Archives for April 2016

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If Only Reading Burned More Calories: A Laugh for Your Saturday

If only reading burned more calories, then I'd be scary skinny in no time. dumpaday.com

Now, that’s an exercise program I could get into. 

Check out the original at dumpaday.com (what a name!).

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How to Break Promises without Breaking Promises

Promises are made to be broken. Hmm. Nope. Scratch that. Promises are made to be broken well or not at all. Either you have to keep the promises you make to your readers, or you have to break them in a way that doesn’t really break them.

Let’s just say that breaking them is the exception, not the rule.

But if you want to break one of your main promises (like that the rules of the world will be followed), then there should be a reasonable (*cough* foreshadowed *cough*) explanation for why the rule wasn’t really broken. The four main options are 1. character ignorance, 2. a change in the situation/experience, 3. an exception that requires extreme effort (which usually also involves the first option), and 4. the unreliable narrator.

 1. Character Ignorance

The character in question is the main character or any character whose point-of-view you write from. The gist of character ignorance is that the rule was always broken because the original understanding was wrong (a mistaken assumption, missing information, a lie, a secret, etc.) – that character simply didn’t know that until now.

For instance, if the broken rule is that Tracy doesn’t like chocolate, and here she is eating chocolate, then maybe the main character misunderstood, and Tracy just doesn’t like milk chocolate (but loves dark chocolate). Or maybe Tracy lied earlier when she said she didn’t like chocolate because she didn’t want to accept the melty chocolate from your weird coworker’s pocket. Or because of embarrassment, Tracy was simply trying to hide her chocolate addiction (Shh! It’s a secret! …well, it was.).

In other words, there’s a specific reason that the main character’s impression of that rule was faulty, and the reader learns that at the same time as that character.

 2. A Change in Situation/Experience

As Badger said in Firefly, “Crime and politics, little girl. Situation is always… fluid.” Characters react differently in different situations. If a character is faced with the same choice in a different situation, the character’s answer can change without making the reader feel cheated. A standard trope of this is the scientist who refuses to create the doomsday whatever. Then, the villain kidnaps the spouse/child, and the answer reverses. Different situation + different answer = no broken rule.

The other part that can change is the character. Characters have learning curves, too. When they experience something new, they learn from it. Or they might react to it emotionally. The resulting changes can change their reactions. For example, if a naive character agreed to something that ended poorly at the beginning of the book and is offered another “wonderful opportunity” later on, a different reaction is very believable. The big rule of this particular technique, however, is that the reader needs to see that change. Then, rule isn’t broken because the rule changed, and the reader knows that.

 3. The Exception That Requires Extreme Effort

I say that the exception requires extreme effort because if it’s easy, it’s not an exception. It’s a variation on the rule. It’s a little like the U.S. Congress’ ability to overturn a Presidential Veto. The rule’s been in place for forever, so it’s not like someone’s making it up just to make a plot point work. On the other hand, a 2/3 majority of the House and Senate isn’t all that easy. It’s possible, but it’s not going to be your go-to answer for everything.

Granted, in many stories (fantasy, especially), the exception is a closely held secret by the elders/higher ups/secret society/lost lore, so the characters have to first learn about it and then go through the hoops to get it. But watch out for making it too forced, especially when the rules were well-established through several books or films already (“Oh, yes, if a pig comes by Castle Dracula on a Tuesday, playing a banjo… kind of crowbarred plot move…” — Eddie Izzard).

This is also a gimmick you should really only use once per book, possibly once per series.

 4. The Unreliable Narrator

The final excuse is, “The narrator lied.” Well, maybe, the narrator believed it at the time. Maybe, the narrator is a chronic liar, and the whole narrative was a lie. Both are possible; however, the breadcrumbs that validate the narrator’s unreliable nature have to be there when the reader looks back, or this is cheating (and it’s gonna make ’em mad). It’s hard work to do this well. So unless you really want to write an unreliable narrator, it’s easier to keep the promises you make rather than hide a bunch of false promises in the story.

Actually, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that all these exceptions require at least the same amount of work as keeping your promises. If not more. That means that they’re not easy cheats to get out of hard work. Nope. What they are is useful techniques if you want to set up a false promise and mislead the reader. It won’t save you any effort, but it can let you break your promises without breaking your promises.

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What Promises Are You Making to Your Readers?

What promises are you making to your readers? What does that even mean? It’s not like you signed a written contract. You didn’t pinky swear to tell the reader what happened to that character who disappeared mysteriously in the first chapter. You’re under no obligation to include that, right?

Actually,… I guess it was an implied pinky swear ’cause you kind of are.

Readers rely on the foreshadowing and puzzle pieces that build the plot. The details of the everyday activities and worldbuilding, character traits and behavior, plot arcs – almost any information you put into the book from the first page counts as a sort of promise to the reader. A lot of yours should be specific to your world and story, but some are universal.

Promises You Make Your Readers

 1. If you start a story arc, you’re going to finish it.

If you introduce a mystery, even a subplot, (what happened to Sir Henry’s boot?), then the reader expects it to be solved by the end of the book (or the series at the very least). With the way books like to tie things together, readers might even expect the little mystery’s resolution to link to the main plot, too. So if you leave them hanging about something, expect to hear about it later.

2. Characters won’t change without a reason.

What a character is like, what a character likes – it can’t change on a whim between the first chapter and the last one. If you make a character sneaky and unreliable, the reader expects that character to stay sneaky and unreliable until/unless some actions show otherwise.

 3. The World operates under specific rules.

How does magic work? What level of technology is available? These are the sorts of questions you have to answer in your worldbuilding, but once they’re established, you’re stuck with them. You can’t say that there’s gravity in this location in one scene and then contradict yourself in another.

Well, technically, you can, but you shouldn’t. Not if you want to keep readers (and make a good story).

That’s the crux of the promise issue. Think of it like a person. Jane. If Jane breaks one promise, we might give her another chance if it wasn’t too big a promise. We might even be generous and let her break a couple little ones. If she breaks a lot of promises (small, medium, and large) or a few really big ones, the only way we’re sticking around her is if she’s related – and maybe not even then.

So you might be able to leave a tiny mystery unsolved without losing readers. You might be able to change the color of a character’s eyes between the first chapter and last – if it’s a non-plot-central continuity error like that, then you might even be able to change a rule of the world. If you do all 3? You’re pushing your luck. Especially if any of it directly involves the main character(s).

After all, breaking those rules or defying what you’ve said before is like telling the reader to ignore what they read before: “That’s not important. Forget that.” And as a reader, my response would be, “Then why did I read it?” in an disgruntled grumble. And I’m not the only one.

Readers don’t like broken promises. That’s all there is to it. And you can’t get around it by not telling promises – without promises, there’s no story. So if you want to keep people happy and make your own life easier, try to keep the promises you make your readers. Better yet: succeed.

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A Tony Morrison Quote: “Don’t Tell Us What to Believe, What to Fear”

“Make up a story... For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.” -- Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

Why is it that much of the most interesting writing advice is purposely ambiguous and cloaked in metaphor?

This quote is so full of different writing advice that I had to break it up a little. From motivation to ego to personal truth to a warning against proselytizing to a metaphor telling us to show -not tell: that’s a lot for one quote!