by Kate Paulk
Not that I’m in the least opinionated, but I think that putting pieces together into the whole is one of the writer’s tools that needs a lot more focus. Why? Well, even though a book can stand, and even succeed, with a major weakness somewhere, unless the author does something about that weakness as they continue to write, sooner or later they’re going to fall into one of many traps in mixing those compelling characters, fiendish plots and wonderful worldbuilding into a coherent story.
I do mean many traps, too. I’m not going to be able to hit anything like all of them, but I can manage a list of some of the most common.
Very Nice, But What is it About?
Here the author doesn’t actually know what – or who – their story is about. The result can still work with good enough characters, but it tends to end up floundering in pages of aimlessness before meandering to something more or less resolution-ish. Or worse, the author has given off signals that it’s Freddy’s story, when it actually ends up being Sally’s story (this can happen when you’re writing it. That’s one of the things revision is for – so you can refocus the story properly).
Now, before you tell me this is a group novel, that doesn’t matter. There will still be one character to whom this story belongs. He, she, or it doesn’t even have to have the bulk of the page space. It’s still that character’s story. Possibly the best known example would be from the movies – the Star Wars movies are really about Darth Vader’s fall and redemption. And from Tolkein, Lord of the Rings is Frodo’s story. Everything else pales beside his journey into inner and outer darkness and his ultimate redemption.
Group books usually work one of two ways – either the focus character shifts between members of the group (Sarah’s Musketeer Mysteries do this very well), or all the books in the series have the same focus character and the entire epic deals with that person’s story.
The Epic With Everything and the Kitchen Sink
This can happen with a bad case of not know what it’s all about, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. In this case, the author seems to have gone on a mad spree through TV Tropes and tried to shoe-horn as much of it as they can into a single book. It seems to be a phase – most authors I know have one of these buried in a closet somewhere. If you get to know them well enough, they may, shamefacedly admit to its existence.
My example here is from my own personal hall of shame. My Epic With Everything is about 160k words, written when I was in my uber-stripped-down phase (which happened because I had to do something to cure myself of adverbial froth) so there’s almost no description, next to nothing in the way of transitions, and at least three different co-occurring novels all wrapped in one tangled mess of a plot.
And I do mean tangled. There are two Lost Princesses, one unknowing, the other one out for revenge against the family she thinks tried to kill her. One Tomboy Princess. One Fluffy Princess (who is singlehandedly maintaining an entire lace and pink dye industry and has yards and yards of pink lace on everything. Oh, and she’s got about as much gravitas as your average soap bubble). There’s the Noble Prince who’s been force-fed honor and duty so thoroughly he can’t not be sickeningly rot-your-teeth honorable even when he hates it, and his womanizing, boozing younger brother. Two Evil Wizards (although one is mainly by proxy), a Mad Prince and an Abused Prince (brothers, of course), the Sleeping King (he wakes up), and yes, even a love potion. That’s just the character tropes. Plot tropes include, well… most of the fantasy standards, just somewhat… twisted. Fortunately for the alleged sanity of all concerned the whole thing doesn’t take itself seriously, so it’s actually kind of readable. Maybe one day I’ll work out how to tease all the intertwined plots apart and turn them into multiple related novels. I’m not that good at it yet.
Does this sound a bit too much like something you’re writing? If so, it’s time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and figure out what the darn thing should be about, then pull everything else out of it. It might work better that way.
WTF Was That?
This is another focus and direction problem – instead of a plot twist, it’s a bolt from the blue that leaves readers scratching their heads and going “huh?” (or words to that effect). The sin here is failing to foreshadow the twist. Trust me, you don’t want to surprise your readers that much. It’s not nice. Readers (and I speak as a reader here) like to feel that they’ve figured it out, so it’s totally unfair to throw in something you gave not so much a hint about anywhere earlier.
Once it was acceptable to have the Gods descend from On High and sort everything out. In plays, that was often done by complicated mechanical contrivances (hence Deus ex Machina – the God of the Machine). These days, no. People want there to be reasons why something hit the character like a thunderbolt, and they prefer the reason not to be that Mr Deus Ex finally got the aim right.
In short, if it’s utterly crucial that your ending involve your characters being completely shocked by divine intervention, you need to establish early on – and mention during the piece – that divine intervention happens, and it’s very rare indeed, possibly with a side note that those it’s happened to tend to end up very dead or saints – or both – so it’s not precisely a desirable thing either.
For a good example on how to shock your characters while seeding enough information that your readers don’t go “huh?”, read anything of Dave’s, or Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves. In both cases all the information that’s needed to work out what’s actually going on is there, but the characters are unable to piece it together for perfectly understandable reasons.
Honestly, those three are probably the most common flaws of putting everything together, but there are any number of others – and yes, putting all the pieces together into a story and making it all fit and seem to be a coherent whole is something that improves with practice. If I ever start to doubt, I go back to any of my early pieces and then look at Impaler.
Or I reread The Color of Magic then my most recent Pratchett. Yep. It’s a writing tool and belongs in the box all right.
Story that changed main character midstream? Check.
Epic with everything? Check. (But only two missing Heirs to the Throne!)
Siamese twin stories? Check.
Bolt out of the blue? Check. (Actually it was several bolts.)
Deux ex? Close, close. I mean the Gods are there, but they’ve retired, see? They aren’t _supposed_ to answer prayers any more, damnit!
I think the only horror you missed was foreshadowing and then not doing it. 😉
Story that changed the character midstream… no. That might be the only sin I never committed. Possibly because that’s the part of my writing that’s all art, no craft. Which frankly makes me nervous. What if some day the characters just ain’t there? I’m not sure I know enough craft to dead-reckon. I hope so. Yeah, I do study it, even though I don’t use it.
Epic with everything… take your choice. First there was the world that shall never be mentioned with all eight novels, which made use of every possible fantasy trope, save perhaps the intelligent saurians and, for reasons of the world, the female mercenary (although there was close enough to that one.) It even had the sage dying and coming back to life. I’ve dug a deep hole and buried it. Eight novels. Second was the abomination known as Mirrorplay where I tried to pile an entire civilization-spanning change on the back of a character who was too wounded to move and just wanted to lay down and die. Which he tried to do. Repeatedly. I finally killed it with Deus ex and Kate, my dear, you’re a piker. THAT abomination ran to 260k words, which, since these were the bad days when things had to be mailed in print, put a great dent on my finances everytime I shipped out its sorry carcass AND got it nicknamed “The doorstop” when it came back. Then, at a writers group, someone who’d been to a con (can you smell the wisdom coming off him? No? I thought I could) once, told me that I could never sell a first novel with more than 100k words. So… I trimmed it. Only I had no clue what to do other than take an already extremely pared down novel (I too was in my sparse phase) and cut every other paragraph. THAT is buried somewhere. The 260k monstrosity, I can now clearly see, is at least five novels intertwined, and my pittiful main character is only responsible for about 1/5th of it and someone else had best carry it, because he dies at the end. Anyway, the WORLD which is what I fell in love with there, is alive and demanding and in the fullness of time, I will lock myself for a month and write all five novels. I think about three years from now, when the kids SHOULD be out of the house. Dan can make sure I don’t starve while I write, I think.
Bolt out of the blue was the ONLY way I knew how to plot. And I only learned to foreshadow about six year ago, after Ser Monkey first cleared his throat, then told me I had to, and finally hit me over the head with a mallet till I did it. (Thanks, friend. I owe you… more than I can ever repay.) You see, I thought I was being clever and fiendish by not letting the reader know what’s coming. If I WERE savant I’d be an idiot savant, guys.
Sarah, I could never aspire to your levels of greatness. I wouldn’t even try.
I did say it wasn’t a complete list – and yes, foreshadowing and not following through is a pretty heinous sin.