Kill The Queen: Fixing Plot Holes

This may be a bigger problem than I–hey, is that China?

I found a plot hole in my story the other day.

It’s okay. I fixed it.

But fixing it led to another plot hole.

And then another.

And another.

I’m starting to think there might be a breeding colony at work somewhere. I may need a flamethrower.

But that’s the thing with rewrites: all that shit that you said you’d fix later? Well, guess what, motherfucker: it’s later. And you can’t skate past it twice.

The problem, of course, is that sometimes you don’t realize something is wrong until after it happens. Oh, you might have an inkling. A tingling in your Spider Sense*. A feeling.

Later, the feeling is stronger. Something just doesn’t seem right. You can smell it. And, by going back, you find it: a plot hole.

It is tempting, especially if you’re a no-outline writer or pantser or whatever the hell people call themselves these days, to just let it slide for now again. To fix that later as well. But I caution against this. Why? Because it’s a slippery fucking slope.

When you’re zero drafting, you can get away with that shit because you legitimately don’t know what the hell’s going to happen. You’re a wanderer in the middle of your own story, as lost as a tourist in the Thai red-light district. So those incongruities and problems…they’re a problem for Future You.

But during the rewrite…you are Future You. And Future You doesn’t have the same excuse.

There’s a world of difference between ‘this might work, I just need to think of how and I can do that later’ and ‘this doesn’t work in any incarnation of the story but I can’t be arsed to fix it’. If you know something is wrong, you should fix it before it spreads its diseased tentacles of wrongness throughout the story. One bad thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to six more…and before you know it, the story has gone off in entirely the wrong direction.

So, when you find them, fix the plot holes. Smooth things out. Make it as seamless as possible so that you can then focus on other stuff: the voices, the pacing, the mood, the tension. And, of course, the other plot holes that your beta readers will inevitably find.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a breeding colony to find.

*If this is not someone’s nickname for their genitals, I am very disappointed in all of you.

Attack of the Plot Robots: Working Backwards

Oh God, what does it want? TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS IN AN IMPLAUSIBLE MANNER, FLESHBAGS.

So, as I mentioned Wednesday, I now have my outline. It’s very shiny, and will probably remain that way until I start writing and it gets kicked around a bit.

An important note, though, is that when I was finished my outline, I went through it again. And this time I went through it backwards.

If you’re setting up an ending, you need to make damn sure the threads of it are unwound throughout the story. Yes, even a twist ending. I’ve mentioned this before, but the ending of the story should be the inevitable outcome of the character’s actions as seen in retrospect. In other words, even if it looks like a twist at first glance, the reader should be able to look back and slap themselves in the forehead when they pick up on the clues that were scattered throughout.

One way to do this: work backwards. I knew my ending, and I knew what that ending meant. So, I had to make sure that it was set up properly: characters making certain references or acting in a particular manner; the room where it goes down has a particular type of flooring; the tradition that ends things is mentioned and seen in action much, much earlier. By doing this, the ending doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t feel forced, or like a deus ex machina.* It becomes about character choices and actions, not about hammering discrete events together into a Plot Robot.

For example, if your protagonist is going to take out the Big Bad with a previously unknown branch of magic, then don’t you think you should at least hint at the possibility of new magic before she whips out the Flaming Balls of Rh’leh, God of Social Diseases? And possibly show Protaggy McGeee experimenting with her magic before she has to try it on Big Bad? Maybe praying to Rh’leh a couple of times? Otherwise, no one’s going to buy Protaggy suddenly becoming one with Rh’leh at the moment when it is the most fucking convenient for her.

Coincidence is evidence of a badly-thought-out story. Excise it without mercy.

*No one likes a deus ex machina. I have to believe that even the gods don’t like that shit. They’re all like, “Fuck, what did you guys do this time? And now I have to save your sorry ass again? Fuck it. Pray all you want, you shit-disturbing assholes, I’m out. OUT.”

I might have missed a few points in theology class.

Betrayals and Broken Promises: The Importance of the Ending

Too much?

It happened again.

I was enjoying a story and then the ending just…well, ‘disappointing’ might be the kindest description.*

It wasn’t that it was sad. I’m not a huge fan of stories mired in misery, but a tragic ending that fits the story is a great one. Some of the best things I’ve read have ended in tragedy. And, importantly, tragedy that I didn’t see coming during the story. But when it happened, it fit. It might have broken the tangle of baling wire and coyote teeth I call a heart, but at least it was broken for a reason.

This, however, was tragedy without purpose. It didn’t fit the story; in fact, one part was at best a cheap ploy to illicit FEELS, and at worst a betrayal of the characters.

So. Yeah. Not a fan.

I know not everyone feels this way, but here’s how it is for me: an unsatisfactory ending–either happy or sad–ruins an otherwise good story. You can create the best thing in the world, but if you fail to keep whatever promises you made in the course of it, then we’re going to have a problem.

It’s not about twist endings, either, because some of those have been my favourites. But, again, it has to be a twist that serves the story. Not one that’s an author’s attempt to shock just because.

As with all my advice, your mileage may vary. For you, endings might be less important than the journey it took to get there. I understand that, and the story that ended so poorly recently had many great parts leading up to that shit show. That might be enough for you.

But if I was going to offer advice to writers, it would be this: keep your promises, or don’t make them in the first place. Because an unsatisfactory ending is a betrayal of the audience’s faith, and a betrayed audience stops reading your stuff.

Stick the landing or don’t bother to show up.

*The unkindest was probably heard by all my neighbours. Screw that, they probably heard it on the ISS.

All The Feels: Making Character Deaths Count

Here lies old Skully Face. He was a skully face.

Here’s a familiar story:

Plot, plot, plot, character does something, plot, plotty plot plot, character does something else, plot, character dies and it’s so fucking tragic. Why can’t you see how tragic this is?!?

Except that it’s not tragic. Because, according to my super-technical summary up there, that character didn’t do much of anything. The plot did stuff, but the character was mostly just along for the ride. They were driven, not driving.

I call this the bystander effect. Too often characters in stories that die are not important. They were either plot devices or someone with so little impact on the other characters that they might as well have had a sign around their neck reading I exist only to provide the protagonist with a tearful moment. If you’re alert, you can see the death coming because that character serves no other purpose.

It’s no good just telling people that an event is tragic. No one likes being led around by the nose. And your audience is smart. They will know when they are being forcibly led, and they will resent you for it like kids being guilt tripped into eating their vegetables by Mom’s descriptions of starving people. And then they stop reading.

Here’s how you make a character’s death count: make them an actual character. They should do things with other characters that have emotional weight. They should have an affect on the world around them. They shouldn’t just be a Feels Delivery System from central casting.

There are shorthands you can use for this–mostly family relationships–but be careful. You might think that your protagonist’s brother dying is a big deal, but unless he had something to do he might as well be a random pigeon that got knocked out the sky. It’s got a hell of a lot more impact if you show your protagonist’s older brother looking out for her and then dying. Then she has to carry the weight of his death as well as the fear that no one can help her now. It makes her hesitate before getting close to people because he already sacrificed himself to save her and why does everyone she love die?

All the feels. Just because her brother was a person with a real impact on her life instead of a random bystander wearing a tag that said “main character’s brother who dies conveniently lolz”.

Remember: every character in a fully realized world is the protagonist of their own tale. They have things that they want. So they will interact with your protagonist with that in mind. They’ll try to move things in their direction. There should be the sense that, if you suddenly stopped following the main character and started following this other guy, the story would not grind to a halt. It might be a different story–and in the case of Brother, likely a shorter story*–but it would still be a story.

Don’t tell me to feel. Make me feel by giving me a reason. And I’ll be with you until the closing pages.

*Also a tragedy.

Meaningful Explosions: How To Get The Reader’s Attention

THE FUTURE IS WRITTEN ON YOUR INSIDES.

If there is a piece of writing advice that is taken too fucking literally–aside from ‘write what you know’–it’s ‘make something exciting happen on the first page.’ You know what that means? That means I’ve read far too many books–and seen far too many movies, because apparently everyone gets their advice from the same place–over the last little while that start with something actually exploding.

This is a problem.

Now, look: I like explosions as much as the next guy. More, probably. And I get that you want to grab the reader’s attention. But having some random tart push a button and explode a mail box doesn’t get my attention. Because, without at least a little context, I don’t give a fuck. For all I know, that’s how you send mail in her world.*

Random explosions, surprise gun fights, being dropped into the middle of a car chase–these are all exciting things. But I could turn on the news and see that shit. Hell, if I turn on Fox News I can get it 24/7, with a side order of wharrrrgarbl. But that doesn’t mean it’s compelling. And it’s a little insulting to your audience to assume that the only way they can be tethered to a story is by having something spontaneous combust.

What I need is story. I need questions. I need things that give me a reason to keep reading. And, sorry to say, explosions are not often it.

You could argue that the explosion provides a question: why the hell did she blow up the mail box? But that’s not a very interesting one. We can do better.

Try this on for size: we see the bomber, feel her nervousness, see the sweat beading on her lip. And she pushes the button. Mail box gets blown to mail box heaven**. Pieces of letters and bills and cards and flyers flutter down from the sky.

And then, instead of running away, the bomber goes toward it and starts snatching handfuls of the mail confetti from the air. Words. Single letters. A phone number, or pieces of one. As sirens approach in the distance, she hunches over on the sidewalk and starts putting the random pieces she collected into some kind of order, reading it like the old shamans would read the future in entrails. Because this is the only way she can find out what she needs to know before it’s too late.

Better, right?

This takes up about the same amount of real estate on the page as just an explosion, so you’re not slowing anything down. And you open up so many more possibilities for questions. The question is no longer why did she destroy the mail box? The question is What is she trying to find out? Or maybe Why does she think she can read the entrails of a mail box? And my personal favourite: Can she?

The difference between ‘things happen’ and ‘everything explodes’ is meaning. I don’t want random explosions. I want meaningful explosions.*** Or at least explosions that hint at meaning.

And, if in doubt, leave out the explosion altogether, and just go with the meaning.

*Side note: I’d mail more letters if this were the case.

**Where all addresses are written clearly with full postal codes, and no one ever tips them over.

***’Meaningful Explosions’ will be the name of my band.

 

The Five Types of Stories and Other Bullshit Lies

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Selfies, old school. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a lie: There are only five/seven/nine/three and a half stories in the world, and they just keep getting told over and over.

This is one of the most prevalent pieces of dubious writing advice out there, and, trust me, I recognize dubious writing advice when I see it. After all, most of this blog is full of dubious advice*. The difference is that no one has ever quoted me to a new writer in the hopes of squashing their creativity underfoot like a stray eyeball.**

The reason this lie gets repeated is because it sounds like the truth. And because it plays on the festering pile of insecurity that lurks under the surface of many new writers. You’re no good, it says. You’re not doing anything original, and if you’re not, what’s the point? Tolkien covered the Quest myth, and if he didn’t, Lucas damn well did. So why bother?

Allow me to switch arts for a moment: this is a bit like saying that there are only five paintings in the world. And that there’s no point in doing a self-portrait because Van Gogh already covered that and it’s so done. After all, it’s not like anyone came along and invented a bunch of new fucking colours recently, am I right? So don’t bother.

Reductionist bullshit is exactly that: bullshit. There may be a grain of truth buried in it somewhere, in the same way that there may be a tiny speck of diamond nestled inside a fertilizer bin worth of shit, but are you going to dig for it?

Well, no need, kiddies, because I did that for you. Here’s the diamond: there are types of stories out there, and studying these types can help you understand what you’re writing. But they are not prescriptions for your story. That’s going at it backwards, and like anytime you do something backwards, you’re likely to fall on your ass.

The devil is, as always, in the details, and that’s where the art is, too. No one made new colours, so paintings are about the arrangements and the proportions and the shape and the subject and the emphasis. And so are stories. The new part—the part that’s you, incidentally—is in the characters, the changes, and the details. The mixing of types and genres. That’s where you make the stories like a mad scientist crossing a cobra and a mongoose to create the dreaded MONBRA, Scourge of Mumbai.

And anyone who says there’s nothing original out there isn’t looking hard enough.

*The breakdown is as follows: 60% dubious advice, 30% swear words, 8% out of context pictures, and 2% chaos.
**At least I hope not. If anyone has, stop that shit right fucking now, or your eyeballs are on my list.

Stakes: I Like Mine Bloody

English: Hand I'm bored Español: Mano I'm bored

Me too, hand. Me too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading over one of my short stories the other day, trying to figure out what was wrong with it.* I knew there was something, but damned if I could see what it was. It had a lot of things I like: love, robots, horrible wrongs being done, sarcasm. The characters did stuff. Things happened.** There were no explosions, but, hey, explosions aren’t right for every situation.***

It wasn’t until I was watching Catching Fire that I figured it out. Watching that movie is like having a Tension Beast wrap its claw-covered paws around your guts and squeeze: OHGODTHISISHORRIBLE….Oh, but things are okay for a bit….ANDNOWIT’SHORRIBLEAGAIN.**** I don’t know how people eat popcorn during that movie. It confuses my fight-or-flight instincts. I’d probably attack the popcorn bucket.

That’s when I realized what was wrong with my story: there were no stakes. Therefore, there was no tension. Therefore, I was bored titless.*****

Reading it over again, I see the problem bold as brass. It’s an interesting idea, yes, and the characters are fun, and there are interesting things happening, but without a sense that there is something at stake, then it’s just kind of ….meh. And nowhere in the story do you ever get the feeling that this needs to be done. The audience needs to know that there are consequences to things not going as planned. Shit will go down. As it is, there’s just a vague feeling that something might happen. Maybe. Or maybe not. The biggest consequence of things not going according to plan is…that things don’t go according to plan.

So I am bored. And if I am bored, editors will definitely be bored.

Without a sense of the stakes—defuse the bomb or the kids die, find a cure or be turned, ask the boy out or remain alone forever—plot becomes an intellectual exercise. The audience needs to realize that there is something to lose here. It doesn’t always have to be a thing, either; it can be losing a relationship, losing a friend, or losing face. But there has to be risk, and it has to be real.

Otherwise…Zzzzzzzz

* I do this a lot. And not just with writing: paintings, cookies, sketches, things I’ve knit…they all get the ‘what’s fucked up about this’ stare. Kinda hoping it doesn’t extend to any children I might have.
**You’d think that’d be a given, but I’ve read enough bad literary fiction to know better.
***Just most situations.
****Trying to avoid spoilers here. Take notes, internet.
*****Just learned Scrivener corrects ‘titless’ to ‘titles’. And, man, lot of footnotes today.

Monday Challenge: I’m Being Followed

Deutsch: Rattenfängerauszug Hameln Tag der Nie...

My hat is better than this, but if you guys want to dress up as rats, I’m not going to stop you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello, new followers!* Welcome to the Bare Knuckle Army. Don’t worry, it doesn’t require any real service, though you will be receiving a complementary tinfoil hat in the mail so I can read your thoughts.**

The concept of a follower is an odd one. I picture a bunch of people hanging out in my living room while I write this: sitting on the couch, petting the cats, occasionally getting up to peruse my bookshelves. That one guy in the corner talking to himself. There is the nagging sensation that I should put out snacks.

Or I imagine a huge trail of people following me, in my comic book t-shirts and ripped up jeans, over a mountain range. Like a fucked up Pied Piper.*** We’re all heading to the same place: story land. But on the way there’s an awful lot of monsters. Some of them will come with us, too.

Well, I can’t promise I won’t lead you astray, but at least the trip will be an interesting one.

Down to brass tacks then: you’re here for a reason. Those of you new to this, every Monday I put up a writing challenge to get your week started off right. Sometimes it’s an idea, or a character exercise. Sometimes it’s whatever weird shit I find floating around in my brain when I stagger out of bed on Monday morning and have to remember how to act like a Qualified Adult. Give it a try and see what happens. And if there are any brave souls out there who would like to post their results in the comments, I’d love to read them. And I salute you.

In honour of all of you today, you Monday Challenge is this: write about someone being followed. Write from the point of view of the follower or the followed; write is as paranoid or as silly as you like.

And stay close. We’ve got a long way to go yet.

*Every time I get a new follower, I turn around, half expecting to see someone lurking behind the lamp in the corner. Watching. Waiting.
**It is very stylish, though. Tell your friends.
***Pied Piper Me also has a very stylish hat.

We Can’t Stop Here, This Is Plot Twist Country: Getting Past The Middle

Time to call roadside assistance.

Okay, you’ve made it this far: you’re in the middle of your project. Pause for a moment. High fives and congratulatory ass grabs all around.

But.

You feel it: something is going wrong. You’re losing steam. You’re slowing down. Sweet Velociraptor Jesus, you’re losing interest.

Relax. You’ve just reached the Pit*. This is where creativity goes to die. This is where a lot of stories sink into the muck, never to be heard from again. If you look under your feet, you’ll see the bones of other writers. Here’s where they fell. Don’t be one of them.

The thing is, most advice about the rough patches in the middle of stories is about fixing something in the story. But that’s not always the problem. The problem, dear reader, is also you. You’ve lost confidence. And a writer without confidence gets lost very fucking quickly.

So, here they are, my best tips for staying motivated in the middle of a story when all you want to do is give up.

1) It Happens To A Lot Of Guys. It’s true. It does. If you need proof, have a look over here. That’s Neil Gaiman’s essay on the point of giving up. Those of you who can’t be arsed to click over, I’ll summarize: every book he’s written has been beset by this particular point, where nothing feels like it’s going right. If he can manage to get through it, so can you.

2) Re-Evaluate. Sometimes you’re not stuck, you’re just lost. Did you take a wrong plot turn a while back? Have you run out of road? Go back and have a look. Maybe the way you were supposed to go will be clearer now. Maybe you shouldn’t have gone straight through to Boringville; the left at the corner of Plot Twist Alley and Some Really Fucked Up Shit Boulevard is a better route.

3) Tinker With Your Brainmeats. We humans may be pretty good at stopping, but we are absolutely balls at figuring out why. But you are no longer just a human; you are a writer, and that means you don’t get the excuse of not figuring it out.
So, why are you tempted to give up? Are you bored? Do you not know what happens next? Do you need to spend more time with the characters to figure out what the hell they want so you can prevent them from getting it? Or is it just hard? If it’s the last one, then move on to the next item on this list.

4) Suck It Up. Expecting something nicer? Buddy, if you’re looking for hand-holding, then you are in the wrong fucking place. Here’s the bottom line: sometimes things feel like shit. Sometimes writing is hard. And it’s not even hard hard, like being a coal miner or a front-line soldier. It’s just kinda hard.

If you’re one of those people who is staring at the screen and sighing wistfully an awful lot, then maybe you should take half the time you’re devoting to complaining and do something else with it. Like writing. Complaining is not useful unless it leads to a solution. So, the next time you find yourself whining about how hard this is, try to think of a solution. Fix the problem and move on. Look at number one up there. This happens to everyone. It’s part of the deal. So either fix it or shut up, because the rest of us are dealing and we are getting real tired of your shit.

Now move on. Fight the Pit, or at least go down swinging.

*Also what my sister-in-law calls her home office. I haven’t checked it for bones, but I suppose there could be some.

Bang Bang: Firing Chekhov’s Gun

Barrel of the Gun

You should probably duck. (Photo credit: Travis S.)

So, the other day, I found Chekhov’s Gun.

For those without a literary education or access to Google, Chekhov’s Gun is a literary device named for the person who first expressed its existence: Anton Chekhov, Russian doctor and author.* He stated it several different ways, but I prefer this one:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.

– Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.

I could say that, with some of the characters I write, there is never a gun they aren’t thinking of firing, but I digress.

This Gun** was found in the story notes for the novel I’m rewriting. I’d introduced it early on, and then never done anything with it. Which is a shame, because it has the potential to cause a fuckload of trouble if used. And solve a few problems if used correctly, but considering the characters I’m dealing with, they’ll find some way to cause trouble.

This is not foreshadowing, or not just foreshadowing. Chekhov’s Gun is about not including things which have no significance to the story. If it has no meaning or purpose, it has no place on the stage. Or in the novel.

The idea is that any item which is introduced, passively or otherwise, should serve a purpose. This can help prevent Pulling It Out Of Your Ass Syndrome, where the reader feels cheated because problems are solved by conveniently placed items that just happen to be within reach. If you introduce the item early, preferably as something minor or serving another purpose entirely, then the reader knows it’s there and it seems far more fucking likely that the hero would reach for it in a time of crisis.

So, what am I going to do now that I’ve found this story’s Gun?

Fire it, of course.

*Not Ensign Chekhov. Then it would be ‘Chekhov’s Nuclear Wessels”.

**Obviously the Gun doesn’t have to be a literal gun. It can be anything: a weapon, a book, a piece of jewelry, a spell, a photograph, a monkey-shaped vibrator…anything.