The hard way every time

Hello, readers —

For those of you just tuning in, I have been writing a lot lately about mega-problems in writing, the kind of troubles that only become apparent when a manuscript is read front to back. It’s not entirely coincidental that I have been bringing up these seldom-discussed topics in the weeks leading up to the deadline for PNWA literary contest entries: while many aspiring writers develop strong enough self-editing skills to rid their entries of micro-problems — grammatical errors, clarity snafus, and other gaffes on the sentence and paragraph level — when they’re skidding toward a deadline, they often do not make time to catch the mega-problems.

Let’s all chant the mantra together: Before you send it in, read it OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY.

Okay, it has too many syllables to be a proper mantra. Chant it anyway, so you don’t forget the night before the deadline. Although, if you want to leave time to fix mega-problems, waiting until the night before the entry needs to be postmarked probably isn’t prudent.

Before that last read-through, however, I hope you will take time now to consider whether your manuscript has any mega-problems. Any one of them can be enough to knock you out of finalist consideration in a contest or turn an enthusiastic “Yes — send us the first 50 pages!” into “Your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.”

So let’s roll up our sleeves and weed ’em out.

Today’s mega-problem is the Short Road Home, and it comes in two flavors, full-bodied and subtle. Today, I shall focus on the full-bodied version.

The Short Road Home is when a problem in a plot is solved too easily for either its continuance or its resolution to provide significant dramatic tension. In its full-bodied form, characters may worry about a problem for a hundred pages — and then resolve it in three. A character conflict seems insurmountable —and then it turns out that all one character needed to do all along was admit that he was wrong, and everything is fine. A decade-old mystery is solved by the first outsider who walks into town and asks a few questions.

Ta da! Crisis resolved.

The fine film critic Roger Ebert calls films with such easily-resolved conflicts Idiot Plots: if the fundamental problem of a story could have been solved if just one character had asked just one obvious question early in the plot (“Wait — HOW will our wandering unarmed into the murder’s lair lay a trap for him?”), it’s an Idiot Plot. Sitcom episodes very, very frequently have Idiot Plots, presumably so any given issue can be resolved within 22 minutes.

Bear in mind that a story does not have to be inherently stupid to feature an Idiot Plot — or a Short Road Home, for that matter. Remember in TOM JONES, where the heroine spends half the book angry with Tom because she heard a single rumor that he had spoken of her freely in public — and so, although she has braved considerable dangers to follow him on his journey, she stomps off without bothering to ask him if the rumor were true?

Generally speaking, Idiot Plots are light on character development, but Short Roads Home tend to be a matter of the author’s not dealing with actions necessary to resolve a conflict and/or the action’s messy and page-consuming results. They are shortcuts.

“Wait a darned minute,” I can hear some of you say, “The very fact that Mssr. Ebert has a pet name for it means that Idiot Plots are widely accepted in the moviemaking industry. I have seen the Short Road Home used countless times in books. How can a trait knock my manuscript out of consideration when so many prominent authors do it routinely?”

True, you have probably seen the Short Road Home a million times in published books, and a million and twelve times in movies, so you may not have identified it as a manuscript problem. I would suggest that the main producers of Idiot Plots and Short Roads Home are NOT first-time screenwriters and novelists, though, but ones with an already-established track record. Generally speaking, the longer ago the writer broke in and/or the more successful he has been, the greater latitude he enjoys.

In other words, I know you’re better than that.

As good is not necessarily good enough. Writers who have already broken into the business can get away with many things that a brand-new writer cannot. There’s even an industry truism about it: to break into the business, a first book has to be significantly BETTER than what is already on the market.

Often, Short Roads Home are small shortcuts, rather than extensive plot detours, which renders them more difficult for the author to catch. I ran into such a Short Road Home just the other day in my writers group: one of my colleagues, a genuinely fine writer of many published books, showed us a chapter where her protagonist escapes from a choking situation by kneeing her attacker in the groin. The attacker slinks off almost immediately; conflict resolved.

Now, three aspects of this scene set off Short Road Home alarm bells for me. First, my self-defense teacher taught me that a man will instinctively move to protect what she liked to call “his delicates,” so it was not a good first-strike target when you were defending yourself. So why didn’t the chapter’s attacker automatically block the blow? Second, the attacker is able to walk out of the room right away, with no recovery time — which simple playground observation tells us is seldom true in these instances. Third, this scene ended a relationship that had been going on for two-thirds of the book; one swift jab, and both sides spontaneously agree to call it a day.

Now, to be absolutely honest, because my colleague is an established writer, she would probably be able to get this Short Road Home past her agent and editor if I hadn’t flagged it. However, it’s the kind of logical problem reviewers do tend to catch, even in the work of well-known writers — and thus, it should be avoided.

I brought up this example so you would have a vivid image in your mind the next time you are reading through your own manuscript or contest entry: if your villain doesn’t need recovery time after being kneed in the groin or the equivalent, perhaps you need to reexamine just how quickly you’re backing your protagonist out of the scene. One true test of a Short Road Home is if a reader is left wondering, “Gee, wouldn’t there have been consequences for what just happened? Wasn’t that resolved awfully easily?” If you are rushing your protagonist away from conflict — which, after all, is the stuff of dramatic writing — you might want to sit down and think about why.

Another good test: does the problem get solved by the FIRST effort the protagonist makes? If your heroine is seeking answers to a deep, dark secret buried in her past, does the very first person she asks in her hometown know the whole story — and tell her immediately? Or, still better, does each minor character volunteer his piece of her puzzle BEFORE she asks?

You think I’m kidding about that, don’t you?

It may surprise you to hear that editors (and presumably agents as well) see this kind of Short Road Home on an almost daily basis. All too often, mystery-solving protagonists come across as pretty lousy detectives, because evidence has to fall right into their laps, clearly labeled, before they recognize it. A simply astoundingly high percentage of novels feature seekers who apparently give off some sort of pheromone that causes:

a) People who are hiding tremendous secrets to blurt them out spontaneously;

b) Local historians (disguised as shop keepers, grandmothers, and other old folks) to appear as if by magic to fill the protagonist in on necessary backstory;

c) Crucial characters who have suffered in silence for years suddenly to feel the need to share their pain with total strangers, and

d) Diaries and photographs that have been scrupulously hidden for years, decades, or even centuries to leap out of their hiding places at precisely the right moment for the protagonist to find them.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for whether your story is taking the Short Road Home: at every revelation, ask yourself, “Why did that just happen?” If your answer is, “So the story could move from Point A to Point B,” and you can’t give any solid character-driven reason beyond that, then chances are close to 100% that you have a Short Road Home on your hands.

If you get stuck, try having your protagonist track down a false lead or two. Trial and error can be a great plotting device, as well as giving you room for character development.

Have you ever seen an old-fashioned Chinese action movie, something, say, from the beginning of Jackie Chan’s career? In such films, the hero is almost always beaten to a pulp by the villain in the first half of the film — often more or less simultaneously with the murderer’s gloating over having killed the hero’s father/mother/teacher/best friend. (In Western action films, the same array of emotions tends to be evoked by killing the hero’s beautiful wife, who not infrequently is clutching their adorable toddler at the time.) This establishes the motivation for the hero to acquire the skills, allies, and/or resources he needs in order to defeat the villain at the end of the film.

The point of the story is not to get your protagonist from the beginning to the end of the plot as fast as possible, but to take your readers through an enjoyable, twisted journey en route. Short Roads Home are the superhighways of the literary world: a byway might not get you there as fast, but I guarantee you, the scenery is going to be better.

Take your characters down the side roads every once in awhile. And keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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