Weren’t expecting THAT plot twist, were you? Frankly, neither was I.
So before any of you start e-mailing me frantically to tell me about it: I’m aware that all 151 categories have vanished from the category list at right — and, believe me, no one could be more appalled at the prospect of losing them than I am. I shudder to think how long it would take to re-code all of those thousands of archived pages. Or to search them all for a relevant topic, for that matter.
Okay, let’s all take a few nice, deep breaths. Nothing to panic about here. It’s not as though the archives themselves have disappeared…
But if everyone reading this would please clap his or her hands (you know, the way you did as a kid to bring Tinkerbell back to life) and chant, “This is a simple problem to fix. This is a simple problem to fix,” until the category lists reappear, I would certainly appreciate it.
Let’s get back to the topic at hand, before I start picturing other parts of the blog vanishing as well.
Over the weekend, I brought up a manuscript mega-problem — i.e., a writing problem that is difficult to catch unless you sit down and read the work straight through, as a reader would, rather than on a computer screen, as most writers do — that I like to call the Short Road Home, a too-quick resolution of a major problem in the plot. For the sake of discussion, I brewed it for you in its full-bodied version, where it directly affects the plot in a notable way: “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s fallen into the well?”
Today, I am going to deal with the subtle flavor of Short Road Home, scenes where character development or conflict is curtailed by too-quick analysis. Like the full-bodied version, this mega-problem is not limited to works of fiction, but runs rampant through narrative nonfiction and memoir as well.
I see it in my freelance editing practice all the time, and literally every time I have been a judge in a literary contest, I have seen otherwise excellent manuscripts infected with it — and, inevitably, penalized for it.
(Not that the other judges would have called it that when they saw it. Just so you know, the names I tend to bestow upon manuscript mega-problems — and the terms mega-problem and micro-problem themselves — are of my own making. So if you use them with an agent or editor, be prepared to be rewarded with a blank look. You’ll get used to it.)
The subtle flavor of the Short Road Home is easy for the author to overlook, particularly in a first novel. First-time novelists tend to be so pleased when they develop the skill to pin down an emotional moment with precision that they go wild with it for a little while.
Those of you who have done time in critique groups and writing classes are familiar with the phenomenon, right? The instant a solidly conflictual moment peeps its poor little head above ground, these eager beavers stop the plot cold to devote themselves to analyzing it, often for pages on end. If a nuance tries to escape unpinned-down, perhaps in order to grace a later scene, the narrative leaps upon it like a vicious wildcat, worrying it to bits.
Frequently, this analysis takes the form of what could be an interestingly subtle conversational conflict’s being presented as provocation + protagonist’s mulling over the provocation without responding overtly at all. Rhetorical questions are just dandy for this. It tends to run a little something like this:
“No more cake for me,” Moira said with a sigh. “I’m stuffed.”
“Oh, have some more, Moira,” Cheyenne wheedled. “You could use to pack on a few pounds.”
Moira’s hand froze in mid-air, crumb-bedusted dessert plate trembling aloft. What did Cheyenne mean by that? Was he just being polite — or was this a backhanded way of reminding her that she was supposed to be on a perpetual diet, with the Miss America pageant only three months away? Or was he afraid that if the guests didn’t consume every last morsel, he would revert to his habits from before, from those torrid days at the emergency reduction boot camp where they’d met, and snort up all of the remaining calories like a Hoover? She had to smile at the thought: he had been adorable chubby. But that’s not the kind of person who should be seen on a beauty queen’s arm.
She decided to change the subject, as well as her conversational partner. “So, Barbara, how are you enjoying wombat farming?”
See what the narrative has done here? The long internal monologue provides both backstory and character development, but it has also deprived the reader of what could have been a meaningful exchange between Moira and Cheyenne. Instead of allowing the reader to derive impressions of their attitudes toward each other through action and dialogue, the narrative simply summarizes the facts.
Why is this a problem? Well, when situations and motivations are over-explained, the reader does not have to do any thinking; it’s like a murder mystery where the murderer is identified and we are told how he will be caught on page one. Where’s the suspense? Why keep turning pages?
To depress the tension of the scene even further, once the logical possibilities for Cheyenne’s motivation have been disposed of in this silent, non-confrontational manner, the scene proceeds as if no conflict had ever reared its ugly head.
The subtle Short Road Home is, as we’ve just seen, far more conducive to telling than showing — and after Millicent has thought, “Show, don’t tell!” once, she’s probably not going to cut the submission any further slack.
Most aspiring writers tend to forget this, but professional readers do not, as a rule, devour an entire chapter, or even an entire page, before making up their minds about whether they think the submission is marketable. They read line by line, extrapolating patterns.
How might this affect a submission in practice? Let’s say Millicent has in her hot little hands the first 50 pages of a manuscript. She reads to the end of page 1 and stops, because a subtle Short Road Home has already appeared. Because this is her first contact with the writer’s work, she left to speculate whether this is a writing habit, or a one-time fluke. Depending upon which way she decides, she may choose to take a chance that it is a one-time gaffe and keep reading — or, and this is by far the more popular choice, she may pass with thanks.
Generally, she will conclude that this is a recurring writing problem, and score the piece accordingly. She labels the writer as promising, but needing a more experience in moving the plot along.
Subtle Short Roads Home often trigger the feedback, “Show — don’t tell!” But frankly, I think that admonition does not give the writer enough guidance. There are a lot of ways that a writer could be telling the reader what is going on; a subtle Slow Road Home is only one of many, and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an aspiring writer to guess which rule she has transgressed.
But then, as I believe I have pointed out before, I don’t rule the universe. If I did, though, every writer who was told “Show — don’t tell!” would also receive specific feedback on where and how. In addition, I would provide them with three weeks of paid holiday every six months just for writing (child care provided gratis, of course), a pet monkey, a freezer full of ice cream, and a leather-bound set of the writings of Madame de Staël.
Because, frankly, subtle Short Roads Home bug me, as anyone who has ever been in a writers’ group with me can tell you. I feel that they should be stopped in our lifetime, by federal statute, if necessary.
For me, seeing a subtle Short Road Home stop the flow of a wonderful story reminds me of the fate of the migratory birds that used to visit my house when I was a child. Each spring, lovely, swooping swallows would return to their permanent nests, firmly affixed under the eaves of my house, invariably arriving four days after their much-publicized return to Mission San Juan Capistrano, much farther south. For me, it was an annual festival, watching the happy birds frolic over the vineyard, evidently delighted to be home.
Then, one dark year, the nasty little boy who lived half a mile from us took a great big stick and knocked their nests down. The swallows never returned again.
Little Georgie had disrupted their narrative, you see. Once an overly-enthusiastic in-text analysis has laid the underlying emotional rubric of a relationship completely bare, the rhythm of a story generally has a hard time recovering momentum. When a text over-analyzes, the reader is left with nothing to do.
Readers of good writing don’t want to be passive; they want to get emotionally involved with the characters, so they can inhabit, for a time, the world of the book. They want to care about the characters — to keep turning page after page, to find out what happens to them.
Essentially, subtle Short Roads Home are about not trusting the reader to draw the right conclusions about a scene, a character, or a plot twist. They’re about being afraid that the reader might stop liking a character who has ugly thoughts, or who seems not to be handling a situation well. They’re about, I think, a writer’s being afraid that he may not have presented his story well enough to prove the point of his book.
And, sometimes, they’re just about following the lead of television and movies, which show us over and over emotions analyzed to the nth degree. We’ve gotten accustomed to being told immediately why any given character has acted in a particular manner.
The various LAW & ORDER franchises excel at this, particularly L&O SVU: in practically every episode, one of the police officers will, in the interests of drama and character development, lose an apparently tenuous grasp on his or her emotions/underlying hostility/grasp of constitutional law and police procedure and let loose upon a suspect.
Or a witness. Or a coworker. The point is, they yell at somebody.
Then, practically the nanosecond after the heat of emotion has passed, another member of the squad will turn up to explain why the character blew up. Helpfully, they often direct this explanation TO the person who has just finished bellowing.
Whew — just when the audience member thought s/he might have to draw a conclusion based upon what s/he had seen occur.
Or — and this one’s my personal favorite — one of the police officers (or forensic pathologist, or administrator, or someone else entitled to a series of close-ups of an anguished face) does or says something well-intentioned at the beginning of the episode that triggers (however indirectly) someone else to do something stupid. An actual example: “If I hadn’t bought my nephew that computer, he would never have met that online predator!”
The character in question exhibits his remorse, naturally, by repeating this sentiment at crucial points throughout the episode, looking tortured. Then he bends some pesky police regulation/federal statute/commandment because (and in the interests of brevity, I’m going to cut to the essentials of the argument here) the ends of catching THAT CREEP justify the means.
Cue recap of feeling guilty — often punctuated by a co-worker’s patient explanation that capturing the creep du jour didn’t REALLY change the underlying emotional situation, raise the dead, get the nephew un-molested, etc. — and leave those emotional threads hanging for next week’s episode. Wash, rise, repeat.
What identifies this kind of plot as a Short Road Home is not so much that the villain is pretty much always caught and convicted, but that complex human emotions that talented actors would surely be delighted to play are simply summarized in the plot.
Or, to put it as an editor might, the turmoil is told, rather than shown. But, to be fair, TV and movie scripts are technically limited to the sensations of sight and sound: they cannot tell their stories any other way.
A novelist, on the other hand, can draw upon the full range of sensations — and show thoughts. A book writer who restricts herself to using only the tools of TV and movies is like a pianist who insists upon playing only the black keys.
Live a little. You have a lot of ways to show character development and motivation; use them.
Consider your manuscript for a moment: does it contain scenes where, instead of interaction between characters showing the reader what the conflicts are and how the protagonist works through them, the protagonist sits around (often in a car) and thinks through the problem to its logical conclusion?
Or sits around drinking coffee with her friends while THEY come up with analysis and solution?
Or — and this one often surprises writers when I bring it up — sits around with her therapist, dissecting the problem and coming up with a solution?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, sit down right away and read your book straight through. Afterward, consider: would the plot have suffered tremendously if those scenes were omitted entirely? Are there other ways you could convey the same points, through action rather than thought or discussion?
Just a little food for thought. (“And just what does she mean by that?” Moira worried, gnawing her fingernails down to the elbow.)
Next time, I shall load you with practical examples of subtle Short Roads Home, and discuss how to work with them. In the meantime, keep up the good work!