A Smooth Ride

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The Trouble of Consistency)

Plot-holes are potholes. They take what might have otherwise been a smooth and pleasant ride, and violently shake you out of the moment. The worst thing is that they can come up in a story that you were thoroughly enjoying, and want to keep on enjoying, but now that you’ve seen the glaring error you can’t unsee it. Plot-holes are very difficult to avoid though, and the more imaginative and fantastic your work of fiction is, the more likely that you’ve introduced systems and rules which collide with one another in unintended ways.

I discovered this first-hand with my short story: Revelate. This was a sci-fi/fantasy piece in a world of automata creating and destroying one another. There were four main characters, each of which I composed separately, and then tried to weave together in one overarching narrative. As if all that wasn’t enough, I designed the story to exist in one large cycle, the final scene literally concluding where the first one began, like one of those ancient epics that used the eternal rounds of the gods to try and explain the repeating seasons.

And, to make a long story short, it has plot-holes. I knew they were likely, I spent a great amount of time finding and ironing them out before publishing the piece…but a few weeks after I finally posted the story I still found one that remained. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more.

 

Tied in Knots)

In writing that story I found that my greatest source of inconsistencies came when I started bending the story to fit through a desired narrative beat. I imagine that this is the case for many other story-tellers as well.

You really want this particular confrontation to happen in a particular way, and you go to great lengths to make sure that it happens. But as you tug at the corners of your story to make them fit, you inadvertently tear the fabric somewhere else.

That tear might occur in a total plot-hole, or it might occur as a hand-wavy-don’t-think-too-much-about-it convenience. In either case, though, the tapestry is comprised in the name of narrative intrigue.

It’s an understandable failing, but here are two techniques that can help to avoid it.

 

Match Complexity to Scale)

A large reason why I struggled with plot-holes in Revelate was because it had a very small scope, with only a few characters and scenes, and yet in that small space was filled with many dense systems, with a lot of intersections between them all. The more a story is bursting at the seams with ideas, the more likely it is to have some incongruities between them.

I won’t name names, but I think we can all readily call to mind examples of this in popular media. A story exists first as a book, then is extended in the movie adaptation, gets a spin-off television series, and every remaining gap in its timeline is filled with comics. The result? A world that is so saturated with ideas that they are bound to contradict one another sooner or later. Many popular franchises start off coherent, but then began to buckle under their own weight further down the line.

An example of a story that chose a level complexity that matched its scale is that of the Disney animated classic The Sword in the Stone. This is a rich and magical story, where the viewer is regularly treated with fanciful delights. A particular favorite of mine is the bit where Merlin magicks all of the dishes to start cleaning themselves.

In all, I can think of seven magical segments, which might seem pretty dense for an eighty minute film, but none of these sequences ever contradict each other. The secret to this is that actually there though there are seven magical sequences, there are actually only two or three unique ideas that are then cleverly dressed up in different ways.

Merlin and Arthur turn into squirrels, fish, and birds. There is also the transfiguration battle Merlin has with Madam Mim. Each of these encounters repeat the same basic rules established with the first. Each feels distinct because the story is at a different place in each, but the mechanics are exactly the same. Similarly, the inanimate objects that come to life in Merlin’s home follow the very same procedure as the inanimate dishes that begin cleaning themselves later in the story.

Thus the writer’s cleverly limited themselves to very few systems, and kept the world into a manageable state.

 

World First, Narrative Second)

The other solution to managing a convoluted tale is to flip the script that normally gets writers into trouble: i.e. coming up with the story beats first, and then twisting the world to fit it. Instead, spend your time developing the world and its systems first, keeping all in perfect harmony with one another until the sandbox is complete. Then, and only then, ask yourself what sort of story could be told within these confines, and vow to never break the systems to make a narrative point. If your world is interesting and complex enough, then it should be able to support any number of different stories within it.

Isaac Asimov seemed understood this trick well enough to admit when he had not adhered to it in his “robot series.” Of those stories he said that they “offer a kind of history of the future, which is, perhaps, not completely consistent, since I did not plan consistency to begin with.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, on the other hand, spent years developing the world of Middle Earth, its cultures and languages, its factions and wars, before he ever penned the work that would become Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire volume everything remains remarkably consistent because of his world-first approach.

 

In my new story, Raise the Black Sun, I am endeavoring to adhere to both of these principles at the same time. I intend to show quite a number of new and interesting mechanics over the course of the story, and so I am setting it a world that is extremely vast and expansive, to ensure that the complexity will not overrun the story’s scale. A new idea might be used once, and then the story will rush so far away that there is never an opportunity for that mechanic to intersect with the next. By not trying to fill in every hole I don’t have to deal with the problem of two pieces not fitting together.

At the same time, I decided to take a world-first approach to developing this story. The entire idea for Raise the Black Sun was to just spit-ball about all sorts of crazy fantasy ideas that shared a similar vibe. There was no plot, no arc, no character whatsoever. Only after I had a clear idea of what sort of world and systems I wanted, and only after I had ensured there were no contradictions among them, then I considered what a short story in that place might look like.

Come back on Thursday, where we will see a few of the novelties I have planned for my story. Pay careful attention to how I space them out from one another, and how they suggest a work that is crafted by the world first and story second.

Update on My Novel: Month 10

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FEBRUARY STATS

Days Writing: 0
New Words: 0
New Chapters: 0

Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9

I mentioned last month that my family would be starting February with the birth of our second child, and that I wasn’t sure how much time I would have for writing my story. All of this month I have been on paternity leave, which is a great blessing that I am most grateful for, but having that dramatic shift to my surroundings meant that all consistency went out the window. I find it very demotivating to do projects unless I am able to fit them into a regular schedule, and so I decided to wait until March to get back to my novel. There were odd moments here and there where I could have written, but it would have only depressed me to tease at the story, never being sure when the next writing session could happen.

Anyway, things went perfectly well with the birth, mother and baby are doing wonderfully, and I really enjoyed the extra time with my family. I think it was very good for all of us. But here we are now in March, and tomorrow is my first day back to work and normalcy. I will start back up my goal of at least 30 minutes writing every weekday, for a total of 22 days.

I have missed this writing quite a lot. I did manage to maintain my blogs during February, due to their being more bite-sized, but it just isn’t the same as working through a big, meaty novel. It’s honestly been very encouraging to see that I miss With the Beast so much, rather than feel relieved to have had a break for it. Hopefully I’ll be able to go at it with that much more vigor then! I guess we’ll see when I give my next report on April 1st.

Giving Out Information

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On Thursday I posted the second part of Instructions Not Included, at the end of which I noted that some readers will see more significance in the discoveries being made by the main protagonist, Gavin, then he will. Gavin is a bright child, but he still has a lot of education and life experience ahead of him, which prevents him from seeing how his inventions fit into the bigger picture. I don’t believe readers will hold his ignorance against him, though, that ignorance is simply the story being true to his character.

If, however, Gavin had been written as a grad student at a University working on a PhD in molecular biology, things would be different. If he had had that background and still wasn’t seeing the deeper significance behind his discoveries, we would feel frustrated at him for not knowing the things that he should already know.  And this, in fact, is the first guiding principle for how how much knowledge a story’s protagonist should have of their own world.

 

Characters Should Know What They Should Know)

Though it sounds obvious, there are many stories that fail to write characters whose knowledge or intelligence is consistent with their background. Consider the common complaint of horror films that the behavior of their victims is stupid beyond plausibility. The average viewer will say “I would know not to split up when a serial killer is on the loose, so why don’t you know not to do that?!”

Now, to be fair, the author of the horror film probably isn’t ignorant of their subjects’ ignorance, they know perfectly well that their behavior is unbelievably stupid. The thing is that the horror story has a unique requirement. Its purpose is to make you, the audience member, face situations that you wouldn’t subject yourself to in real life. It is necessary for you to be dragged into a situation that is uncomfortable so that you will become jumpy.

And one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is just to halve the IQ of every main character. Now you are tethered to a moron that will make choices you would never make, and put you in situations you would never want to be in. It works…but it also leaves the viewer in a frustrating relationship with the film.

Of course characters shouldn’t be too intelligent either. A child can be precocious, but once their wisdom stretches the limits of plausibility they start to be annoying. I admit this is one area I am worried about with Gavin in my story. I believe it is plausible for him to be curious and experimental, but I am anxious as to whether his scientific testing goes a bit too far. In the end I’ve just had to make a judgment call, and it will be up to the individual reader whether I rendered him in an acceptable way or not.

 

Choose an Appropriate Perspective Character)

The obvious takeaway from the previous section should be that you need to choose your story’s perspective with care. And to be clear, your “perspective character” is not necessarily the same as your “main character.”

For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird the main character is “Scout” Finch as a young girl. The perspective character, though, is Scout many years later as a mature woman. The story is being told to us as something that happened quite some time ago. This construct skillfully avoids the pitfall of an overly-precocious child, because the social commentary comes from the mature version of Scout, not the childhood one. This is a wise choice, because the story deals with heavy themes, including racism and abuse, which young Scout simply doesn’t comprehend. The end result is we get a voice of wisdom on these matters, but without having our illusion of younger-girl Scout compromised.

Another example of careful selection in the perspective character can be found in Moby Dick. In this tale Captain Ahab is the protagonist, but the story is told through the lens of Ishmael. This setup is well-chosen, because it allows for us to witness Ahab’s insanity from the grounded perspective of a rational observer. In fact this approach adds an element of mystery because the exact depths of that insanity are only made known to us as they become apparent to Ishmael.

Once a perspective character has been chosen, then the author needs to be respect the union that has been made between that character and the audience. The audience expects to be this person in this world, and they won’t take kindly if that relationship is cheated.

 

Don’t Show Things to the Perspective Character and Not the Audience)

So what do I mean by cheating the relationship between the perspective character and audience? Once the reader has identified which character facilitates their view into the story they expect to be privy to everything that that character is. Furthermore, they expect to be kept ignorant of everything that that character is, too.

Let’s look at an example of this in the Sherlock Holmes. In these Doyle has chosen as his perspective character John Watson. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the star, but Watson is the one telling us things as he sees them. And Watson is extremely serviceable in this function. He is an intelligent man, but he is not the demigod of intuition than Holmes is. Watson observes only as much as the average audience members would observe if we were in these situations, and that allows us to be delightfully outsmarted by Holmes.

Take for example the often-repeated sequence where the great detective will reveal astounding things about a complete stranger, all deduced from the vaguest of clues. The audience is never frustrated with Watson for having overlooked those same clues, because they wouldn’t have noticed them either.

Sadly, though, this careful selection of the perspective character has somehow been lost on most film and television adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. In these the perspective has always been changed to be Holmes’s. In these shows and movies we hear Holmes thoughts, we zoom in on the object that he’s looking at, we see his problem-solving process firsthand. We don’t ever have these same insights for Watson, he is now just an unnecessary side-character.

This could still work out, but then the show/movie reach a climax with an ultimate revelation, one where Holmes pins the big badguy down by an amazing show of insightful perspective… And most often he does it by pointing to evidence that we never saw. Suddenly we feel cheated. Holmes revealing that he secured a clue while the camera was turned the other way is not impressive, it is insulting.

When we share the detective’s perspective, then we expect to be able to solve the case ourselves if we are intelligent enough to manage it. If they solve it and we do not, it needs to be because they were smarter than us, not because they had secret information. Again, it’s fine for them to have secret information if our perspective character was Watson, but not if it was Holmes.

 

Don’t Have a Character Perspective)

Of course another solution that some stories can employ is to just not give us a perspective character. Instead of seeing the tale unfold through one of its actor’s eyes we instead have the events recited to us by some omniscient narrator/author. In this setup the reader’s perspective is their very own selves. And here an interesting little development occurs.

From this setup it doesn’t matter so much what knowledge you do or don’t give to the reader, they will accept it. You can tell the story with the wisdom of a sage, or the petulance of a child. You can selectively withhold information, you can even tell the audience member that you are withholding information. You  can tell them one thing, and later tell them that you lied and really it was something else.

And all of this is okay.

Consider the film The Usual Suspects. This film is shown to us entirely in flashback, the events explained by a convict taken in for questioning. He is our narrator, and what he tells to us and the police is a complete lie. At the very end his deceit is revealed, but the audience feels satisfied rather than cheated. Why? Because we weren’t actually there when these supposed events were happening, we only ever heard about them secondhand. The film has not broken the relationship it established with us from the beginning.

There is clearly a lot of power possible in a story that has no character perspective, though the trade-off is that it can be harder for the audience to immerse themselves in the tale. An author will have to weigh these different strengths, and choose what is best for their own situation.

 

On Thursday I will be posting the third section of Instructions Not Included. The perspective in that tale has been a little mixed, the voice telling the story seems to be a dispassionate narrator, but the events are limited to only what Gavin sees. The audience is absorbing the same facts that he is and there is a small bit of Gavin’s mental process on display, but virtually nothing of his emotional state.

I have been alright with this so far, because this whole segment has been meant as the introductory chapter to a theoretical larger work. If this were ever part of a bigger story this would just be the introduction where the ground rules are established, and then the real character-driven plot would follow immediately afterward.

I’m going to start signaling that transition by reintroducing Gavin’s brother with this next section. His presence will require us to settle more firmly into Gavin’s perspective, just in time for the dramatic shift at the end of this sequence.