Thursday, 17 February 2011

Never Do Convenient Writing

So there I was sitting on the bus quietly reading The Legacy by Kathryn Webb when suddenly she did something so dreadful, so awful, I actually groaned. The main character is looking for the missing clue when she goes to visit some acquaintances, one of whom has just had a baby. They've been talking about babies and mutual friends for four pages.

Then, completely out of the blue, the new mother pipes up: "I was wondering if you'd tell me again why Grandpa Flag was called Flag? I know someone told me before when we were little - but I can't remember it properly now."

And whoppee, the answer is EXACTLY what the main character needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle of the plot.

Now, I accept this might happen. But I can't remember asking my mother a question about my family history without there being some sort of lead up to it. And for the previous four pages there hasn't been. This particular question is exceptionally useful, but so lacking in any context it's implausible for it to be there, except for the author's convenience. And at that point the story lost it for me. I couldn't take any of it seriously any more. Which was a pity, because I'd already read over 300 pages.

Convenient writing is the kiss of death for the reader. They've committed themselves to these characters and their story, the last thing they want to be reminded of is that it's all a contrivance. We're trying to create a real world here, with real people doing real stuff. It has to be plausible within its own terms (eg werewolves are fine, so long as what they can and can't do is consistent). One of the wonderful things about Philip Pullman's Northern Lights was that it created a world so real and consistent, it was a surprise that when I came back to my reality I didn't have my own daemon.

It's convenient when the doorbell/phone rings at the crucial moment (unless we've set up a character saying I'll call back tomorrow).
It's convenient when the characters need an X, and a passer by says I happen to have one here.
It's convenient when the missing information is handed to a character without them having to work at it.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we know that Charlie Bucket is going to find the golden ticket because there won't be much of a story if he doesn't, but he doesn't find it on his first bar of chocolate - that would be convenient. Make the characters - and us - work for their opportunities, and you won't have your readers groaning on the bus.


Anonymous said...

Great advice here. thanks!
A short while ago I had a 'convenient' moment in my story which was far to easy. I have now weaved it in from the start and even though it is still, probably, convenient - it is definitely more plausible.

Penelope Overton said...

This is very good, that stuff can be laugh out loud or groan out loud.

One of the signs of deft and high quality writing can be to turn the convenience into its opposite - a lack of having the answer on a plate - make it more difficult for the characters.

You go to your mothers to ask why your grandfather was called Flag, come right out with it just like that, and she refuses and vows she'll never let you in on that secret. Now you have a story.

It's counter-intuitive for the writer, because we're geared up to want an easy life, but leading your characters out of a mess is the whole point.

Chris Stovell said...

Good point! Will now be watching the WIP for any stray 'convenient' moments!

badas2010 said...

Thanks for this advice - like Chris, I'll be watching for it in future.
SD strikes again.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks for the comments, glad to have been of help. It did occur to me afterwards that there was a simple way she could have got round the 'convenience' situation - a baby had just been born, so what would have been more natural that to discuss possible baby names, at which point, the naming of Grandpa could have come up.

There's always a solution, but sometimes it's hard to see the problem.

Jim Murdoch said...

I reviewed a book recently – a book written by an author who had the misfortune of being tipped as the next big thing – this was her ‘difficult’ second novel and although it was well written enough it had one major flaw: everything was too neat. If I can use another Star Trek example, every time they clobber an alien guard and swap clothes the outfit always fits perfectly – none of the aliens are two-feet tall and have four arms. The exact same thing happens with this book: she steals some clothes and they’re a perfect fit; the case she pulls off the shelf to carry them in has all the bits of paper she needs already in it. No one’s moved or changed phone numbers. Of course coincidences do happen and often that’s what sparks off an adventure but not too many please and also please include a MacGuffin and a few red herrings.

Kath McGurl said...

You know, I think I groaned at that moment in The Legacy too, although on the whole I loved the book.

You can't have convenience or coincidence in a book or story - it has to be more plausible than reality, even though you're making it all up!

Pauline Barclay said...

Thanks for the advice, this added with your other pearls of wisdeom sit close by as I work on my writing. Thank you Sarah.

Sarah Duncan said...

Some where I have a list of 'things that only happen in the movies', like always having the right money for taxi rides and things like that. You can get away with it sometimes, but it does grate.

I'm glad I wasn't the only one groaning! And it would have been really easy to fix too.

Pauline, hope what you're kind enough to call my pearls help with the writing.

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