On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 9: Serendipity (or Writing by the Seat of Your Pants)

Baldric concocted a cunning plan to scare the killer lawn gnome into staying away from the cave entrance so he could sneak in. He then grabbed the magical hedge trimmers and scarpered off into the forest.

Writers sometimes use expositional sentences like these to cover plot holes. We’re writing by the seat of our pants—making it up as we go along. We’re stuck for a way to keep the bad guy out of the cave and we got nothin’. Instead of using the opportunity for some clever plotting we wing a cunning, but undisclosed plan.

I also discovered, as I was novelizing a screenplay for a client, that this hiding of details is also a device that screenplay writers use. Showing flashes of how X happened works great on the big screen, but when you’re down on the ground with the characters, you’re suddenly faced with having to show the reader how X happened.

It’s a form of deus ex machina—god out of a box or machine—although sometimes it’s a magical mechanism or previously unknown power or ability that saves the day. The weapon or talent the hero wields to kill the rogue lawn gnome does not exist until he needs it. The magic horse is simply there when the prince is stranded someplace nasty. The pebble in the heroine’s shoe was just a pebble until it became more convenient for it to be a magical pebble.

In children’s literature (and possibly magical realism) such things happen without comment. But once a child is old enough to start asking impertinent questions about plot devices, she will very likely never take a magical trick pony at face value again.

mermaidWhen my youngest daughter was six years old, she stopped me in the midst of reading of Disney’s The Little Mermaid—a gift from her cousin that I’d been trying to get rid of for months (the book, not the cousin)—and said, “Mommy, why did the evil witch go through all that (offering Ariel a deal she couldn’t refuse) to get the king’s crown?”

I looked at the situation from several different angles, thinking I could say something profound about power corrupting absolutely or the politics of sea creatures, or even the really cool things that the crown could do that the witch needed. But what it came down to was “because she’s evil.” She was also not very bright, because with all the (undisclosed) power of Triton’s crown and trident, she made herself immense, thereby rendering herself a much bigger and less mobile target for the heroics of the prince, who immediately impaled her with the bowsprit of his ship.

At issue here was that nowhere in the book was it even hinted at that Triton’s crown had magical powers—least of all powers that Ursula the Witch coveted. Ursula was already pretty powerful—she turned herself into a beautiful young maiden and enchanted the prince … purely for the sake of obtaining a crown that only made her really, really big and which didn’t help her at all when she needed to dodge out of the way of the pointy end of a royal frigate.

Yes, The Little Mermaid is kiddie lit. But I’ve got a stack of allegedly adult fiction on my desk with the same sensibilities.

How does this affect the reader’s trust in an author of YA or adult fiction?

If a six-year-old doesn’t buy these sorts of plot devices, neither will the reader of YA or adult fiction. Ultimately, the reader wants to be able to divine from action and dialogue and story arc a set of subliminal rules that help him predict what might happen and to whom. Plot twists only really work with those rules in place. Why? Because if the writer just makes stuff up as she goes along, the reader can’t tell a plot twist from the other gyrations the writer is putting him through.

“Just ‘cause” explanations, convenient objects or talents and repetitive changes in direction not only lose the reader’s trust, they wear the reader out. Any plot device that is important to the main thread and resolution of your story needs to be carefully worked out at least in part onstage, where the reader can watch.

Drop. Your. (Hoary) Sword (of Legend).

Drop. Your. (Hoary) Sword (of Legend).

No, you can’t think of everything up front. Sure, sometimes you have to ad lib or you have an epiphany that results in a new plot twist, but then you need to go back and lay the ground work for it in the earlier portions of your manuscript so that it is appropriately built up and foreshadowed. If you provide the hero with a magical, singing sword of hoary legend on page 250, the reader needs to at least get wind of the hoary legend somewhere around page 75.

And if your hero needs to slip into the cave unmolested by that rogue lawn gnome, impress the reader by having him come up with a cunning plan worthy of showing off.

One last comment: I am amazed at how often aspiring writers tell me they do not read much—not even in the genres they write. Please, please, please—if you want to write YA and adult fiction READ it. A lot of it. In all genres. As you read take note of what the writer is doing that works for you or doesn’t. If he raises the hairs on the back of your neck, pause and read the hair-raising scene with an eye to what made it have that effect.

Conversely, if you find yourself staring at a sentence that refuses to mean anything, dissect it to figure out why it seems meaningless to you.

Exercise: Look at your own fiction or at fiction you’ve recently read—do you see signs of what I describe above? See if you can’t come up with a dynamite plan to sneak your hero past the lawn gnome—then let the reader in on part of your (hero’s) thinking. It will not only engender trust, it could prove pretty darned entertaining.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 9: Serendipity (or Writing by the Seat of Your Pants) — 6 Comments

  1. No one was more surprised than Baldric when the killer gnome accepted the mask, six-gun and Stetson, and then rode off on the neighbour’s cat whilst shouting, ‘Hi-ho Silver, away!’
    ‘Well that’s the Gnome Ranger sorted out,’ thought Baldric, contented that for once a cunning plan of his had worked and he could now sneak into his cave.

  2. To GUDSquirrel: Indeed, it can. Or at least that they’re reading and not getting much out of it. (And I miss Baldric too. Did you know that Tony Roberts did a non-fiction series about history? I forget the title and never got to see any of them, though I seem to recall someone sent us a DVD. But I’ll bet he’s even funny when he’s just playing himself.

    To Bob: Ah, you went with humor. But the mechanics are no different with a serious approach to the rogue whatever.

    If I may use your scenario as a stepping off point — what would be important in this case, and yet simple enough to do, would be to go back in the story and make sure you revealed at an earlier point that lawn gnomes are easily suggestible, are suckers for playing dress up and cannot resist the urge to play act.

  3. This is where rewriting saves the day. You have been winging it. You pull a plot twist out of your left ear and go with it even though all the characters have to be idiots to have let things get to this point. You barrel through to the end of the story, yay!
    Now: fix it in the rewrite. Go back — remember your power of retcon is supreme. Lay the groundwork for that keen plot twist. Figure out why Jor-El was on the outs with the Science Council on Krypton. Work out the motivations. Hide the gun in the pumpkin in the cornfield. Machinate the ancestry of the Stewards of Gondor for the past 200 generations so that it all makes psychological sense when Denethor runs off the rails. Subtly tip in the foreshadowing, so that at the end the reader can flip back in the work and see how you Meant To Do That All Along.
    If you are deft and clever, you can seam it in so that the join is perfectly invisible. People will believe it was born that way.

    • Amen!

      I think I do some of my best (and most fun writing) when I’ve just decided X would make a very cool plot twist and have to go into retcon mode to make it grow up out of the plot and characterization.

      The important thing is that you DO what it takes to make the plot point, twist or device make sense in the story line. If you ask why a character did something or why something happened and the answer is “‘cuz I need it to”, you have issues.

      I was working with an aspiring writer recently who retconned himself out of a plot that was working into one that weakened both his story and characters. He decided he didn’t want his hero to be so fascinated by a woman he met that he’d intentionally try to run into her again. His first draft had the man intentionally putting himself where he thought she might be (yahtzee!), thus showing the reader a character who went after what he wanted. His second draft had both the first and second meetings of the two characters depend entirely on coincidence. He also changed the circumstances of their first meeting to make it even more miraculous than it originally was.

      The net effect of this was that it not only weakened both the plot and the character, but tempted the reader to wonder if magic or miracle was responsible for the romance and not desire.