On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 11: Bad Attitude

pf165Sample scenario: Toyoshi’s voice came raggedly over the phone. “Riyoko is in trouble. She’s been casting spells at midnight to call forth a Wretched Demon and I’m pretty sure it’s working. One more spell and her soul will be completely subsumed by the demon!”

“It’s 11:30 right now,” gasped Yuki.

“Yeah. She’ll probably cast another spell tonight. In just half an hour!”

“We’d better check on her first thing in the morning,” said Yuki. “Goodnight.”


What’s wrong with this picture?  What about poor Riyoko? What about the demon? These reactions are out of keeping with the emotional content of the scene. Riyoko is in danger of being taken over by a demon and her friends are worried … about getting a good night’s sleep.

It can also go the other way—your heroine makes a face in the course of a dialogue and her best friend gasps and wonders what horrible secret her friend is keeping from her.

Will the reader continue to trust a writer whose characters’ reactions tell them nothing about the real gravity of a situation?

The answer is “no”. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on the unevenness of the character’s reactions, it will affect the way he responds to the story.

In the final analysis, such situations as the one raised in my sample scenario above (which was actually in a novel I adapted to English) cause the reader to wonder if he’s missed something.

When characters react in ways that seem peculiar to the reader, they first respond with trust: you’re the expert and they trust that you’re dropping a clue or setting up a situation that will bear fruit later. Or they might believe you’ve just told them something important about these characters or the world they live in. This, in turn, changes the way they respond to the rest of the story.

Now, if the unwitting change of context you caused fails to bear fruit (either because Riyo was really in danger and her friends just didn’t act or because she wasn’t in danger as advertised) the reader loses the trust—they no longer believe in your fictional world or in you.

Mainstream writer Anna Quindlen once said that when it comes to writing fiction, reality is in the dishes. This means simply that if you get the little human details right—the way the characters act and react, for example—the reader will be willing to suspend disbelief in just about anything else you care to tell them.

Exercise: Rewrite the Wretched Demon scene so that the reactions of the characters match the seriousness of the threat. You can change the threat or the reaction—the choice is yours.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur # 11: Bad Attitude — 4 Comments

  1. ‘Riyoko’s in trouble, Yuki!’ Toyoshi’s voice sounded breathless over the phone. It was if she’d just run a marathon.
    Yuki pinched out the flame on her black candle, sighed and shook her head as she replied, ‘Ok, what’s she done now?’
    She heard her friend take a deep gulp of air and then the hurried reply; ‘She’s-only-been-casting-spells-at-midnight-in-an-attempt-to-call-forth-a-Wretched-Demon – ’ Toyoshi paused for a moment and Yuki imagined her looking frantically at her watch, ‘- And its 11.30! She’ll probably cast another spell in about half an hour!’
    ‘Whoa whoa whoa, Toyoshi! You’re going to burst a blood vessel! Calm down!’ Yuki replied calmly in an attempt to restore a little sanity into the conversation. ‘So what? You know what Riyoko’s like. It takes her forever to summon a taxi and you expect her to conjure up a Wretched Demon?’
    Toyoshi’s voice broke and Yuki couldn’t help but shiver when her friend replied, ‘You know as well as I do that if you try a spell enough times even an idiot like Riyoko will probably succeed. It’s like the roll of the dice, you’ll throw every combination under the sun… and then one day it’ll be all three sixes. She’s thrown them, the incantation’s working. One more spell tonight and her soul will be subsumed by the demon…’
    Yuki felt a cold sweat break out on her brow, ‘We’re not going to be able to leave this one ‘til the morning like we usually do.’
    ‘If she’s successful there won’t be a morning for Riyoko…’ Sobbed Toyoshi.
    ‘If she’s successful there won’t be a morning for any of us. We’re her coven sisters, the demon will come for us next…’ Yuki replied, her calmness spiralling away like the last wisps of smoke from her spent candle.

  2. A raucous round of applause and cheering!

    You got it. This was exactly the way I wanted to see the scene play out when I stumbled across it in the course of “adapting” this work for an American audience. I could just see readers thinking, “Huh? Let’s get a good night’s sleep? We’re talking DEMONS, kids!”

    In the case of this writer, I think he got caught up in the “art” of the art of writing and didn’t think seriously about the human reality of his characters. He didn’t plot.

    I like the way you added detail to the scene as well. You’re very good at telling the reader a lot with a very few words. This is a wonderful study in the art of layering information. Paragraph #2 is great. Merely saying that Yuki snuffed a black candle tells us that she’s a practicing witch. You didn’t have to say “Yuki was a practicing witch.”

    By the end of the segment (a whole 7 paragraphs!), look at what we know: The girls are all witches of the same coven, Riyoko is a bumbler who’s summoned a demon that could take down the whole group, Riyoko is in dire peril, these two characters will soon be hatching a desperate plan.

    Pretty darn good for 7 paragraphs without a single info-dump. Beautifully done.

    One small cautionary note: be careful not to overload with dialogue tags. Every line of dialogue has one (or more) and it’s not necessary. In fact, it can slow down the pace of the prose. The one that stood out the most for me and that I’d definitely axe was: Yuki replied calmly in an attempt to restore a little sanity into the conversation.

    Let the frantic rhythm of the dialogue carry itself and the reader swiftly along toward the dire conclusion…

  3. Thanks Maya, it’s heartening to get feedback and advice on my writing and I appreciate it.
    I agree with your picking up on my dialogue tags, (that’s trying too hard to set the scene).
    The one you pointed out especially, as I spotted an almost duplication of a word and I try hard not to do that. It’s ‘Calm down!’ Yuki replied calmly’ just something I missed when proofing. I read it aloud later and noticed it.
    Looking forward to your next piece,