Yesterday, I talked about how issues of coherence and continuity can cost entries points in the Presentation category of your garden-variety literary contest. I know that for those of you entering the PNWA contest, whose deadline is in just a few days, may be surprised that I am including this advice so late in the game, but I have a tricky motive: between now and the deadline, you certainly have time to recruit an outside reader and check for flow, plausibility, etc., but you probably don’t have time to rewrite the whole thing.
In other words: if I had given you this advice a week earlier, it might have made you crazy. Or at least made you contemplate quitting your job in order to revise what you intend to submit. It’s better this way, really.
One great way to use this coming weekend (well, apart from pulling a synopsis together, as I am quite sure many, many of you are) would be to give your fiction entry a thorough scan for any element that might catch the judges’ eyes as incongruous within an otherwise smooth manuscript: plausibility problems, logical leaps, unnecessary dialogue.
Be particularly aware that sometimes, what would work as a device in an entire book — phrase repetition, for instance — is significantly harder to pull off in a contest entry, due to the page limit.
Take, for example, that shopworn advice about leading your protagonist through the steps of a Jungian hero’s journey. 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, there has been an entire ilk of advice-givers on the writers’ conference circuit advocating it as well. It goes like this: 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, per se, although it has gotten a bit common for my taste. Also, it 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.
See the problem in a contest entry? It lends itself to a first chapter heavy on background and light on action. That can work in a book as a whole, but when that first chapter is 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.
You should also scan your submission for clichés of every kind, including those plot twists that any relatively regular viewer of TV or movies might see coming. Why should you be careful about including these? Because if you are entering in a fiction category, chances are VERY good that you will not be the only one to use these tricks — which is automatically going to cost you some originality and freshness points.
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 for a particular character’s action: in a cliché, the motivation is just assumed. Movies and TV have warped our sense of the utility of plausible motivation: why did the hooker have a heart of gold/the older cop with the new partner act bitter/the pretty high school girl ignore the boy of her dreams in order to date the captain of the football team with the nice car? Apparently, purely because there was a camera nearby; as viewers, we are given little other justification.
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 minutes after they first slouch into sight, yet we’re evidently willing to believe that characters in films will. You may laugh at the idea of putting this in a book, but this scenario is essentially what happens in SIDEWAYS — which, I’m told, began life as a book: 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?
And if you’re not, don’t tell me; I want to preserve my cherished illusions of you.
So do the judges of literary contests; they’re hoping that you will resist the siren songs of cliché and unmotivated action with all of your might. In print and to professional eyes, unmotivated action comes across as literary laziness. Scads of points lost this way.
Why? Well, since I’m quite sure that no contest entrant has time to read a new book between now and the contest deadline, I’m going to have to resort to a film example to show you how unmotivated action might scuttle a story. The film is 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, but never mind) 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 film opens with approximately two minutes of silence (I didn’t realize at first that I should be clocking it, so pardon my imprecision), presumably to let the viewer know that this was going to be Art with a capital A.
I could go on and on, but for our purposes here, all you really know is that it was clearly intended to be a slice o’life, a goal to which many contest entries aspire. So try to picture this story as if it were an ultra-literary short story or novel excerpt entered in a contest. See if you can spot the problems:
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. As one does. 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 ONLY bed pillow possessed by a man who obviously thinks laundering linens is for sissies.
After some non-laundry-related incident early in the story causes him to discover the letter, he does not open it. Ostensibly, 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). So 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?
Now, while watching a film, most viewers tend to suspend their disbelief as Aristotle says they should, but we writers (as contest judges often are) are made of sterner stuff. So, as you might expect, 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, stuff it in an envelope, seal it, AND conceal it? 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.
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 happen to share the screenwriter’s evident passion for wrinkled linen); 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.
But the contest deadline is in just a few days: you don’t have time for that. So take my advice: scan your entry for this kind of problems yourself. Oh, and after you seal the envelope with your entry in it, don’t stick it under your sleeping husband’s pillow. Mail it instead.
After those last sterling pieces of counsel, any further advice seems superfluous. Keep up the good work!