Tag Archives: plausibility

Settings: Bland & Vivid

In wrapping up this series on setting in fiction writing, I’d like to demonstrate the difference strong, well-presented setting can make.

Writers who compose their settings with bland generalities and cliches, supply only vague information, avoid specific details, and omit a viewpoint character’s physical senses and awareness of the location are shortchanging their readers.

Vivid settings come alive because of specific details, descriptive passages that employ dominant impressions, and the utilization of a character’s physical senses where and when appropriate.

Consider the following:

Bland:  Sitting at a small table in her sister’s new kitchen, Jane sipped her coffee while she pondered how to ask Sheila a question about their father’s finances.

Vivid:  New kitchen? What a laugh. Jane sat down gingerly on an old chair that creaked under her ninety-eight pounds. None of the chairs matched at a rickety little table with peeling paint. Who used peeling paint in a kitchen? It looked unsanitary, like chickens had roosted on it for thirty years in a barn, and it probably had lead paint. Sheila was so proud of her cabinets–bought cheap at a thrift store–like that was something to brag about. They didn’t match either and could be infested with bug eggs just waiting to hatch out. Jane eyed her coffee–served in a tawdry souvenir mug with a faded map of Florida emblazoned on the side. Her first sip scalded her mouth, making her gasp and bang her mug too hard on the table. A flake of green paint floated down from beneath the table, landing on her foot. Why did Sheila buy such bitter blends? Why did she overbrew the coffee until it was so scorched and hot that drinking it was an ordeal? If she couldn’t afford decent mugs, why didn’t she go to Target and buy an inexpensive box of them like normal people instead of rooting through filthy thrift shops for the garbage castoffs of society? Now she wanted Jane to admire her kitchen when it looked like something even hippies in the past century would have thrown away. Jane was here to discuss their father’s financial ruin before it was too late to save the money, but Sheila refused to listen. She kept chattering about how the bargains of scratch-and-dent appliances had enabled her to buy a behemoth cast-iron sink off Craigslist that probably cost even more than it weighed.

*

One sentence versus a too-lengthy, dense paragraph. Hmmm, does that mean vivid has to be long and overblown?

Not at all! I would take the “vivid” paragraph and break it apart into small pieces that can be dropped into the dialogue between Jane and Sheila. If the sisters are talking at cross-purposes–critical Jane wanting to discuss Dad and romantic, creative Sheila wanting to evade the topic–then the details can be sprinkled throughout where appropriate.

Let’s try another comparison.

Bland:   Jimmy hurried anxiously along the school hallway, afraid he’d be late for class.

Vivid:  Intent on breaking through the locker gridlock so he wouldn’t collect another tardy slip, Jimmy juked around knots of girls giggling together, collided with a scrawny seventh-grader with big glasses and a cowlick, and trampled the foot of Arnie Bixmaster, a looming football bruiser with shoulders as broad as the doorway to algebra class.

*

Even as we imagine the trouble Jimmy’s about to be in when Arnie the giant–maybe nicknamed The Beastmaster–turns on him, can’t you hear the noise of hundreds of voices punctuated by slams of steel locker doors? If the “vivid” sentence evokes memories of your schooldays, it’s done its job.

Sometimes settings fail to do their part when they are simply a vague cliche. Lazy writers tend to rely on old, worn standbys without realizing that whatever made them work originally has long since faded from overuse. Writers also tend to fall into the vagueness trap when they haven’t visited a setting, or done their research by talking to people who have.

*

Bland:  Esme Jones had always dreamed of visiting Paris in the spring. She walked along the city streets, drinking in the sights, and spent her afternoons at the Louvre, gazing at the wonderful art hanging there. She planned to eat at sidewalk cafes, and practice her high school French on the locals.

Vivid:  Esme Jones was lost. Instead of taking the Metro from her hotel to the Louvre, she’d decided to walk. Her phone had no signal, and her GPS wasn’t working. Rain pelted down, blurring the tall apartment buildings and narrow, unevenly paved streets into a gray smear. The flower markets had shut, with rolled-down awnings, leaving only a few trampled blossoms of pink and yellow lying on the sidewalk, which meant she couldn’t even take any pictures for her Instagram feed. What a rotten, miserable day. April in Paris was a lie! All it did was rain, and she was sick of it. Pedestrians had vanished, driven indoors by the weather. She had no idea of where she was or how to get back to her hotel. Telling herself to stay calm, she cut along what she thought was an alley leading back to a larger street. Instead it grew narrower and more crooked before opening to a tiny square surrounded by looming old buildings of brick and stone jammed right up to the sidewalk. It was a dead end, but she found herself pausing just to look. Ornate iron fencing surrounded a gnarled almond tree. Its delicate pink blossoms shimmered in the rain, and Esme inhaled the fragrance. At each corner of the fence stood rusting urns of white flowers she didn’t recognize. The blooms spilled over the sides, cascading to the ground. A worn statue of a cherub peered out from beneath a shrub, its rounded face dotted with lichen. As she clutched the cold iron spindles to stare at this enchanted little garden, Esme forgot about how wet and chilled she was. The rain suddenly stopped, leaving the air damp and still. She caught the scent of freshly baked bread. There must be a bistro nearby where she could ask directions. But maybe first she’d eat some thick, hearty bourguignon.

Pardon, mademoiselle!” called out a brisk feminine voice.

Esme turned and saw a middle-aged woman in a white belted raincoat and beret walking toward her. Beautifully made up, with dark hair cut in a stylish bob, the woman was slender and very chic. She carried a marketing basket filled with radishes, carrots, and several tiny parcels wrapped in paper and tied with string. A white West Highland Terrier in a bright blue raincoat trotted on its lead beside her.

*

Leaving Paris behind, let’s try a different location:

Bland:  Mineet parked the car at the White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and got out to look at the dunes. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

Vivid:  As soon as Mineet exited her rental Escalade at the White Sands National Monument, she was blinded by intense noon sunlight reflecting off dunes as white as sugar. Even her polarized Ray Bans couldn’t quite handle the glare. She squinted, her eyes watering, and lifted her hands to shield her face. After a few seconds, she managed to open her eyes to a slit, enough to see miles of sand stretching beneath a cobalt-blue New Mexico sky. She crouched to scoop some into an emptied Sonic styrofoam cup because Karthik had asked for a souvenir. The sand was cool to the touch, not at all burning hot like she expected. Completely reflective, she thought in surprise and took off her sandals to dig in her bare brown toes.

*

But what if you’re not writing about trendy kitchens or Paris or New Mexican deserts? What if you’re writing instead about a planet no one has ever been to, a world that exists only in your imagination? No need to worry about cliches there, right? After all, you can’t research if there’s no one to ask about it. So you’ll just make it up, and enjoy yourself.

Even so, details should be specific, vivid, and plausible.

Bland:  Carl Farstrider climbed a hill to survey the valley where his shuttle had landed. It was a broad valley, with a dry river bed. With sunshine and patience, the colonists he’d brought here would do quite well. Satisfied, he opened his communicator. “Farstrider to ship,” he said. “I’ve found where we’ll establish our first settlement.”

Vivid:  Carl Farstrider followed an old trail that zigzagged up the tallest hill overlooking the valley. His surveyor’s map had marked it as being the broadest, flattest of the numerous valleys and mountain ranges covering the upper hemisphere of Ceti Tau VII. There were traces of indigenous building sites–abandoned now–dotted along the upper reaches of the valley, and other indications of past inhabitants such as this trail, but Farstrider wasn’t concerned. Whoever or whatever had once lived here had gone long ago. The colonists waiting aboard his ship now orbiting the planet would probably enjoy such quaint archeological details of an extinct race. Farstrider considered that a few antique artifacts usually gave a place charm. He’d use that angle in his next promotional recruitment campaign.

The wind picked up, blowing harder now with a bite of cold, and he turned his face into it, liking its freshness after months of stale, recycled ship’s air. Clouds obscured a weak G-Class sun, but although it wasn’t robust like Terra’s Sol, it was within the parameters of life support. Putting his binocs to his face, Farstrider scanned the deep canal bisecting the valley floor. No water ran there now, and along this end the canal walls had been dressed with cut stone, cleverly fitted together with no visible mortar. According to his data, an aquifer was located about fourteen klicks northward, at the upper end of the valley. Tomorrow drilling would commence, tapping that essential water supply and pulling it to ground surface. It could flow along this canal and then be held in a large reservoir he planned to build at the south end of the valley.

Once that was done, Farstrider could leave the eighty-seven colonists here to establish the first settlement of a planned forty such communities. Ceti Tau VII was going to be successful, all right, and profitable. That would help him recoup the losses he’d taken with the disastrous Cirenterra colony halfway across the galaxy. He didn’t plan to repeat the mistakes he’d made there. Nope, Ceti Tau VII would prosper, starting with Settlement I right here in Farstrider Valley. No more massacres. No more starved colonists. No more nightmares to haunt him.

 

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The Contrivance Factor

Is there such a thing as plausible contrivance?

If we want to be philosophical about it, we could say that all fiction is in fact that very thing. We lie and contrive to create our stories and characters, and readers accept the Great Deception in order to play make believe with us.

But that’s not what I want to address in this post.

Instead, I’m thinking about the writer with a carefully outlined plot, where each event has been planned and placed in an order that makes sense and is driving the protagonist toward an exciting story climax. And yet, perhaps halfway through the story–or two-thirds of the way in–something goes amiss.

Let’s say you have Polly Protagonist in a tight spot. She barely escaped an ambush by irate werewolves. She’s been chased across Dark City. She’s cut off from her friends and the cops. She can’t get back to her fortress on Shady Elm Street. All she can do is take refuge with vampire queen Moira, who lets her in.

Fine and dandy so far.

However, the plot outline says that Moira is hostile. Okay, check.

The plot outline says that Moira’s brother learns what she’s done and overreacts, threatening to burn down Moira’s hive if she doesn’t kick Polly out immediately. Huh?

Okay, STOP!

Let’s think about this. Doesn’t that seem harsh? Would Buddy actually burn out his sister? Are they enemies? Why? Couldn’t he just phone and suggest that Moira not harbor human Polly? Why the extreme overreaction?

The plot outline says that Polly must be cut off from all help at this point, so her situation will be harder, and she’ll have to turn to the Ancient Crone and strike a Fatal Bargain–something she’s dreaded since page 4.

So, in other words, the writer of this yarn needs Polly to be evicted by the vampires, thus keeping her in trouble.

[Push pause while we consider this for a moment.]

When you’re writing toward a particular turn of events or plot twist, beware of contrivance. Contrivance is simply when a story event occurs without plausible reason or motivation for the author’s convenience.  While writers can pull off nearly any conceivable story action if they motivate it properly, in my example Moira and Buddy are not motivated. Therefore, on some level, what they’re doing is no longer plausible. And while it’s possible to create so much danger and froth in story action that readers might keep turning pages, the reader will start to doubt. And when readers doubt, they stop believing.

Sure, I can go back and devise a backstory where Moira and Buddy fall out, and now he’s always angry about how she runs the vampire hive, but why over-complicate my task? I need to think about the key to this plotting misstep, which is that Buddy overreacts.

Why?

If you’re plotting, you should always be able to answer that question for any character in your story at any point in the plot. If you don’t know, or you haven’t given the matter sufficient thought, you will fall into contrivance.

The important point is that Polly must be evicted. Yet Moira will seem peculiar indeed if she gives Polly refuge then kicks her out two pages later. Why would she do that? Sure, sure, she’s doing it because Buddy has threatened her, but why would he do that? I know I keep repeating this question, but it’s important and deserves an answer. How does he know Polly is there? Why should he care? What is the story situation anyway?

So if we want Polly evicted, we have to invent a plausible reason for Moira to change her mind. Perhaps Buddy doesn’t threaten her. Perhaps he’s learned Polly is hiding inside the hive and he’s concerned that the werewolves will next turn against the vampires in retaliation. Maybe a savage and costly war between the werewolves and vampires has just ended, and the new treaty is pretty shaky. Buddy doesn’t want the conflict to start up again. He doesn’t want his sister caught in the middle. So he warns her from concern for her safety.

Now, doesn’t this work as a reasonable motivator for Moira to apologize but firmly push Polly out into the cold?

The plot outline is saved, but we’ve ditched the contrivance factor.

Often writers make this type of error when the plot is clear, but writer fatigue or a desire to hurry and finish a long writing project rushes the typing along too fast–or too heedlessly. Be on the watch for it, and don’t let it slip past you. Vigilance can only result in a better, more enjoyable story.

 

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Contriving to be Stupid

One of the pitfalls writers can stumble into is when they know exactly where they want their story to go. Their ending and theme are clear in their minds, and they are so determined to reach that plot point that if they aren’t careful they may end up contriving part of the storyline to reach it.

Let me provide you with a couple of examples: [SPOILER ALERT!]

The 1940 film THE MORTAL STORM depicts a non-Jewish German family in the 1930s that begins as a comfortable, well-established, close-knit group but is torn apart as Hitler rises to power and the sons and their best friend are caught up in fascism. The film presents a chilling example of how dangerous peer pressure can be for adults, and was made as a warning at a time when the U.S.A. was not yet involved in WWII.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Despite this compelling plot and its inherent conflict, the film stumbles at the climax. The heroine and her friend attempt to escape over the Alps and are nearly to the Austrian border where safety lies. (In the story’s time frame, Austria has not yet been annexed by Germany.) However, just as they have one last slope to ski down to safety, a German patrol shows up. All the couple has to do is wait until the patrol is gone. They are breathless and exhausted. They are hidden in the rocks with a good vantage point. Why not sit down and take a breather? Oh no! As soon as they see the patrol and exclaim in dismay that it’s shown up, they immediately launch their skis and head down a long, open, snow-covered slope where they can’t help but be spotted.

Now the whole point of this character action is to test the girl’s ex-fiance who is in command of the patrol. Will he order his men to open fire on his girlfriend? He does, and she’s killed. The screenwriter or director or producer wanted to depict how far her young man will go in order to follow Hitler. There’s a close up of the agony in his face as he gives the command. And the ending is very sad.

Except it’s not. How can viewers share emotionally in this “tragedy” when the girl has been so stupid? Her fate has been contrived to achieve a certain end, and it just doesn’t fly.

Here’s another example:

Some years ago, I was writing a historical romance set during the French Revolution for Harlequin Books. To tip the book from its mid-point into the third act, I needed the heroine to be abducted by the villain. So focused was I on this objective that I contrived her capture by having her leave her hiding place and go wandering out through an orchard in search of something to eat. The idea was that she would pick a peach, be seen, and although she would run for it, the villain would catch her.

Fortunately I had an editor that refused to pass such nonsense. She yanked my chain hard, calling my heroine “stupid.” And she was right. I had to go back to the drawing board and rewrite that story event completely, coming up with a much more plausible way for the heroine to land in trouble without being a complete idiot.

Here’s the lesson: of course every event in fiction is a contrivance. Writers are moving their characters here and there through a plot for a desired effect. The challenge lies in concealing that contrivance from readers, so that readers suspend disbelief and vicariously experience the story as it unfolds.

The trick in achieving that concealment hinges on proper character motivation for every action, no matter how risky. Failure to provide a plausible reason leads to characters that may be too stupid to live.  And stupid characters become unsympathetic characters.

Perhaps in THE MORTAL STORM the screenwriter wrote a valid reason for the couple to risk death in skiing where a German patrol could not help but see them. But it ended up on the cutting room floor. Oops.

My novel ended up with a rewrite and some Band-Aids, but it got the job done. Even so, I still wince when I think of that scene.

Know where you’re going, but avoid character stupidity in getting there.

 

 

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The Implausibility Factor

Another way–besides gotchas and inconsistent characterization–an unwary writer can break a reader’s suspension of disbelief is through plot events that are simply unbelievable.

Sometimes I deal with students that defend their highly improbable storyline by saying, “But it really happened!”

While real-life events or news stories can spark ideas in a writer’s mind, that doesn’t mean you can chronicle them exactly as they occurred.

The old adage of truth being stranger than fiction means that fiction is a conservative art medium. It brings more order and organization and purpose to a dramatized event than a real event will have. That’s because it must fit into a story. It must serve to advance a plot that’s focused on the protagonist’s goal and is actually helping move the protagonist toward a climax and resolution.

Real life doesn’t necessarily work that way. And therefore real events have to be reshaped and reconfigured in order to be dramatized.

Sometimes, a writer will be too heavily influenced by the spate of what thriller writer David Morrell calls “idiot plots” that have dominated major motion pictures in Hollywood since the 1980s. While action-packed, fast-paced, stunt-laden movies can be exciting to watch, a novelist trying to emulate them can push a high-concept storyline into absurdity.

Granted, no one expects a James Bond film, for example, to be realistic, much less offer character depth or development. Audiences go to Bond flicks expecting a high degree of implausibility. As long as the people running the Bond franchise can keep topping themselves, the exotic locales, hot babes, and wild stunts will continue to make audiences say, “Wow.”

However, an over-the-top movie that spits rapid-fire visual eye-candy at its audience should not be a template for a novelist trying to plot a story. In prose, we have our words, not cinematography or CGI. We can aim for a fast-paced story, of course, but it will never move as rapidly as a film. Therefore, our readers have more time to think, Wait a minute. Wasn’t there a hunch-backed dwarf following the heroine down that Paris street? Where did he go? Why did he stop tracking her? Wasn’t there a reason for that? If he’s not going to show up again, why was he mentioned in the first place? Also, movies keep going so even if someone in the cinema thinks, hold on, an action stunt or locale change onscreen will distract or obscure audience doubt. However, in a book a dubious reader can stop and flip back a few pages to check some authorial misstep.

Oops.

It takes a lot more effort and disgust for an audience to walk out of a film than it does for a disgruntled reader to toss a story aside.

Staying plausible involves keeping up with your hooks, threats, plants, questions, and details. Playing fair with readers means you must not mention or include or feature anything that isn’t in the story for a valid dramatic reason.

Declaring, “Oh, I just thought I’d describe that girl in the clown costume, holding a red parasol while trying to flag a taxi because I wanted some vivid imagery. She doesn’t have any bearing on what’s happening between Gertrude and her mother,” is akin to announcing you plan to go sky-diving for the first time at noon but don’t expect your family to take any notice of it because you’ll be home in time for dinner.

Implausibility can also occur when you fail to plot through your protagonist’s sequels. In other words, if you simply push your character from one event or scene to the next as you would check off items on your errands list, the character’s actions resemble those of a contrived puppet.

Instead, follow up each scene with its immediate sequel–or the aftermath where your protagonist processes what just went wrong, reacts to it, analyzes it, weighs options for what to do next, and chooses a new course of action.

Inexperienced writers can be impatient with sequels, but these dramatic building blocks make an enormous difference in your story’s logic and your protagonist’s motivations. Sequels are key components to a believable plot no matter whether it’s a family drama set in a Virginia suburb or a military thriller set in the Adriatic Sea.

And, finally, your story can become implausible if you neglect the consequences of your characters’ actions. Your story people aren’t confronting each other, arguing with each other, betraying each other, or pursuing each other without result. Every character action worth depicting in a scene should create a later effect on someone or something in the story. If you overlook this, your plot becomes a random montage of character actions that lack an evident purpose and don’t seem to connect.

Such errors and omissions result in readers pushing the story away in disbelief, no longer willing to pretend with you.

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Spanning the Dilemma

In my previous post, I compared the component known as dilemma to the arching span of a bridge. I may not be using the precise architectural term, but by span I mean what visually lifts your eye across the stream or chasm–whatever the bridge is crossing.

Emotion is a foundation pillar. It stands rooted. It doesn’t move. As long as the character is in a purely emotional state, the story is on “pause.” It doesn’t continue.

Dilemma, by contrast, is motion forward. We don’t want to stall a story indefinitely. Dilemma gets the character going again. Not right away and not all at once, but it’s progress.

Therefore, dilemma is the second element that goes into a sequel. It follows emotion. It doesn’t precede it.

That’s because people react emotionally first. When their feelings start to calm down, then they can think.

Dilemma is all about thinking through the problem at hand.

Writing principle: Dilemma is the logic of your plot.

WHAT?

Didn’t I hammer logic in my last post? I hope not. My point was that logic has no place in character emotion. That doesn’t mean that logic has no place in your story. Of course it does!

Dilemma is part of that connection between the dots of plot events. We get a character stirred up emotionally so that person will take action. But we have to devise stories that make sense and show reasonable amounts of cause and effect.

We don’t want the protagonist pausing in the middle of stirring scene action to reason through the problem. So it’s saved until the scene is over and until the viewpoint character has had a chance to vent some steam.

Because once the raging disappointment and heartbreak following a scene setback fade, our character can think. More importantly, our character should think.

Here’s where Wally Writer can shoehorn plausibility and rationale into the story. No matter how improbable the plot truly is, it can be made to seem reasonable–or at least understandable–by adding the dilemma component to character reaction.

Dilemma is where Polly Protagonist dries her tears a little and starts considering what she will do next.

She does this under two criteria:

1) What is she going to do next based on what’s just happened in the story, and

2) What is she going to do next in terms of her overall story goal?

Writing tip: When you’re plotting, always remember where you’re going.

Keep in mind the following points:

*What has your character just gone through?

*What has your character gone through in the story up to this point?

*How has any of that altered the goal or motivations of the character?

*What new plans will your character make as a result?

Writing principle: when you write dilemma you are working out your plot for yourself while making it seem that the character is formulating a new plan.

Formulating a plan means the protagonist is now ready psychologically to look forward to what he or she will try next in achieving the story goal.

Emotion and Dilemma dovetail together. Each–in its own way–supports the progression of the protagonist from disappointment to new determination.

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