On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Because the Writer Said So

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.”

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 in the reader’s mind from situations he’s created. (“Er, ah, Mr. Writer, sir, what about the burning car? And doesn’t Our Hero need a ride to the nearest ER?”)

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 consequence 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.)

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

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.


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—a guy who scratches his neck with the pointy end of his dagger.

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 obvious 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?



On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Because the Writer Said So — 3 Comments

  1. Reminds me of a historical romance where the hero has been in bed with a fever and blood loss for 2 weeks. He has to lean heavily on the heroine to get down the stairs his first day out of bed. By the end of the scene he carries the heroine back up the stairs to make mad passionate love to her in his bed. Very fast recovery and I hope someone has had time to change his sheets.