Scoring Criteria, Part IX: Coherence and Continuity

Hello, readers —

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the role that tone can play in a Presentation category score. In reading it over, I realized that I might have been a trifle harsh on contest judges. I’m sure that there are many who don’t transmogrify into fire-breathing dragons after intensive screening of entries. Many do, however, and my underlying point is that as a contest entrant, you can never be sure which will end up judging your manuscript. Best to be on the safe side.

As they tell children in England, manners cost nothing.

The Presentation category is also where questions of continuity and coherence are rated. Continuity covers two major issues, consistency (on all levels, from tone to what the protagonist’s sister is called by intimates) and flow. Does the argument unfold in the manner it should, or does it stop cold from time to time? Here again, a pair of outside eyes screening your entry for continuity problems can be extremely helpful.

Coherence is an easy one to double-check before submitting an entry: just have a third party who knows nothing about the story you are telling read through the entry. Then have this generous friend tell the story back to you. If any of the essentials come back to you garbled (or worse, missing), there are probably some coherence problems.

95% of the time, coherence issues stem from the enthusiasm of the writer. The writer so longs to convey the story or the argument to the reader that he rushes on, willy-nilly, all caught up in the momentum of communication. Tight pacing is great, but all too often, explanation — and yes, even meaning — can fall along the wayside. Judges feel bad subtracting points from such entries, because the writer’s passion for the material comes through so clearly, but subtract they must.

Pieces stuffed with jargon almost invariably end up with low Presentation scores. Here, the writer walks a fine line: yes, it is wonderful when you can present people in a field as they really talk, but as the author, it’s your job to make sure they are comprehensible to the lay reader. If not, the reader has to spend additional time on each jargon-ridden sentence, trying to figure out from context what those bizarre phrases could possibly mean. Within the context of a contest entry, every extra second spent in translation will be costly to your Presentation score.

Define your terms. Provide subtitles, if you must. Think about it: Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would have been well-nigh incomprehensible without the glossary in the back, wouldn’t it?

And please don’t make the mistake of thinking that using lots of jargon makes the book come across as smarter. Judges — yes, and most agents and editors, too — are generally quite aware that it is significantly harder to describe a complex process in simple terms than in obscure ones. The appeal of Stephen Hawking’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME was not merely the platform of the writer, which is undoubtedly impressive, but the fact that he was able to describe theoretical physics in layman’s language.

In a nonfiction piece, you need to make sure that every plank of your argument is sound and comprehensible to someone who knows NOTHING about your subject matter. Literally nothing, as in perhaps never even suspected that such a topic might exist. This assumption may seem like an invitation to talk down to the reader, but actually, it’s just realistic. While you may be writing for a target market crammed to the brim with specialists in your area (or people who think they are, always a prime market for books), a new writer can NEVER assume preexisting expertise on the part of a judge, agent, or editor.

This is true, amazingly enough, even if you are writing on a subject that has already been well-traveled in the popular press. You may be writing about the single most common social phenomenon in the country, but that does not mean that NYC-based publishing types will have heard of it. Publishing is a rarefied world, in a sense quite provincial, insofar as its denizens tend to be very much absorbed in their own culture, often to the exclusion of others. It’s a complex and extraordinarily diverse culture, yes, but still, an inward-looking one.

If statistics would be helpful to conveying how large the market for your book is, or how common a phenomenon is, go ahead and include them in the synopsis. Trust me on this one — I’ve seen books about conditions that affect 20% of the population of the United States dismissed by publishing professionals as appealing to only a tiny niche market.

Coherence problems are not always a matter of unduly presuming familiarity with the subject matter and not explaining enough, however. Unanswered questions can cause coherence difficulties as well, particularly if those questions arise fairly naturally from the action of the piece: why, for instance, does a character in a horror story wander, alone and unarmed, into a house she knows to be haunted? Why didn’t the family in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR just invoke the state’s lemon law and cancel its contract to buy the house? And why oh why doesn’t the local bored housewife in a thriller take up crochet or gardening, instead of lusting after the town’s newest stubble-encrusted drifter?

Remember, “because the plot requires it” is never a valid answer. Give the reader some sense of your characters’ motivations.

Yes, I know — in a contest, where you might be allowed to show only a single chapter of a 400-page novel, you may not have room to establish motivations for every major character. You can in the synopsis, though, and you certainly can show off your ability to convey motivation in the actions the protagonist takes in that first chapter. Don’t underestimate how much handling small events well will demonstrate your acumen in handling the bigger ones later on in the book.

A quick aside about entering the first chapter of a novel in a contest: this is an arena where following that shopworn advice about taking your protagonist through the steps of a Jungian hero’s journey can really cost you.

You’ve heard of this plotting device, right? Screenwriters have inundated us with it since the success of the original STAR WARS; in recent years, many advice-givers on the writers’ conference circuit have been advocating it as well. The hero starts out in his (almost never her), normal life, hears the call of a challenge, gets drawn into a challenge, meets friends and advisors along the way… and so forth, for three distinct acts. It’s not a bad structure, although it has gotten a bit common for my taste.

The problem is, this structure more or less requires that the opening of the book (or, more commonly, movie) open with the protagonist’s mundane life, before the excitement of the drama begins. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that — but it does tend to lead to a first chapter heavy on background and light on action. And the problem with THAT in a contest is that the first chapter is usually all the judges see.

I’ve written about this before, and recently, so I won’t expend energy now retracing the many, many reasons to start your contest entries and agency submissions with a bang. Suffice it to say that in this instance, sticking too rigidly to a predetermined structural formula may leave you with little action for which to provide motivation.

Okay, back to unmotivated actions. As you may see from the examples above, the problem of unexplained motivation is another area where I think many writers — and readers, too — have had their senses of proportion semi-permanently twisted by television and movies, so much so that they sometimes forget that characters NEED motivations in order to take action.

One of the surest signs that a story has fallen into a cliché is when the story gives the impression that there is no need to provide a motivation: in a cliché, the motivation is just assumed. Few of us actually have a thing for real-life drifters, for instance, at least not so much that we instantly fling ourselves into torrid affairs with them a few days after they first slouch into sight, yet we’re evidently willing to believe that characters in film will.

And not just in film noir, either: this scenario described is essentially what happens in SIDEWAYS. These two wine-tasters drifted into town, and the local bored women took up with them without knowing anything, really, about their backgrounds… having grown up in California wine country, I can assure you that the fine folks who pour sips at the local wineries are not prone to flinging themselves at every drifter who asks for a refill. Unless a lot has changed since I left town.

The constant barrage of this kind of story has indelibly stained most people’s sense of the plausible, but you’re better than that, aren’t you? You’re not going to be seduced by this charming willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief into believing that they don’t need to establish realistic motivations for your characters, will you?

The judges of literary contests are hoping that you will resist the siren songs of cliché and unmotivated action with all of your might. To put it another way, in print and to professional eyes, unmotivated action comes across as literary laziness. Scads of points lost this way.

Plausibility is a coherence problem, at base; memoirs and fact-based novels are particularly susceptible to plausibility problems. Yet another writing truism: just because something really happened doesn’t necessarily mean it is plausible. It is the writer’s job to make it SEEM plausible.

Once, in college, my roommate and I managed to adopt a wandering Irish theatre company accidentally. A long story, and not a very plausible one: believe it or not, we just came home one day to find that the college officials had given the traveling thespians the keys to our dorm suite. Not very plausible, is it? Yet true. Being sensitive to issues of plausibility, I have never written about it, because it’s rather difficult to explain why we didn’t just throw them out — or why I suddenly felt compelled to cook Thanksgiving dinner (my first time as cook) for 16 total strangers. (As I recall, it had something to do with the fact that none of them had ever before experienced the bliss that is lemon meringue pie.)

To a contest judge, it doesn’t matter whether a depicted event really happened (can you hear James Frey breathing a sigh of relief?), but whether the author has made it feel real to the reader. If not, off with the Presentation points.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about one of the most effective Presentation point boosters in the writer’s tool bag: humor. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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