The Sniff Test

An Electronic Nose Estimates Odor PleasantnessWriters love their work, or they wouldn’t be writers. The problem is that writers also tend to love their characters and plot devices, even when those things don’t stand up to close (sometimes even casual) scrutiny. Reviewing a manuscript provides with the invaluable opportunity to put every aspect of your work to the sniff test, using common sense to check the believability of a plot device or a character’s behavior.

Believability is really the key to this test. A common horror movie trope has the victims exploring the boarded up house in the middle of the night, even though they are fully aware there is a killer loose and their flashlight has just run out of batteries. This seems so unlikely as to be ludicrous in any story that attempts to take itself seriously. While it’s true that panicked people can and consistently do make exceptionally foolish choices, this one just isn’t within the range of possibilities. It’s not believable. It doesn’t pass the sniff test.

Does that mean that every character needs to make the best possible choice in every scenario? No; that also fails the sniff test. The reader isn’t actually looking for every choice and every situation to fit the best-plan scenario. The reader actually wants things to follow naturally, or at least to seem like they’re going to follow naturally. The reader wants to believe that this story could unfold in this way, and that these characters will behave in this manner. This benefits the writer in that the reader will tend to be forgiving of small missteps, but it also means the reader is critically judging the story probably far more closely than the writer.

When reviewing a manuscript, the writer must develop the ability to set aside his knowledge of future developments and test each portion of the story as it unfolds. If a portion of the story fails to pass muster, the writer has the opportunity to slap some red ink on the page and fix the problem. The critical test in this case is that any given action must follow logically from the immediate context of the problem, without reference to additional information from other stories or later portions of the manuscript.

One of the key factors at play is the tendency of any given story to be any given reader’s first exposure to this set of characters or situations. This is especially important in series fiction, where characters and settings carry continuity from one story to another; while this can create a larger setting and deeper characterization, it can also leave the reader requiring excessive amounts of additional information in order to enjoy the immediate story. There is a temptation to “data dump” information on the reader so that he is correctly informed, a solution that does not constitute good form in storytelling. In this instance, a better solution would be either trickle the information to the reader in the paragraphs leading to the incident, or rework the context of the situation so that less specific knowledge is required.

Perhaps most often, the sniff test fails when a writer has decided to frame a particular scene, and requires events to unfold in a certain way. Because these scenes are beloved, they may be difficult for the writer to identify during a review; there are a few simple questions that can help identify them. Is this the only possible outcome? Is there a simpler outcome? Is there an outcome that will better suit the characters? Is there an outcome that will better suit the story? If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then the writer needs to rethink and rework the scene in question.

More often, the sniff test fails in the instigation of a scene rather than its execution. In this case, the writer needs to examine the initial incident and ask: Is it possible? Is it probable? Is it plausible? Is it likely? If the answer to any of these is “no”, the scene has a serious problem.

The reader is going to be far more critical of a story than the writer, almost inevitably. The writer’s job is to prevent that critical eye from tossing away the story in frustration at the lack of believability by providing the reader with characters and scenes they can understand and that logically follow each other. Reading already requires suspension of disbelief, the reader who smells something funny in the plot will not have a good experience.

Red Herrings

Red herring

Welcome to the first weekly installment of The Writer’s Block blog. Every weekly entry will feature tips, encouragement, advice, best practices, and red flags for new, aspiring, and established writers. Wait … why target established writers? Don’t they already know what they’re doing? Well sure, but every one of those guys will tell you that every well of creativity needs a little rainfall to top it off, in this case, I assume they’re looking for affirmation and encouragement. And maybe, if I’m lucky, someone more experienced than I will take the time to agree or disagree with what I have to say. Enough marketing talk, on to the good stuff!

Nanowrimo is behind us again, and the writer now has a novel in need of editing. This is the time for him to look critically at all aspects of his manuscripts, decide what works, and excise what doesn’t. One important part of the editing process is tracking down and removing those portions of the manuscript that don’t pay off for the reader, we’ll call them “red herrings”. This process helps improve form, and is an important component of circular storytelling.

In chasing red herrings, we’re really only concerned about three types. The first type of red herring is the conventional misleading clue that causes a detective to come to an incorrect conclusion. We are applying the same principle to the reader in the following way: the first red herring is a portion of the manuscript that causes the reader to expect a certain payoff, but substitutes a different payoff. This is the “bait and switch” approach common in mystery and horror stories, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. The writer must only make certain that the reader, in receiving a payoff other than then one he expected, still feels validated for having spent time chasing the hook. A reader who feels cheated, who feels the writer isn’t playing fair, is a reader lost.

The second red herring involves a hook intentionally or inadvertantly set by the writer that fails to pay off for the reader. In it’s simplest form it involves the principle behind Chekhov’s gun – a gun present in the first act must be fired by the third. When tieing up Loose Threads, the writer seeks to find all of his red herrings and land them safely in the net. Now that the novel is “finished”, any red herrings the writer finds still on his hook need to be cast back into the ocean. By removing those plot and character hooks that fail to pay off for the reader entirely, the writer tightens up his story construction, and reduces the opportunity to disappoint the reader.

Excising these extraneous portions of the manuscript is easier and less painful than it sounds. Chances are, if a hook fails to produce a payoff, it wasn’t very important to the story to begin with. These types of red herrings are often found in concert with other hooks that do lead to a payoff, allowing the writer to eliminate redundancy in the manuscript while tightening the plot. Most often, hooks are left dangling simply because the writer has forgotten about them; removing the initial mention of the hook from the story will often neither impact the plot at all nor change the characterization.

Identifying a flopping red herring may be a little more complicated. The easiest solution is to give the manuscript a quick read and periodically ask, “Whatever happened to…” If no answer to the question is apparent, throw that herring back! Looking a little deeper, whenever two plot or character hooks are dropped at once there is a good chance that one of them may be a duplicate. If the payoff for any given hook happens at the same time in the same way, and is in fact the same as, the payoff for another hook, the writer has an opportunity to tighten the manuscript by removing the duplicate reference. With each hook that surfaces, the writer has a new opportunity to decide if it pays off, pays off successfully, or simply gets in the way. Each herring must be kept, cured, or thrown back as needed.

Which leads us to the final red herring – a time-honored salty snack that every writer needs to keep handy by his workplace. No, don’t try to eat them (unless you’re from Maine or just really, really British), just keep them there as a reminder that this is the kind of food you’ll have to eat if you cannot master your writing. It’s good motivation!