Friday, July 15, 2011


By Russel D McLean

I’ve been reading a lot again recently. There’s been a lot of travelling back and forth for me to various places, so I’ve been using the time to catch up on reading and get more reviews done etc. Many of the books I’ve read recently have had preposterous and possibly insane plots. The majority, to be fair of them worked. But one didn’t. And while I know with that one, my opinion is likely to be a minority (the author is hugely popular), I’ve been tryng to pinpoint why it didn’t work while the others did.

And I’ve realised it’s because I felt the whole time like that author was bending over backwards to make his plot sound plausible. He dotted every t. Crossed every i.*He explained every double cross, made sure we knew precisely why something was happening. And precisely how it was happening.

And you know what?

I got bored.

I’ve got a tract I run on occasionally where I talk about how movies and TV are actually a purer kind of storytelling than most novels. Why? Because they have little choice but to tell their tales through action and conflict because that’s all they’ve got. Can you imagine the director suddenly walking into shot to explain the precise mechanics of the gun that Arnie’s using to mow down thousands of bad guys? Talking you through the history of the weapon, the kind of guys that use it, all that shite? It would kill the action and yet so many thriller writers do this every day, and its no wonder I quit reading because, guess what, I’m interested in the goddamn story and the characters and I’m willing to trust that what you’re doing is at least plausible in the real world.
“Yeah,” says research author, “But if you don’t put that in you’ll have the gun nuts decrying your innacurate use of a weapon.”

Bollocks. Put in only the information you need and it doesn’t matter. Make it plausible, ensure your scene is possible and let the mechanics take care of themselves. Yes, it does matter if you click the safety on a model of gun that doesn’t have a safety, but that’s simply solved by taking away the action of flicking the safety not explaining to me why the damn gun doesn’t have a switch in excruciating detail.

Because in the grand scheme of things, what matters in a story are narrative and emotion. The rest is window dressing. And yes films have a huge amount going on in the background that has been researched, designed and created in perfect detail, but the fact is that all of these details are on screen for less than a second and what the viewer is really watching is the central actor and their journey.

But that’s going slightly off my original point, which was the author intervening to explain every plot point and not just those technical aspects, but the exact and detailed reasons why everything happened (and stuffing it all in close to the conclusion, too: something that really bugs me).

Trust your readers.

They’ll fill in more gaps than you think. And if you feel you have to bolster your twists with a thousand words of explanation that put every piece of the puzzle in place for the hard of thinking, maybe your twist isn’t actually working. Maybe you don’t have the confidence in it that you think you do. Maybe you haven’t laid the groundwork for it early enough in the novel if you have to explain it all in that last fifty pages. At the very least spread out those revelations. Spoon feed the reader slowly. Don't choke them with ludicrously large portions of exposition (that could easily be delivered through action rather than authorial intervention or worse authorial intervention posing as character's dialogue).

Trust your story.

Trust your characters.

Trust your readers.

Here endeth the rant.

*or whichever way round that goes


Dana King said...

I couldn't agree more. I believe the author is required to explain only as much as he forces himself to. To use your example, if I say only that the shooter has a gun, I don't need to worry whether it has a safety or not; it will be assumed I chose a gun that does. If I get into detail about what kind of Glock it is and get hung up on my safety issue, that's my fault. (Similar issues exist with revolvers/automatics.0

My favorite writers/TV shows/movies don't feel the need to explain everything to me. They make me pay attention, to see the context in which terms are used and things happen to figure out what's going on. (Within reason, of course.) It makes the reader a far more active participant.

Sarah Tokeley said...

I think you nailed it when you said 'trust the reader'. Please let me work some things out for myself.