Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling #10 + Amphigory

First off, a quick visual pun:

 

 

In order to get the pun, you have to know what kind of activity all these folks are engaging in.  Hint: It's more than just a simple dance. 

Now, onto today's feature article. 

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use.)

#10: Coincidental Meetings and Discoveries

This is one of the biggest 'corners' that I've noticed we writers tend to cut.  In fiction, we depend a lot on coincidence.  A well told story covers it up, but the truth is that it's there. 

In a way, this makes a lot of sense.  I just wrote a chapter where I needed two characters to have a conversation.  I sent one looking for the other, and rather than spending a lot of boring time narrating the search (or even covering it in a paragraph saying "He spent a lot of boring time searching) I just had him run into the person coming the other direction down the street.

If you think about it, this is a terrible coincidence. And yet, narratively, it can stand.  Why?  Because the reader knows they're both in the city, and they're both out and about.  There's more to it than this, however.  Often, you'll read a chapter where characters go on and off stage in rapid succession, keeping the pacing up by having the main character talk to one, then another, then another.  Everyone arrives in a careful, behind-the scenes orchestration of timing.  Just as soon as we're done with one conversation, another character arrives from doing whatever it is that they need to tell the reader about and enters a conversation.

It's more common than you think--it works particularly well on a show like E.R., where the quick rotation of conversations and interactions gives an aura of urgency and immediacy to the storytelling.  Yet, you see it a lot in books, too.  Just as a character finishes thinking through a poignant problem, there will be a knock at the door, and we'll be moved on to the next important scene.

This works a lot with clues and discoveries, too--particularly at the beginnings of stories.  I'd call a coincidental discovery anything that occurs not because of the character's skill or intention, but something that they just 'happen' to see or encounter.  This is the discovery of a dropped wallet near the crime scene, or the time where a character notices an important detail that they normally would have passed over.

Is this bad storytelling?  In a way, I think it is.  For the purposes of this essay, I'm calling 'bad storytelling' anything where if the reader thinks too hard about what just happened, it will pull them out of the narrative.  Should we stop using it?  On that, I'm not exactly sure.  It fulfills a function in keeping scenes moving and flowing, and it gets information to the reader that simply NEEDS to be there.

However, used too often--or in to important a scene--and suddenly things begin to look TOO coincidental, even in a fabricated world like that of a fictional narrative.  We authors walk a fine line between illusion and reality, and when the illusion deteriorates, the realty that is left is simply a bunch of words on a page. (Or, pixels on a screen.)  Sometimes, the show 24 breaks down for me like this--too many coincidences in a row, contrived to keep the show moving at the clip it does, make me stop and realize that it's JUST a show.

And that's the last thing we storytellers want.

And so, I guess my thoughts on this item are this: Be careful.  Don't overuse a good tool.  When you have a discovery to give a reader, try and tie it to some kind of skill or aptitude on the hero's part.  Sherlock Holmes gets around some of these discoveries because of the foreshadowing of his power of observation.  Some coincidental meetings can be avoided by simply making an appointment beforehand. 

The trick with most of these things I'll be listing is that while they're technically elements of bad storytelling, they're still things that we HAVE to use occasionally.  The better a writer becomes, in my opinion, the more they learn WHERE to cut the corner and where to avoid doing so.  There are a lot of rules that writers like to give out as advice to new authors.  The thing is, we break our own rules all the time.  In a 200,000 word book, you often just can't afford to make every meeting foreshadowed.  Still, one could argue that this is a crutch, and so it lands at number ten on my list--least grievous of the sins we like to use, but still something to keep an eye on.

(And, all in all, this is one I have to watch out for--since I like things to tie up neatly in my book, it's easy for me to make the stories TOO tight.  If there aren't flaws or aberrations, it doesn't feel right--just like the airbrushed faces of models in magazines just seem too flawless to be pretty, to me.)

Next up: #9  What will it be?  More tomorrow!

(And, once again, this is a rough draft of the essay.  I'll edit, and probably cut down the size, as I polish.)

3 Comments:

Blogger Summer Reader said...

It's interesting that plot elements that we criticize come up quite a bit in now classic novels. Magwitch, anyone? There is a lot of coincidence all through Dickens, and quite a bit in Austen if I remember correctly.

Do you think part of the reason that writers have turned away from these kinds of coincidences because reader tastes have changed? That's probably a chicken-egg question when you think about it. Did realism come about because that's what people wanted to read? Or did people make it popular when writers turned to realism?

8:03 PM  
Blogger Brandon Sanderson said...

That's a good point. One of the people I'll use often in these essays is Tolkien.

I DO think that we've learned a lot about writing during the last few centuries. Remember, the novel is a fairly new genre. I think we're figuring a lot out about how to make a story more engaging and believable.

Also, I think that readers now have changed to like things more fast-paced and dynamic, particularly when it comes to popular fiction.

However, just because an author uses some of these things doesn't make them a bad writer. The thing is, I think that what divides the good writers from the inexperienced is often the ability to use elements of 'Bad' storytelling in a way that advances the story without drawing the reader's attention to the trick used.

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1:22 AM  

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