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!

Loose Threads

As the main story draws to a close, the writer faces the unenviable task of gathering up the loose ends of the plot and character arcs and tieing them neatly together. As your novel draws to a close, the reader wants to feel a sense of completion, like he’s not missing any parts of the story. The writer needs to identify plot hoots and character points, making sure that each of them is resolved. In a perfect novel, the two will work together to form a single inevitable conclusion.

When the reader looks for the hallmarks of a completed novel, he’s not worried so much about having every single detail of every single event. The reader’s imagination will fill in many of the points left out by the writer, creating a sense of involvement and investiture in the story. The reader is concerned about picking up dropped plot and character hooks; the writer should be concerned with identifying those dropped hooks and carefully extracting them.

Identification of loose hooks is really the key. Character hooks remain unresolved when the reader recognizes an aspect of the character that is deficient, that aspect is provided with the means and motivation to change within the story, but the character never revisits this aspect to determine if it will change or remain the same. Either resolution is acceptable, as long as it makes sense within the context of the character and the decision is firmly enacted. Character hooks also remain unresolved when a key aspect of the character is mentioned but never demonstrated. When a character is strongly identified by himself or others with a certain trait, that trait needs to be demonstrated in action.

Plot hooks remain unresolved when an action that was begun earlier in the story fails to reach its logical conclusion. The aphorism “Chekhov’s gun” embodies his (Anton Chekhov’s) advice that one should not should show a loaded gun in act one, unless one intends to fire it later in the play. The aphorism was perhaps meant to address the correct use of foreshadowing, but has since come to represent any kind of plot hole. The writer faces the task of firing every gun that has been shown earlier in the story. Loose plot hooks may be identified by noting any singular instance of action or mention of an object. If that action or object is significant to the plot, it must be revisited at least once in order to demonstrate how the action is played out or the object is used.

Tieing up loose ends, firing all of your guns, is a key component of circular storytelling. Written stories are necessarily about resolution, as the writer has a finite amount of space in which to tell a story, and the reader a finite amount of time in which to consume it. Not every story needs to come to a final, unalterable ending; the phrase “To be continued…” is a key element of serial fiction. The reader needs to feel like the writer has treated him fairly, done right by the characters, and cleaned up his loose plot threads. Stories and characters live on the mind of the reader long after the last page of the novel has been turned; he just needs enough closure to the current story to imagine the rest.

Chasing the Plot Wagon

Storytelling games such as computer and pen-and-paper role playing games (RPGs) rely on a story structure that funnels the characters along a single line of action. The characters must go to this inn, must speak to this barkeep, and must slay this dragon before the action can progress any farther. This tendency is occasionally disparagingly known as the “plot wagon”, or a means to get the characters from one plot point to another without diverging or chasing rabbit trails along the way. It makes for streamlined storytelling, but can seem very contrived if not handled correctly.

Every plot twist leading to the conclusion of the story must be seen as inevitable by the reader. Only when the reader is convinced that this story could not have possibly happened any other way may a plot be truly effective. This means systematcally erasing rabbit trails and divergent plot branches from the character’s list of options. Often, this means allowing the character to play out these departures from the main plot in order to emphasize the necessity of following the central story. This divergence is acceptable as long as it doesn’t damage the pacing of the story.

There are a few ways in which this plays out in popular genre fiction. In many action novels, the must be a reason the hero can’t just shoot the bad guy and call it a day. In romance, the must be a reason the heroine doesn’t simply embrace her leading man from the very beginning. In a mystery, there must be a reason that the police don’t see the same evidence as the detective and make an immediate arrest. Most important of all, these reasons must be compelling. The reader must side with the action hero in not shooting the bad guy. He must empathize with the heroine in her suffering for unattainable love. He must be as baffled as the police as to the identity of the criminal. If the reader grows frustrated with the behavior of the characters and sees a simpler solution to their dilemma, he will quickly lose interest in the story.

The plot wagon is all about the journey. The story will eventually end. The reader must have enjoyed the trip for the story to have been successful. At every crossroads, the reader is asking the character, “Is there any other choice you can make that would be better?” The writer had better be asking that same question, and if he can come up with a good answer, chase it. The plot wagon will trundle on with or without the characters. The reader won’t mind diverging every now and then if it means an interesting plot point or character moment, but each of those rabbit trails needs to feed back to the main road, or the reader will feel cheated out of the story that has occurred along the way.

Climbing the Plot Tree

Conflict drives the action in your story and makes the reader care about your characters, their failures, and their triumphs. Your plot may be thought of as a tree. The characters are trying to reach the top of the tree. Conflict determines which branches they climb on the way to the top. Conflict in a story comes from two sources, internal and external.

Internal conflict originates from within a character. It stems from the decisions he makes and how he feels about his choices. A character’s internal conflict drives him to choose one course of action over another. Internal conflict causes a character to choose different branches of the plot tree based on how he feels about following that course. Branches may be chosen because they look more stable and attractive, or because of the view they offer of the landscape. Internal conflict causes characters to climb the plot tree while focusing on themselves, how choices will affect them personally, and what things seem more attractive at any given time. This character is less concerned with getting to the top of the tree than with carefully choosing his own path.

External conflict gets the character to the top of the plot tree by the most secure means possible. Branches of the tree are chosen based on their inherent stability, ease of access, or perceived danger. External conflict comes from branches that are rotten inside, too small to bear the weight of the character, or blocked from the top by larger branches. Forces completely outside the tree may drive character choices, as if someone were standing at the base and throwing stones at the character. The character following a path of external conflict is less concerned with choosing branches based on how they make him feel and more concerned with the ability of the branch to bear the weight of the story.

The journey of the character through the plot tree is seldom going to follow only one course or the other. Ideally, characters should complete their journey of self-discovery while navigating the plot along those lines that make the best story choices. The goal is to get to the top of the plot tree, and make the climb and interesting one.