Scoring Criteria, Part X: Scoring Criteria, Part X: Continuity, Coherence, and the Big Surprise

Hello, readers –

Today, I think, will be the last installment of my series on what contest judges use as evaluation criteria; I want to move on to my long-promised tutorial on how to write an author bio. Like so much else, constructing an author bio is a skill that every writer is expected to have in her tool bag, regardless of what else she writes. I don’t want you to get blindsided by this routine request down the line, so I’ll show you how to write one.

Yesterday, I talked about how issues of coherence and continuity can cost entries points in the Presentation category, including a spirited complaint about how movies and television prompt us not to explain motivations and to perpetuate clichés. I pointed out how the good writer should be wary of the unanswered question the story may raise for the reader, particularly if it is a rather obvious one. I implied, and none too gently, that watching low-quality screenwriting in action has led many writers to be lazy on these points.

It serves me right, therefore, to have seen a very good movie last night that prompted a very, very big unanswered question. Screenwriters everywhere have my apologies: maybe it has something to do with the medium. Thank you very much for providing me with such a marvelous example of how unanswered questions can vitiate even the best-crafted story.

The film was LOVE LIZA, with the generally excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman (of CAPOTE fame; I still haven’t recovered from THAT screenplay’s changing the identity of the murderer from the one who committed the bulk of the mayhem in the book IN COLD BLOOD) and the dependably wonderful Kathy Bates. As the movie makes clear over and over, the title refers to the closing of a letter — so if you’re wondering why the title is missing the grammatically necessary comma in the middle, you’re in good company.

Maybe it’s a command.

The approximately two-minute silence that opens the film (I didn’t realize at first that I should be clocking it, so pardon my imprecision) let the viewer know that this was going to be Art with a capital A, so I settled in for a good, old-fashioned depressing film about the human experience. And boy, did I get it: the protagonist (Hoffman), who has just lost his wife to suicide, takes up sniffing gasoline and related petroleum products with a vim that most people reserve for the first course of Thanksgiving dinner. So engaged is he in mourning-though-inhalants that he cannot manage to open the suicide note his wife left for him, cleverly hidden under the pillow of a man who obviously thinks laundering sheets is for sissies. Because he’s afraid that the letter will blame him in some way that he cannot imagine (it’s hard to imagine much with a gasoline-soaked rag clutched to your face, I would guess), he carries the note with him everywhere he goes for most of the film — and believe me, he gets around.

Okay, a quick quiz for all of you novelists out there: what’s going to happen in the final scene? What, in fact, did we know was going to happen in the final scene as soon as he did not open the letter the first time it appeared?

But as I say, this was a good film, so I was willing to waive objections on this point. However, the moment he slit the envelope open, my writer’s mind went haywire. Why, I asked myself, would a woman bent upon doing herself in within the next minute or two have bothered to fold up the note and stuff it in an envelope? She and her husband lived alone; he was equally likely to be the first to see it if she had left it unfolded on the kitchen counter as hidden under a pillow in an envelope.

Those of you who read yesterday’s post already know the answer, don’t you? BECAUSE THE PLOT REQUIRED IT, that’s why — how could the protagonist tote around the Visible Symbol of His Loss for an hour and a half UNLESS it was in a sealed envelope? Evidently, the late lamented Liza was considerate enough to have read the script before doing herself in.

Thus was yet another good story well presented scuttled by the unanswered question. Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid motivation; stories are invariably improved by ferreting out the answers before showing the work to an audience.

In this case, for instance, if someone — say, the unbiased reader I always recommend you show your work before loosing it upon the world — had asked the screenwriter the unanswered question, a genuinely touching scene could have been added to the movie: the letter is sitting on the kitchen counter (or under the unwashed pillowcase still, if you prefer); the protagonist takes those full two minutes at the top of the movie to become aware enough of his environment to find it, and when he does, the prospect of being blamed terrifies him so much that he uses kitchen tongs to stuff it into a Manila envelope, unread. Then HE could seal it, thus giving further resonance to his inevitable decision to unseal it in the final scene.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a demonstration of what a good editor can do for your story. Or a good writing group, or indeed any truly talented first reader. Not only can outside eyes alert you to problems you might not otherwise catch; they can help suggest specific ways to make your book better.

Okay, time to move on from unanswered questions. Often, writers fail to provide information necessary to understanding a situation until after it has occurred, resulting in many lost points in contest scoring and rending of readers’ garments. One of the most common of lapses is the post-explained joke, a surprise or one-liner that is only funny if the reader knows certain information in advance — but the reader is not given that information in advance. There are vast graveyards of jokes that died hideous and protracted deaths because their authors did not set them up properly — and then sought to save the situation by adding a line or a paragraph of explanation afterward.

I don’t quite get this — does the author intend that the joke will be funny the SECOND time someone reads the book? Or is it in response to some kind reader having pointed out that the joke sans explanation was not at all funny? Or — and a creeping sensation up my spine tells me that this is the most plausible explanation of all — has the author just read over that particular scene so many times that the time-space continuum in which a reader would experience it has dissolved as a consideration?

However it may be, it’s a sure way to lose points in the Presentation category.

Jokes, alas, are not the only writing phenomena where the set-up tends to come after the fact. I tremble to tell you this, but often, big surprises pop up in entries without any prior indication that (a) this is not the outcome the characters were expecting, (b) this was not the logical outcome of events thus far, and/or (c) how such a turn of events might affect other people or events in the book.

”But it’s a SURPRISE,” writers will often whine when people like me (kindly souls devoted to improving the art form) gently suggest that perhaps a skillful writer might want to reveal some inkling of (a), (b), or (c) in advance, so the reader’s sense of the import of the moment will be greater. “I don’t want to give the whole thing away.”

Obviously, a writer who says this is not thinking of doing as my ilk and I advise, introducing the relevant information in a subtle manner, perhaps even piecemeal, in the pages prior to the big revelation. I say obviously, because if she were thinking of being subtle about it at all, the surprise would not be spoilt. No, she is thinking of what I like to call “a lazy man’s edit,” just lifting the explanation she’s already written and plopping it down earlier in the text, as is.

It never fails to astonish me just how far some writers will go to avoid real, in-depth revision. They fall so deeply in love with their own sentences that the very idea of cutting some of them and revising others seems like sacrilege.

That’s fine, if it makes them happy to approach their work that way, but it is an attitude that judges, agents, and editors can spot a mile away. They can sense it in a manuscript, pouncing on it like a drug-sniffing dog zeroing in on trace amounts of heroin. “Whoa,” they say, quickly pushing the manuscript aside. “This is an author who would be difficult to work with.”

I’m not saying that all writers who give after-explanations are impervious to input, of course, but it is a fairly common conclusion for professional readers to draw. This is why it is so important to avoid making this mistake in a contest entry: it doesn’t come across as a simple editing problem, but as a matter of authorial choice. For some reason of his own, they conclude, the author chose to minimize this joke or that dramatic moment. Go figure.

Why would they leap to such an extreme (and writer-hostile) conclusion, you ask? Come closer, and I’ll tell you a little secret: many, if not most, judges, agents, and editors assume that by the time they see a piece of writing, it HAS received feedback from other people.

Clearly, then, if such a glaring continuity problem as after-explanation was not corrected, one of two things must have happened: either the author got bad feedback (in which case the manuscript should be rejected until such time as the author learns to get better at her craft) or the author got good feedback and ignored it (in which case the author is difficult). Either way, they’re not rushing to embrace the author who does it.

So, for your contest entries, if it is comically or dramatically necessary for the reader to have some piece of information in order to be able to have a spontaneous reaction to a given line, make sure that the reader has the information first.

Well, I guess I shall have to push off my treatise on crafting the author bio until next week, because I find that I have a lot more to say about continuity and coherence in contest entries. Not to mention the fact that I seem not to have gotten to the promised topic of humor in entries at all. Here is one distinct advantage the blogger has over the contest entrant: what the entrant promises in the synopsis, she must deliver in the chapter, at least in part.

As a blogger, though, I can merely retreat to the tried-and-true methodology of the old serials: tune in tomorrow to find out how the story ends. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to Bob and all of the others out there who have tried without success to find links to my October, November, and December archived postings: no, there is not a link to them yet; they disappeared into the ether when the website switched servers. More news as it develops. But if I can’t figure out how to remedy the problem soon, as a personal favor to you, Bob, for bringing it to my attention, I’ll post the piece on Point of View Nazis again.

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