EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 12: Because the Writer Said So

Sample scenario: A detective is in a car crash and passes out twice in the flaming wreck, which he escapes at great peril. Five minutes later he just gets up and flags down a passing cop.

“Hey,” the detective says as his car combusts quietly in the background, “can I trouble you for a ride home?”

The responding officer smiles. “Anything for a fellow cop.”

oOo

How realistic is this scenario?

Not very. The amateur writer often ignores objects or people he’s put on stage for convenience’s sake and neglects to consider questions that would logically arise from situations he’s created.

As a reader, I get very frustrated with this sort of manipulation. The writer is trying to avoid having to deal with annoying details (like the fact that his detective can’t just slink off and leave his car to burn), or he’s trying to keep secrets from me, not by hiding them skillfully, but by simply refusing to let any of his characters see them. There is a very serious side effect to this: it can reflect on the way your characters come across to your reader.

Let me illustrate. This writer is trying to set up a riddle to surprise the reader with the clever use of an object in a scene with a guardian dragon. He doesn’t want the reader to guess what the object is for. (That’s not the only problem with this scene, but one thing at a time.)

Sample scenario: “If you are to fight a dragon,” the wizard said soulfully, “then you will be in need of proper accouterments.”

Ayric nodded, though he knew not why.

Magus Sarn, tall and lanky, stroked his white and thick beard as he strolled away from the young knight, back toward the table of magical implements. Presently, he stooped down to pick up a single crystal from the golden tray at its center. He turned back to face the knight and spoke anew. “You will need a crystal,” he said. “As clear as they come. Crystal. The size of a man’s hand.”

Ayric scrunched his brows and lightly scratched at one side of his neck with the point of his dagger. The crystal seemed an odd thing to take into battle against a dragon, but the true use of such a thing against a terrifying and deadly beast escaped him. He accepted the crystal from the wizard and set off for the dragon’s mountain wondering what he would do when he got there.

oOo

As I said, there are a number of things wrong with this passage, but chief among them is that Ayric, who is described elsewhere as being a young man of surpassing intelligence and wisdom, doesn’t ask what he’s supposed to do with the crystal once he reaches the dragon’s lair.

This works fine in a child’s fairy tale, but in YA and adult fiction this dragon will not fly. People who are wise get that way in large part because they are intensely curious about the way things work. And the way they learn how things work is by asking questions. Especially with the fate of his entire kingdom on the line, Ayric the Wise will ask questions. He will want to know how the crystal will work before he has to use it. You can still hide the use of the crystal from the reader if you want, but the protagonist needs to know.

In addition to frustrating the reader, this writer also contradicted what he’d told us about Ayric. In this scene, Ayric comes across as pliant, incurious, and careless.

I have once in my life destroyed a book of fiction intentionally. I don’t remember the name of the book or the author, but I can tell you why I tore the book in two and recycled it rather than return it to the used book store. The author hid information from the reader by manipulating his characters’ reactions so that they failed to ask questions (among other things). In scene after scene in which a real person would have said, “What? Why? How?” He simply made his characters look the other way, exhibit no curiosity, and overlook glaring cues. Grrr …. don’t get me started.

Exercise: Choose one of the scenarios above. Write a scene with the same basic factual elements (car crash, dragon, crystal) but that plays out in what you consider a more realistic fashion.

Bonus: I said there were other problems with the Sir Ayric scene above. How many can you find and what do you think they are?

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EVERGREEN: On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 12: Because the Writer Said So — 4 Comments

  1. Magus Sarn stroked his thick but white beard thoughtfully as the knight awaited his opinion.

    ‘If you are truly to fight this Dragon, young Ayric, you’ll need the proper accouterments.’ The tall mage finally announced solemnly.

    Ayric nodded in agreement… but what other equipment? He had his sword and shield yet the old man suggested something else was necessary. What, however, was a mystery to him. He watched perplexed as Sarn bent and rummaged through a bewildering array of magical items upon his table before nodding judiciously and selecting a crystal that filled his gnarled fist.

    ‘The very thing!’ Sarn exclaimed as he straightened his lanky frame and turned to the knight with a smile. ‘A crystal, as pure and as flawless as they come. See its reflective qualities?’

    Ayric could indeed. The light coruscating across the stone’s surface seemed to be amplified within its depths. Although it seemed an odd weapon to use against such a beast something about its scintillating presence calmed him and he wondered what effects its properties would have upon his quarry high on Dragon Mountain.

    Bonus thoughts:

    1/ I’m not sure I’d use ‘soulfully’ as a tag. I’m sure ‘wisely’ or ‘sagely’ even ‘reflectively’ might have been better. (IMHO)
    2/ Ayric nodded, though he knew not why (Knew not why he’d need the accouterments or why he nodded? Found this a little vague)
    3/ Again I’m not sure I’d have used ‘stooped’ to take something from a table. Unless it’s a very low table!
    4/ Ayric scrunched his brows – So, he frowned…
    5/ The crystal seemed an odd thing to take into battle against a dragon, but the true use of such a thing against a terrifying and deadly beast escaped him.
    Hmm… Not sure I can explain this one properly but the use of ‘but’ as a conjunction seems wrong here. I’d use ‘and’ if the ‘but’ is used as ‘on the contrary’ it doesn’t seem to compliment the two statements correctly.

    Best,
    Bob

  2. Ah, but poor Ayric is still in the dark about the crystal, because he hasn’t ASKED about it. The cheap way to hang a lantern on this point (as they say in H’wood) is to have him ask “What am I to do with the crystal.” And then have the wizard smile and say, “That will become apparent when you get there.” He might then offer a riddle or clue so that Ayric at least knows what sort of opportunity to look for.

    Please note, though, that if you’re writing serious high fantasy, I suspect this will still not wash unless you can give the wizard a good reason not to explain the workings of the crystal. For example, maybe he doesn’t know. He’s been instructed by a vision or a dream to give the knight the crystal, but doesn’t know how it works, only that it will reveal itself at the proper time. That sort of possibility can be built into the magical system of the world.

    Now then, “his thick but white beard” … you caught this sort of implication in the original text (point #5) but here you’ve implied that it’s unusual or contradictory for his beard to be both thick AND white.

    Watch out for adverbs. Mark Twain is said to have instructed his readers: “If you see an adverb, kill it.” You might contemplate a double adverbicide for this twofer: “The tall mage finally announced solemnly.”

    Now, the tone of your rewrite is more humorous than the original in which any humor was unintentional, and in that context it’s okay, I think, for the wizard to rummage among his junk and produce the crystal with a flourish, but a more spare approach might be necessary to create tension and dread in the scene — if that’s what you were going for.

    Six bonus points are awarded for your analysis. And I should note that Ayric indeed did not know why he nodded. He did quite a few things without knowing why he did them, in fact.

    Other items of note are that the description of the wizard is overwrought, there’s too much irrelevant detail, and the image of Ayric scratching himself with the point of his dagger is comical. Alas, the writer did not mean it to be.

    I think, in fact, that the bigger lesson in this scenario is how critical little details of dialogue and action are. A poorly written scene can cause a reader to see your character completely differently than you want them to.

  3. Hi Maya,
    I didn’t want Ayric to come across as just brawn with no brains, so hinted that he understood that if the crystal had a calming influence of him then that was its purpose and it would placate the beast until he was able to use his sword and shield upon it.

    I suppose I was trying to hint that Sarn, although still fit and virile (thick beard), was nevertheless aged (white).

    The tall mage finally announced solemnly <- ouch… pass me Ayric’s sword please 🙂

    Anyway, points taken. Having to explain where I was coming from with the rewrite exposes the fact that it wasn’t coherent enough and I’ll mark this one down as a miss 🙁

    Best,
    Bob

  4. Perhaps, but you recognize it as a miss AND you understand why it missed, I think.

    I work with a lot of writers who do neither.

    What this means to me is that you’ve got a darn good ear for prose, and your previous exercises indicate you have an especially good ear for dialogue.

    Keep up the good work!