’s why you need to be skillful with verb tenses if you want to be a skilled writer. You want to master the full arsenal of verb tenses so you can use the best one for every situation. And you want to be able to shift tenses at will to reveal information in the most effective order. This is how to achieve control over your readers’ experience of the temporal aspects of your story.

English has a lot of verb tenses. Not all of the variants are time-related, either. Some indicate conditional or hypothetical situations, like the ones that use “would,” “could,” or “should.” Consider the following, which my linguistics prof in college said was about as complicated as it can get:

Well, he should have been being paid.

That’s five words that are part of the verb, everything after “he.” It’s complicated, but we understand it. We also understand that it’s different from all of the following:

He should be being paid.
He should have been paid.
He is being paid.
He was being paid.
He was paid.
He has been paid.
He had been paid.
He had been being paid.
He would have been paid.
He will be paid.
He will have been being paid.

That’s not even all the possibilities. The point is that a writer should be able to use whichever tense best serves his or her purpose. I think people are pretty clear that the addition of “being” makes the action “progressive” – that is, in this case more than one payment is involved, ongoing over some period of time. That period could be in the past, present, or future. Without “being,” the reader is justified in assuming that only one payment is involved. People understand that “is” means present, “was” means past, and “will be” means future. “Should” and “would” or “could” tell us that the payment didn’t actually happen, or hasn’t happened yet – that it is in some way hypothetical. The “perfect” tenses represent completed (perfected) action. “Has been paid” is present perfect: the action is completed, but recently enough to be viewed as part of present events. “Had been paid” is past perfect, the action having been completed in a time period preceding whatever might be considered present events. Past perfect is used specifically when that distinction is needed: an action was completed prior to whatever is happening now. “Will have been paid” is future perfect. There is some future time from the perspective of which the payment will be in the past. Example? “By the time we next meet, you will have been paid for your services.” Which is distinctly different from: “When next we meet, you will be paid for your services.” The temporal relationships between the meeting and the payment are different in those two cases, and you wouldn’t use one if you meant the other.

I know I harp a lot on the past perfect. It’s because it’s frequently given the cold shoulder these days and I’m always disappointed when I stumble over a spot where a writer should have used it but didn’t. Past perfect is important in fiction because past-tense narration is the most common approach to storytelling. If your current storyline is told in past tense, you need the past perfect to distinguish events that occurred prior to the current storyline. Apparently it throws some aspiring writers for a loop, though: they’re used to using the simple past tense for past events, or they hear some editors say the past perfect should be avoided because too many had’s are cumbersome and repetitious. So they think they can do without it. The result sometimes is temporal mush.

Consider this simple thought:

Jake was paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits.

In a past-tense narrated story, we can assume that Jake’s preference for Galactic Credits is an ongoing state of affairs – at least in the absence of any more specific information. He does prefer, has preferred, and probably always will prefer to be paid in Galactic Credits. (Preferences tend to be like that.) But the first sentence could mean at least four different things depending on the context:

1) In the course of the unfolding story, a point has been reached where Jake gets paid once for something and the payment is in local currency.
2) Jake gets paid in local currency on a regular basis during the time period of the story. (He’s on a salary.)
3) There was a single instance in the past when Jake was paid for something in local currency.
4) There was some period of time in the past when Jake was regularly paid in local currency.

Of course there would normally be context, and context can go a long way:

Three weeks crawled by and Jake finally got paid for the job. He was paid in local currency. Jake preferred Galactic Credits, but here on Chalcion you took what you could get. (case 1)

Back on Regulus, Jake worked in the shipyards. He was paid in local currency then. Jake preferred Galactic Credits. Life here on Chalcion was good. (case 4)

In these two examples I deliberately didn’t use verb tense for clarification. I stuck to the simple past tense. The result is a bit “flat,” temporally speaking, but you can figure out the meaning from the time tags and other clues that I’ve added. (Note that it’s only “here on Chalcion” that pins the first example down as being current ongoing action. Otherwise it’s just an assumption that this is the case, since simple past is the default for current action in past-tense narration.) In the second example, “back” and “then” tell you that the local currency payments were in the past relative to the current action. “Here on Chalcion” implies that he is now being paid in Galactic Credits.

If you’re not afraid to use other verb tenses, you can get away without time tags altogether:

When he’d been working in the shipyards on Regulus Jake had been paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits. Life on Chalcion was good.

The point isn’t that using time tags is bad. In fact, you can use a mixture of time tags and verb tenses in a paragraph for clarity and variety. And that’s my point. With the other verb tenses at your disposal, you have more alternatives for achieving clarity – or grace, or emotional impact, or whatever. That’s flexibility. After all, having to constantly repeat your time tags can get just as cumbersome and repetitious as too many had’s.

The past perfect tense also gives you more flexibility in how you reveal things. You can slip back and forth between present and past effortlessly without confusing your reader. You’re not tied to telling events in the order they occur:

She walked from room to room, treading evenly and taking inventory of the spaces and furnishings until she came to the last bedroom at end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. She stepped over the threshold and instantly she knew. She had not realized what she’d been missing until that moment. The room was alive; she could feel it. The living room and parlor, kitchen and dining room, below, the other bedrooms along the upstairs hall; all were perfect, tidy, pristine. But they had felt dust-dry, hollow, as she passed through them. Empty as husks. Only here in this room, with its worn oak furniture and faded curtains and ancient writing desk, was there a fullness, something still green, a sense of her husband’s spirit.

Try doing that passage justice without the past perfect tense. The past perfect lets me wait until after she’s entered the last room to tell you what was different about her experience of the other rooms, then shift back, and back again, in a blink. And I can do this with perfect clarity (I hope) within a paragraph where my focus is on emotional impact.

And that is enough about the past perfect. (Collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.)

I never get what I really want for Mother’s Day

Yellow LantanaI never get what I really want on Mother’s Day, which is not any reflection on my children. It’s not their fault that I have bigger ideas, more serious concerns. What I want is far too big a challenge for one or two people to take on.

People mostly don’t know that the origins of Mother’s Day are complex, that one of its main advocates, Anna Jarvis, spent a large part of her life campaigning against the holiday’s commercialization. She meant it to be spent not just privately honoring one’s own mother, but in efforts to promote child-rearing and protection of children, and in the reconciliation of conflicts. Another proponent, Julia Ward Howe, wanted it to be a day for mothers to work together for world peace so that mothers would no longer have to lose their sons to the brutality of war. It’s not hard to see how that idea got lost in the shuffle, pushed aside in favor of something easier, less challenging to the status quo. Something more commercial.

It’s not that I have anything against honoring our mothers for all their love and nurturing and support. And gifts are nice, though they don’t have to be material ones. Nor do I begrudge the pursuit of a modest prosperity to the makers of pretty things, or to the shopkeepers who sell them. It’s just that, well, individual mothers already have birthdays on which their families can show their appreciation. And the national holiday has the potential to be hard on mothers who’ve lost their children to death in one of its many forms, or whose children are alive but estranged from them, or who gave their children up for adoption. There are those whose children are in prison, or suffering due to serious disabilities, addiction, physical or mental illness. And then there are the women who always wanted to have children but couldn’t for various reasons. Let’s not even talk about starving children, or about the mothers who weren’t fit mothers, the mothers who just weren’t able to cope.

I know it’s unreasonable for me to ask for world peace all wrapped up and tied with a bow, or for an end to world hunger. But motherhood is fundamentally about hope. It’s about bringing children into the world and launching them on a trajectory that encompasses the expectation of something good and positive and meaningful. With so much all around us that needs fixing, that threatens children and mothers, both, would it be too much to ask that we dedicate a day to making our world a better, safer place for all of us, and especially for future generations and those who nurture them?

Pushing Back the Darkness

Dark SeaIn my heart I am dedicated to the effort of pushing back the darkness, or at least holding it at bay. By darkness I don’t mean some kind of ultimate evil that’s at war with the light. I only mean all the subtle and not-so-subtle ills that afflict the world at the hands of humankind. Some are the result of deliberate, willful, cynical actions; some are unintentional or even unwitting. I mean all the products of ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. Of self-importance, selfishness, and greed. Of fear and hatred and misunderstanding. Of any other negative conditions or motivations that I have, for the moment, forgotten. I say “effort” because that’s all any one heart can promise. The dark tide seems so strong sometimes, so big, and what any one person can do alone so small. Some people have strong arms and hands and backs to work with. Others have the courage and charisma to stand up in front of groups and lead them. Mostly what I have is words. I can send them out into the darkness in the hope that they may touch other hearts. I believe there is hope if we work together.

Keeping the reader guessing

stack of booksIt’s usually considered a good idea not to have your story be too predictable. Some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, really require this. Others, like fantasy, not so much. Personally I think that striking writing can trump plot – that a work with a fairly conventional story line can be so poetic or poignant or hilariously funny as to be thoroughly engaging because of the way it’s written. Most of the time, though, plot matters and if the reader thinks he can guess exactly where the story is going, he just might decide not to bother to read the rest of it.

I’ve noticed there are a number of things that writers do to keep readers guessing, some of which I like better than others. Basically they can be broken down into four categories. Of course several of these can be used at once, and some of them can grade into each other, but I see them as distinct enough for purposes of discussion.

1) Plot twists: There’s no doubt that plot twists are effective – when they’re well done. For me, one hallmark of a good story is that it can be unfolded in a completely natural, straightforward way – without any gimmicks – and hold my interest throughout because the events in it are simply interesting or in some cases surprising. Basically this uses whatever plot twists the story naturally has to keep the reader guessing. I think the only way to go wrong with plot twists is to work so hard at making them unexpected that they feel contrived. If everything in a story suggests it’s going in one direction and then it suddenly veers in another, there can be a problem if there’s been literally nothing to make the new direction feel remotely logical – even in hindsight. Obviously this criticism doesn’t apply to the “inciting event,” which comes at the beginning of the story and frequently comes out of left field. I’m especially annoyed when a writer pulls something out of a hat right at the end of a story that is in conflict with everything I thought I knew about what was going on – just so he or she can say, “gotcha!”

2) Withholding information: Actually, writers always withhold information because the writer knows everything at the beginning of the story but obviously can only give information to the reader one bit at a time. As long as the order and pace of information delivery feels natural and logical, this is perfectly fine. A well-written mystery story told from the point of view of the sleuth is a good example. The reader gains information in a very natural way as the character uncovers clues. I start to have a problem, though, when a writer clearly is picking and choosing what to tell me just to keep me in the dark – for example, when the story is being told in retrospect and the narrator simply neglects to mention things to keep the end in doubt. That makes me feel manipulated. The same is true when the writer conveniently doesn’t show a character thinking about something he obviously would have been thinking about at the time simply because the writer is trying to protect some planned surprise. Writers have essentially complete power over what they reveal to readers and when, and I think there is an art to using that power in way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed.

3) Misdirection: This is the preeminent tool of the stage magician but I usually find it annoying when it’s obviously being used in storytelling. A lot comes down again to naturalness and finesse versus heavy-handedness. Mystery readers are generally forgiving of the use of red herrings – it’s a trope of the genre – but even a red herring shouldn’t be clumsily pasted in. There should be cross-connections to the plot that make it seem to naturally belong in the story. Outside of the mystery genre I personally feel that deliberately putting in a red herring is just a mistake. There’s a more subtle kind of misdirection that occurs when a writer abuses his power to influence the readers’ attention or perceptions. Readers judge the importance of things by how much the writer dwells on them. I get thoroughly annoyed when a writer expends a lot of words making some object, event, or action seem important and it turns out to have been merely a distraction. Similarly, if that blue-and-white vase is going to turn out to be vitally important five chapters later, barely mentioning it along with half a dozen other unimportant objects in the room is going to have me crying foul. The writer should at least have had the character notice it because his mother had one like it, or something like that.

4) Deliberate obscurity or ambiguity: I say “deliberate” because unintentional obscurity is always a problem. I’m sure there are readers who don’t mind this technique in fiction nearly as much as I do. It probably comes from my having been a scientist, and a text editor, where clarity is really at a premium. There are, however, some writers who simply like to keep things purposefully vague or ambiguous or unexplained. Any story can naturally have specific points of uncertainty because the characters’ knowledge is incomplete. That’s fine. So is having a character whose nature is to be deceitful, cagey, or hard to pin down. What I personally object to is feeling like I’m constantly moving in a fog of hints and subtle suggestions or standing on a shifting surface that never settles down. It keeps me guessing, yes, but at what cost? If I’m never sure about anything, how much of a surprise can anything really be? The best thing for me is to simply avoid writers like that, but there are other writers whose stories are mostly quite clearly told but who resort to obscurity at some specific point in an obvious attempt to prevent me from guessing where they’re going. I tend to lose respect for writers who do that.

That’s the end of my rant. As always, comments are welcome. Do you have similar pet peeves? Am I completely full of it? Or is it all just a matter of taste? Are there other approaches to keeping readers guessing that I haven’t thought of?

A gratitude list for today, for this moment…

Today I am grateful for the rain, and for a roof over my head.

I am grateful for the peace and safety of my neighborhood – grateful that, in the space I personally inhabit, there are no bombs falling or bullets flying.

I am grateful that I have enough time and money to spare that I can purchase wild bird seed and sit in my living room watching the birds busy at the bird feeders outside my window.