Issue 40 - The Fiction Writer's Toolkit - Debbie Dadey, Jodi Picoult, Darcy Pattison, Gayle Trent


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Using Setting and Description in Creative, yet Crucial Ways - by Darcy Pattison


Using Law in Your Story - by Donna Ballman


Red Pencil Round-Up - Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - by Annette Fix

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ou're driving down the road looking at the flowers lining the sides of the highway...you’re listening to the radio...you’re admiring that sporty car that just passed you. Then it happens. You hit a pothole, and it jolts you. Maybe the pothole is so big it causes you to run off the road or it damages your car.

In order to create a smooth ride for your readers and avoid jarring them out of your story, you have to learn how to keep your story free from “plotholes.” Plotholes jolt your readers out of the story because something is either blatantly wrong or else simply doesn’t seem right. Plotholes can occur due to insufficient research, unexplained character behavior, inconsistencies, structural weakness, or too much “authoring” and not enough storytelling. In this article, we’ll examine each of these plotholes.

Insufficient Research

Writers can sometimes get so caught up in research they neglect to write their book. At other times, they get most of the details right but err on one tiny thing. Does it matter? If you’re the reader who catches the error, it does.

My editor requested I set my embroidery mystery series (written under the pseudonym Amanda Lee) on the Oregon Coast. Living in Southwest Virginia and never even having visited Oregon, setting the story there was quite a challenge. Thankfully, the Internet can help writers virtually visit nearly anywhere in the world. I subscribed to an online Oregon Coast newspaper, requested travel brochures, researched various aspects of Oregon living and even watched Oregon Coast videos posted on YouTube.

Book Two of the series takes place in January. I’d speculated it would be cold, but a quick Web search informed me that January on the Oregon Coast is very rainy. Had I not factored the rain into the story, people familiar with how much it rains in that area during the month of January would have known I didn’t have a clue. This would have made them question everything else about my story.

In addition to location, writers need to research their protagonists’ professions and any information relevant to these characters’ professions during the time in which the story is set. The protagonist in my cake decorating cozy mystery series is a baker who works from home. Upon sending the first draft of the book to my agent, she wrote back and called my attention to the fact that the character was doing nothing to launch her business. She had no business cards, no website, and no advertisements. I’d fallen right into a plothole, and I hadn’t even noticed.

Well, of course, the character did those things, I thought. She just did them...when the reader wasn’t looking. Yeah, sure, that’s it.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I fall victim to the same defensiveness when one of my own plotholes is pointed out to me. I revised the manuscript to include the character’s attempts to grow her business. As the agent knew it would, these revisions added to the veracity and flow of the story.

“But, Gayle,” you say, “my story is fantasy/science fiction set in a world of my own making. How does this rule apply to me?”

This rule applies to you because you must be consistent. We’ll talk further about inconsistencies later on; but with regard to your research, you need to ensure your world either conforms to certain undeniable factors or explain them away. For instance, the law of gravity does not apply to the inhabitants of my world because ________. If your characters are human, they should have human traits, behaviors, and physiology, unless you provide a reason why they don’t. If your characters are not human, are they unique? Is your vampire character identical to one created by someone else...maybe Stephenie Meyer?

“...do your own research, add your own flair, make the character yours.”

Let me take this opportunity to caution you not to adopt another writer’s research as your own. Returning to the example of Stephenie Meyer, this author has a wildly successful vampire series. However, her research into the subject should not spawn an entirely “new breed” of vampire. Nor should it spawn books in which authors attempt to cash in on an existing franchise. I say this only because I’ve seen books that are blatantly trying to copy other books.

There’s a difference in reading a book and thinking, “Wow, this writer is going to be the next Stephen King/Mary Higgins Clark/Nora Roberts/John Grisham” and thinking, “Gee, this writer was obviously trying to be the next King/Clark/Roberts/Grisham and wound up being a sad imitation.”

If you choose to write about a vampire, an alien, a medical examiner, a teenager, a detective, or even a cake decorator, do your own research, add your own flair, make the character yours. Maybe then writers will aspire to be the next you.

Unexplained Character Behavior

Every now and then people around us do something that makes us scratch our heads and ask, “What were you thinking?” Heck, sometimes I do things myself that have no apparent rhyme or reason. Your characters don’t have this luxury.

When I was acquiring manuscripts for Grace Abraham Publishing, a woman submitted a suspense novel in which the heroine was really uptight about her family’s spotless reputation. As a result, the character was always striving to be on her best behavior. About midway through the book, the author had the heroine break into another character’s home and rifle through his belongings.

From what I’ve already stated, you can see this type of behavior was entirely out of character for the heroine. There was not even a compelling reason for her to break into the home and risk triggering an alarm or having a watchful neighbor call the police. When confronted with this inconsistency in character behavior, the author said, “But it’s such a cute scene.”

“It is cute,” I said, “but this character would never risk being arrested for breaking and entering.” I suggested she rework the scene to have the homeowner tell the character he was going out of town and asking her to water his plants or feed his cat. This would give the character a valid reason for going into the house while the homeowner was away. Once inside, curiosity could get the best of her and she could go through his belongings.

This particular author decided to withdraw her manuscript rather than change it. To my knowledge, it remains unpublished. Please don’t misunderstand me. I understood the scene was important to the author, which is why I suggested she alter it to something more in keeping with the character’s past behavior. Still, she refused to see how unrealistic the behavior was for her character. I’m not saying editors and agents are always right. But I am asking you to be willing to step back from your work and look at it objectively when someone calls something like this to your attention.

There is a difference between character transformation, which happens either gradually or based upon some life-altering incident, and characters simply behaving out of character.

Let’s look at a few characters who change their behavior (but note that readers are given the reason for these changes):

Ebenezer Scrooge

Perhaps the most well-known example I can give you is that of the miserly Mr. Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Three ghosts appearing to someone over the course of one night would likely scare the “mean” out of him. If your character’s behavior is such that he is, for whatever reason, compelled to change—and if you show that transforming behavior to your reader—then you can change your character and have him behave differently. In fact, you’ll want your character to grow—even if it’s just in some small way—during the course of your story.

Example One: Myron is a browbeaten man who works hard, keeps his head down and tries to avoid being reprimanded both at work and at home. One day, as he is entering the office building where he works, he notices a woman has dropped her purse. He helps retrieve the spilled contents and then holds the door for her.

Although he keeps his head down in his usual fashion, she thanks him for his kindness and asks his name. Myron tells her his name and holds his head a little higher as he walks to his desk. The phone rings, and it’s Myron’s boss requesting to see him. With a knot of dread in his stomach, Myron makes his way to the office and is surprised to see the woman he’d helped earlier. She is a client and wants Myron working on her account.

This incident awakens Myron’s sense of self-worth. When he goes home that evening, he snaps back at his wife rather than taking her customary badgering.

Example Two: Suzie is a pretty party girl who loves to drink. Her drinking leads to irresponsible behaviors such as driving drunk and making poor relationship choices. She met a man in a bar, and they began dating. Although he seldom has time for her, she’s always willing to meet him when he calls.

After being stood up by the man at their favorite bar, she leaves more than a little tipsy. At a stoplight, she rear-ends the car in front of her. The woman driving the car gets out to inspect the damage. She doesn’t think her car is hurt, but she wants to confer with her husband before deciding whether or not to report the accident. The man reluctantly gets out of the passenger side of the car, and Suzie sees it’s the same man she has been dating.

The couple decides not to report the accident, and the woman even asks Suzie if they can drive her somewhere since it appears Suzie “isn’t feeling well.” Suzie declines the offer. As she gets back into her car, she notices a baby’s car seat in the back of her boyfriend’s car. Filled with self-loathing, Suzie decides to check herself into rehab and to change her lifestyle.

Friends unaware of the incident would be shocked at the next dinner party when Suzie orders a club soda rather than her usual mixed drink. The author might even start Suzie’s story at this particular dinner party and let the reader—along with Suzie’s friends—wonder at first at what brought about her reformation.

“...be willing to step back from your work and look at it objectively.”

Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
In the novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll drinks a potion that transforms him into the evil Mr. Hyde. If your character indulges in weird transformation potions, she, too, may have some powerful mood swings. Her behavior might also be affected by hormonal imbalances, alcohol, drugs, mental illness, poison, or disease. The character might be affected by a secret. Does she know her husband is having an affair? If so, what is that doing to her emotionally?

This particular scenario reminds me of Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” which I read in high school. The protagonist is a pregnant woman waiting for her husband to come home. When he arrives, he stuns her with the news that he is leaving her. She kills him with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks the murder weapon. She goes to the grocery store, returns home, and calls the police saying she just arrived to find her husband dead. Eventually, the police officers—friends of her late husband—eat the murder weapon.

In the first book in the embroidery series I write as Amanda Lee, a male character arrives at a party seemingly drunk. The people who know this man have trouble believing he is drunk because he’s known to be a teetotaler. He is later found dead in the heroine’s storeroom, and police suspect he has been poisoned.

Sandy from the musical “Grease”

Granted, Sandy isn’t a literary character, but she is a prime example of a character choosing to alter her behavior for a particular reason. Sandy’s reason is Danny, a boy she met over the summer. Sandy has transferred to Danny’s school, and the two are reunited. However, their differences make it hard for them to resume their summer romance. While Sandy is a peaches-and-cream good girl, Danny is a “bad boy” who hangs with the greasers. At the end of the movie, Sandy changes her appearance and her attitude in order to be more of what she believes Danny wants her to be.

As you can see, characters always have a compelling reason—whether logical to readers or not—for behaving the way they do. Even if readers don’t understand the logic, they’ll see it and understand the character has a purpose for behaving a particular way.

Inconsistencies

I once changed a character’s eye color from one chapter to another. I didn’t catch the error until I sat down and gave the rough draft a full read-through. While an error like that doesn’t seem to be all that important, it still jars the reader outside of your story. When you lose your reader even for a moment, your narrative suffers.

As you craft your story, you might need to create a cheat sheet to keep small details consistent. This applies to characters’ appearances, rooms and placement of furniture, orientation of various sites in your fictional world, etc. You might want to make index cards or simple data sheets.

Here’s an example of my data sheet for Dead Pan:

Main character: Daphne Martin, owner of Daphne’s Delectable Cakes – has straight dark brown hair and brown eyes.

Love Interest: Ben Jacobs, reporter and editor for the Brea Ridge Chronicle. Also does freelance writing. Has light brown hair, pale blue eyes, lanky build and lopsided smile. Reminds Daphne of Michael Landon. Drives a white Jeep.

Police Officers: Officer Bill Hayden (wife Joanne is a big-mouth), Officer Johnson and Officer McAfee (main officer in Dead Pan – tall, lean black man who reminds Myra of Malcom Winters from Y&R).

Neighbor: Myra Jenkins, widow, husband’s name was Carl; son is Carl, Jr. Myra is in her sixties, cute, stylish, active in church and social clubs.

Bonnie: Daphne’s friend from Tennessee.

Todd: Daphne’s ex-husband – currently serving seven years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon for shooting at Daphne.

China York: Has a police scanner, always knows what’s going on, was helpful to Daphne during the last case (MTTC – helped Daphne clean up the porch, etc.). She is an older lady with two iron gray braids hanging to her waist.

This is by no means extensive, but you get the general idea.

“Authors become, in effect, backseat drivers when they get on a soapbox and begin inserting too much of themselves into their books.”

Too Much Authoring — Not Enough Storytelling

You’re at a traffic light in congested traffic, concentrating intently on the vehicles around you and the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Just as the light turns green and you start to go, a passenger in your car starts talking.

“You’d better watch that car on your left. Oh, no, that truck is going to cut you off! By the way, did I tell you about my aunt who had to have one of her big toes removed? You see, she was in the hospital to have her tonsils removed when...”

This is the part of your journey where your backseat driver needs to be quiet. Authors become, in effect, backseat drivers when they get on a soapbox and begin inserting too much of themselves into their books. Granted, your experiences, struggles, and beliefs are right there with you as you write your book; and they will inevitably breathe life and passion into your story. But here is where the show-don’t-tell rule shines.

Example: Your friend died from breast cancer two years ago. You want to urge every woman who reads your book to do self-exams and see her doctor regularly. You can act on this urge by including a brief scene where your heroine is in the shower pondering something crucial to the story (e.g., what was Edna doing at the scene of the crime), and she does a quick self-exam prior to stepping out of the shower. Perhaps she does so as she remembers her friend—who looked a lot like Edna—died from breast cancer the year before. Then the heroine gets out of the shower and immediately goes about her day.

Unless your book is about a woman dealing with the loss of her friend or coping with her own diagnosis of breast cancer, refrain from having your character ruminate on breast cancer, quote statistics, or advise other characters—or, worse, readers—to take proper precautions and preventative measures.

This scenario applies to religion, politics, childrearing and just about anything else not relevant to your story. Yes, your character can be opinionated. Yes, your character can be a nun. Yes, your character can be a lousy parent who plans to assassinate a government official. But that is only if these traits are important to the story and the characters’ beliefs fuel their actions.

Other ways to handle causes you wish to champion is to include an author’s note. Perhaps you could dedicate the book to your friend who died from the disease you are fighting to eradicate. Or you could donate a portion of your proceeds to research. Seek other avenues in which to express yourself and champion your causes rather than preaching about them in your book where they might detract from the storyline.

“...characters always have a compelling reason—whether logical to readers or not—for behaving the way they do.”

Plotter’s Checklist:

  • I’ve done adequate research on every aspect of my story.
  • My character has a perfectly good reason for behaving badly—he’s on a TV reality show! No, really, there is method to his madness.
  • I’m on the lookout for inconsistencies that will irritate my reader like pesky gnats.
  •  I’ve put away my soapbox.

***

Gayle Trent is a cozy mystery writer who writes an embroidery mystery series for NAL/Penguin under the pen name Amanda Lee and the Daphne Martin cake decorating mystery series for Simon & Schuster under her own name. Visit Gayle online at http://www.gayletrent.com.

Gayle’s recent books:

The Quick and the Thread: An Embroidery Mystery (Signet, August 2010)

Dead Pan (Bell Bridge Books, November 2009)

Murder Takes the Cake (Bell Bridge Books, September 2008)

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