The Pretty Pretty!

I was never of the “you’ve got to kill the ones you love” opinion, for the same reason I was never of the “don’t write what you don’t know” belief.

Because if you don’t have a deep abiding love for what you’re writing, if something about you doesn’t thrill at the idea, or the characters, or the setting or something, why are you doing it, really? You might as well be driving a truck.

And I’m not of the opinion that you should remove every pretty word from the story, either, partly because well… The story comes out as it comes out, word wise: I neither prettify nor uglify. I use the word I need to use for that story. (And it varies, okay.)

BUT–

So, we’ve been prisoners in the house for a week, with another three or four days ahead, because we’re having work done, and each of us is the “expert” on some of the questions workmen have.

On Sunday the workmen took off and so did we. We went to an expensive brunch buffet (Okay, expensive for us, we’re cheap people) and afterwards in an excess of high-spirits went to a movie in the cinema.

I’m not going to say it was a bad experience. There was, as there always is these days, a few moments of the burning stupid, but the visuals were stunning, and kept us interested, the seats were comfortable, and I was with husband and younger son (and we rarely go out and do fun stuff, all three of us.)

However, about halfway through, I realized the visuals were stunning, but the story wasn’t. As in, besides the burning stupid, the plot and world building hung there, by the barest of threads.

Now to some extent that’s what writers do. I suspect it’s impossible to tell a convincing lie as big as even a short story, without holes. So our goal is to tell it fast and dance dance dance off the stage, before you see the holes.

But this was really, really bad. So bad, most of it made no sense, without the visuals. All the sins of story telling: the characters do things just because it moves the plot; the emotions are balked; the characters react to things that haven’t happened yet.

But the visuals, the visuals were stunning. They distracted even this pro writer for a while.

I’ve noticed the same thing with, oh, sexy romances. Sometimes people write the sex so well that they don’t realize the plot isn’t there.

But the pretty pretty can be whatever does it for you. Your darling.

I have somewhere a half-finished novel, set in 19th century China. I researched it. I had all the visuals. I bought coffee table books to look at the pictures. I studied recipe books. As a setting, I WAS in love with it. it was gorgeous and moving and interesting.

What the novel doesn’t have is a plot. Or characters. Some things happen in the stunning setting, but the setting is the thing. And it gook me 60k words to figure it out. Because in that time, in that place, I was fascinated by the setting.

I’ve seen other people do this. And if it’s not my thing at all, and it’s not a necessary thing for the novel, it’s like being trapped in a room with your uncle who raises pigeons, and wants to tell you everything in detail about each of his 100 pigeons. And you want to chew off your arm to get away.

I’ve seen this a lot with novels where suddenly the character gives speeches. About the superiority of women, say. And then slowly there is no novel, just speeches. And some of these people are old pros, so they know how to write books. But they have the pretty-pretty. It’s exciting to them. They think the “novel” must be making everyone’s pulse pound, right?

I’m not saying you have to kill your darlings. But mentally ask yourself: are you creating a whole story? Or do you wake up excited to write the next thing about the alien language, because that’s your thing, and it makes you excited, so everyone must love it, right?

Cover up the pretty pretty. Mentally remove it. Do you have enough story? Enough interest for other people? Can you add it in, before it’s too far gone?

You don’t have to kill your darlings, but don’t let them kill your story.

56 comments

  1. Sometimes you can get away with an Alice story where the character just sees the sights.

    1. Sort of Milieu (M.I.C.E.) book, without as much plot as *Dune* or *Lord of the Rings*.

      (Yes, I know, there are heated arguments as to LotR being a Milieu novel or an Event novel.)

    2. The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy has a bit of that, too, but it’s also part of the plot (and I like the travel/exploration part, too).

  2. “I’ve seen this a lot with novels where suddenly the character gives speeches. About the superiority of women, say. And then slowly there is no novel, just speeches.”

    The leading cause of puppy-related sadness is boring message fiction. Don’t make puppies sad.

  3. Could always do a D&D source book type thing, if you find out you don’t have plot or fully developed characters.
    There is a demand for that– or even a campaign book, which is where you make it so that the game master can lead folks through your pretty world.

    1. Oh, definitely! Some of the sourcebooks and monster manuals are such wonderful brain candy I keep them just for read-through when I’m feeling down, because it allows escaping to another world without having to put in the work of separating all the setting description from the characters and plot going on. The book on Skull Island (Kong) is a real keeper.

  4. This was, about 10-15 years ago when I was in my thirties, a leading cause of death among my story ideas: cool setting with not much going on in it, or a social order so rigid I didn’t feel like making my characters work within it. It’s part of why, although I’m interested in history, I don’t write historical novels at all or even read them that much: if it’s not idealized enough to be escapist, it’s not worth writing or reading, and if it’s idealized it’s not authentic.

    1. Last week’s Writer’s Dojo ended up being on world building. One of their big cautions was to be careful not to world build to much because, if you enjoy world building, it is very easy to build a world that’s functional and insufficiently broken to have much happen in it.

      I seem to have the opposite problem; I don’t world build enough, so I end up with characters wondering why they are doing this again, or characters that never got a personality, or, my current bane, characters that feel like they should be doing something that in the current context appears to be completely irrational and I don’t know why.

      I think one of my antagonists has set the whole thing up in order to get themselves killed in a manner that won’t make anyone suspicious of why. Which means I have to go back and figure out wth convoluted path of illogic they were following to get there and rewrite all of the foreshadowing…

      1. I don’t understand how you can create a world so “well” that there’s nothing to break.
        Also read Dwight Swain’s Creating Story People and call me in the morning.

        1. Minor nit, that’s Creating Characters: How to Build Story People 😉

        2. Will do.

          I will admit it is sort of surreal when I’m going through a thing and I’m thinking “well this is the reasonable thing for this character to do” and the character responds with something like “Sure, but I’m gonna do this other completely different thing instead.”

        3. I think it’s more about equilibrium. Things break, sure, but the damage is limited. There are internal contradictions in the breaking forces that keep them from remaining coherent, and other mitigating forces are always at play.
          Status quo isn’t god, but it does have an awful lot of inertia.

          And does have issues with “small band of misfits changes the world”.

        4. That’s because you have Athena, Kit, Tom, and Kyrie running around in your head. Those four could find a way to make iron bars shatter like pottery.

        5. Addendum: That pointed out the part I was missing. I had not thought through what the character’s care-abouts were, especially after some other characters turned out to have very different care-about than I had originally thought they would.

      2. In a lot of cases, I’m extrapolating the setting from what I know about the characters’ dilemma. If a guy has to protect an amnesiac woman in a fantasy setting who’s being manipulated by her evil fiance, then the evil fiance is probably responsible for the amnesia somehow. If a guy wants to be unreservedly on the heroic rebels’ side, but can’t because of his boss, then his boss must be able to harm him or his loved ones in a pretty serious. If the heroine belongs to a faction of heroic rebels, there is therefore someone to rebel against. If a guy who normally works as a rich person’s servant to do advance reconnaissance work for thieves is working in the house of a surprisingly upright politician when he falls for her niece, then whoever hired him this time is probably gunning for the politician, and is therefore probably a unsurprisingly evil politician, regardless of whether servant guy knows this going in.

        1. Well, honest & upright politicians likely have more enemies than corrupt politicians. 😈

        2. There’s a lot of feedback very quickly. The characters, plot, and setting braid together. “The Witch-Child and the Scarlet Fleet” started with the setting. . .

      3. You can always tell a writer who’s fallen so much in love with his world that he probably didn’t have enough energy left to tell a story. The book begins with three maps, a ten-page list of characters, several pages detailing major characters’ genealogies, and instructions on how to pronounce the names of all those characters.

        On the other hand, I’m pathetically grateful for at least the maps and the genealogies when I’m about to read something about actual historical events like the Pazzi Conspiracy. And there are some interesting stories buried in that history. You just have to chip away everything that isn’t part of your story.

        1. I once got a critique telling me to turn my short story into a novel and prefix it with an explanation of the kingdom and its history and several disasters.

          He also complained that the hero’s wife should have been treated differently because she was the king’s daughter. Which, BTW, she wasn’t.

  5. Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!

    Sorry, had to do it.
    Anyway…
    The more you particularize, the less you universalize. Too much author appeal, and the the target audience approaches singularity. Let your passion come through, but keep it diffuse.

  6. What killed my first story effort was, ironically enough, my refusal to kill off a particular character. Which was a problem because her death was the basis of the protagonist’s motivation and the impetus that really kicked off the plot. She was supposed to die, and she’d died in the first draft, but then I decided that I liked the character waaaaay to much to to kill her off and desperately wanted her and the protagonist to have their happily ever after.

    Cue most of a decade (not exaggerating) struggling with rewrite after rewrite after rewrite trying to make the story work. Finally decided that I’d wasted enough time and effort trying to make the story work and that I was sick of the whole thing, so I put the story down and walked away and haven’t looked back.

    1. It’s funny, my one-and-only stalled for years and years because I couldn’t figure out how to save a particular character, and by having that character die, I was suddenly able to have an entire plot. (Not because I loved them, or because they had much on-stage time. But seriously, it made the whole book work.)

  7. Cmon, what movie?

    I’ve got to know, just to avoid it!

    Dr. Strange 2? It was Dr. Strange 2, wasn’t it?

          1. The two main points most commonly brought up in discussions of Dr. Strange 2 are that Strange takes a backseat to Wanda in his own film, and that character motivation/reasoning/rationality seems poor in many places, particularly with respect to Wanda.

  8. Ah, characters … I think that my method of building characters came from having to write yearly performance reports on my junior staff. Eventually, I worked out that the first sentence of the report should address the very first thing that popped into my head when I thought about that person: the most obvious outstanding element of their character. Start with that one salient characteristic, and then build on it. How did they get that way, what had formed them – and after writing performance reports, creating characters out of whole cloth was a snap.

  9. ::giggle:: Don’t look too deep into the thief’s original origin, not the ‘exposition machines’ origin in the movie, or your head will explode. I called her a thief, because she stole from the pizza vender, after bragging that food should be free. Well, she did graduate from Sotomeyer university in her comic origin, so that explains some things about her.

    Seriously, I always hated the ‘kill your darlings’. Sure, I understand that it’s really about not getting attached to one way of writing something, but I ran into too many people in critique groups, who if they found out I really likes that bit as well, that I suddenly had to yank it. Even if everyone else in the critique group liked at first!

    But, yes, I knew many an author with their tome. I never got that. I’d always want to write out the scene, and sadly, sometimes get so engrossed in the dialogue, I’d forget to put in milieu. Pooh. I’m better at drawing milieu than describing it. :sigh: It’s easier with a drawing, because sketching it out with words, I seem to leave out some vital info.

      1. Supposedly she had even more of those smug ‘bon mots’, which made test audiences recoil. At least that’s the scuttlebutt rumor on why there were extensive reshoots.

      1. Ahh, see. I’m one of those ‘movie in the head’ people. I just try and get it down on paper, either via words or images. Sometimes both. But it always feels like a pale version of what I’m trying to convey.

        1. Remember that we readers have imaginations, too. We’ll put the technicolor back in – although it may differ somewhat (wildly?) from what you had envisioned.

          1. Ahh, I was trying that, to leave some things to the imagination of the reader. I ran into so many problems in the local critique groups.

            For example, I had a scene set in a midshipman equivalent bar on a space ship. I had more than one critique that they needed to know if the actual bar was made of steel or wood and without that, they couldn’t grasp what was going on. I thought it could be gleaned that space ship equates to metal. I could have understood maybe asking if it was plastic, lucite, but wood threw me for a loop. So I tried to put in sound clues, because I was deficient on sound cues besides dialogue. I didn’t push it back through review, as it was one I knew had major problems, and most of the replies were bewildering to me. (Now I recognize, part of the upset, is I subvert reader expectations, so I know I’ve got to add in a bar fight and maybe the misplacement of what’s wrong won’t be focused on what I thought was minutia and didn’t really matter what the reader imagined the bar to be…except not wood!)

  10. Okay, I downloaded the Dwight Swain book and I’ve gotten through the first four chapters. I think I probably know the care-about of a character and their speech patterns before I know what they look like, what their name is, or any of their other traits. I need to think about that some more though. I’ve only recently had to come up with completely original characters for my writing.

    In creating characters, I get to know them through their dialog. I’m very sensitive to the way people speak; not so much diction or accent (although that can be part of it) but word choice, slang, repetitive words or phrases, etc. Which got me to thinking that that’s probably how I distinguish people IRL – by the way they speak. So I think I automatically give each character different speech habits, even if I may not remember, or even have decided yet, what they look like. So would dialog be “my darling” or my “pretty, pretty”?

    Probably. Because I will often write an entire conversation, and then end leaving almost all of it out, because it’s not all needed.

    I’m not very visual at all. When I need to describe something, I pretty much need to find a photo or picture of some kind, or look at the the thing IRL.

    Worldbuilding. I mostly add things to a world someone else already built, when I end up somewhere where that part of the world isn’t there yet. I do get very attached to other people’s worlds. Hmm.

  11. I think I probably know the care-about of a character their speech patterns before I know what they look like, what their name is, or any of their other traits. I need to think about that some more though. I’ve only recently had to come up with completely original characters for my writing.

    I get to know characters by their dialog, by the way they speak, speech patterns, etc. Got me to thinking that’s probably how I distinguish people IRL. So dialog and speech patterns are my pretty, pretty? Could be. I often write any entire conversation between several people and then end up leaving almost all of it out, because it’s not all needed.

  12. wants to tell you everything in detail about each of his 100 pigeons.
    The 2 battleships, 8 battlecruisers, 10 heavy cruisers, 15 light cruisers, 25 frigates, and a carrier with 40 fighters – with NOT ONE of those terms being usefully defined – before a space battle. I hate that with a burning passion.

    1. I once read a history book that used the term “larboard foretopmast studding sail boom” as though it were immediately evident what in the world that was.

      I later used that phrase in a game with the comment that the person who could *most convincingly define it* was the one that would be awarded the points. Not “most accurately,” “most convincingly.”

      1. OK, I can picture that in my mind’s eye . . . but I’ve read far too much about sailing, and Dad was a sailor, so I probably don’t count.

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