Plot

The Science in Fiction

Recently I read an (old) article that was complaining about the practice of pointing out scientific errors in movies. The author of the piece was quite worked up about it, and his basic argument was, “It’s fiction. Escapist entertainment. It doesn’t matter if the science is wrong! Shut up and enjoy the movie!”

Now, to a point, he’s right. Many films have scientifically inaccurate things that we can overlook because they’re minor and don’t affect the plot. But once scientific ignorance does affect the plot, that’s when we, as writers, should have a real problem with it.

A lot depends on the type of story you’re telling, of course. For example, superhero movies defy physics to a crazy degree. But the very idea of superheroes sets the tone for how much we’re going to ruin science. This is why we can accept that Tony Stark is not turned to mush inside his Iron Man suit during a nuclear explosion.

Iron Man: “What the hell?”

And more “serious” or “down to earth” stories should have limits that are even stricter, which is why we can’t (or shouldn’t) accept that Indiana Jones wasn’t turned to mush inside a refrigerator during a nuclear explosion.

Audience: “What the hell?”

The example I give in my fiction writing classes is the movie Jurassic Park. (Yes, I’ll suspend disbelief enough to accept that ancient DNA could still be viable, even though it degrades to be useless in about a million years.) What I’m talking about is a point, early in the film, where Dr. Grant is freaking out a kid in describing how velociraptors attack. And he says something to the effect of, “You freeze… because you think maybe the velociraptor’s visual acuity is based on movement, like the T-Rex. So if you’re not moving, it can’t see you.”

The first time I watched the film, I just sat there with my jaw hanging open. And in my head, I was screaming, “WTF are you talking about!? You cannot know that from studying bones!” Now, had this just been a throwaway line, I’d have been willing to let it go. But it wasn’t. Later in the film, this “fact” saved him from being eaten by a T-Rex.

Yes, stand still. I don’t like fast food.

The most unforgivable part of this shoddy writing is that it could have been shown that the T-Rex’s vision worked this way, since they’d been studying live dinosaurs. It could have been something they learned and Grant could have been advised of this when he arrived. So there was no need for the inaccuracy in the first place, which makes it all the more unforgivable, from a writing standpoint.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Jurassic Park’s scientific blunder is nothing compared to other films, some of which are ridiculously wrong on so many scientific things that they’re unwatchable. And yes, as a viewer/reader, I’m willing to suspend disbelief… but only so far. And as writers, we should respect our readers enough to care about keeping things accurate.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Plot, 0 comments

Why You Should Torture Your Characters

Writing good characters can be torture. Or, at least, it should be.

Oh, I don’t mean for the writer. I mean for the character.

One of the biggest problems I see in novice fiction (and, um, many major Hollywood productions) is that the protagonists are never challenged to any real degree. I’ve read stories and seen movies wherein the hero practically waltzes through all the challenges without so much as breaking a fingernail.

Just gonna drop this here…

Good stories, though, lay setback after setback on the protagonist, making his or her ultimate success all the more rewarding to the audience.

“Where doesn’t it hurt?”

But let’s talk about this from the writer’s perspective. Challenging our characters is essential to a good plot. And let’s face it: it’s fun to write our characters into tough situations, to hurt them, to make them bleed and suffer and…

Um… yeah.

It’s easy to get carried away, too.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, one of my test readers was my first wife. She was the one who first got to read new chapters, to see what new hell I was putting my hero through.

Sometimes, though, she didn’t need to wait to read them. She knew something was up when she’d hear my (easily mistaken for evil) laugh coming from the den, where I was writing.

“Oh, boy,” I heard her drawl from the living room. “What did you do to him now?”

What didn’t I do to him?

Could’ve been a lot of things. I admit I fucked him up pretty good, both physically and emotionally. But I did it not because I was sadistic, but because this was a character who had absolutely no reason to be successful in everything he attempted. Sure, I could have gone easier on him.

But where’s the fun in that?

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process, 1 comment

Learn From the Masters

It’s often said that to be a good writer, you not only need to write a lot, but read a lot. You can learn plenty from reading good writing. And this is quite true. But frequently, what you learn is how not to do something.

For example, I recently finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors. In fact, if I had to name one author who most influenced my writing, it would be this guy. I first read the book when I was still in high school and have read it several times, though it’s probably been twenty years since my last reading of it. However, after this experience, I’m hesitant to re-read other old favorites. Because this time, the book really bothered me.

I still admire the work for the ideas it put forth, the impact it had on so very many people (and on society, for that matter), and continue to view it as a remarkable novel. It is rightfully viewed as this author’s masterpiece (though it has never been my absolute favorite of his books). I’m not going to name the author or the book, because I don’t want to see a bunch of emails telling me that I’m an idiot, that it’s a phenomenal book, etc.

The thing is, in the decades since I last read this book, I’ve published four books of my own. I’ve become a better writer during that time, and now, looking at this novel with more experienced eyes, I see lots of problems with it, problems that – were they to come from my own hand – I would find mortifying.

Virtually the entire story, for example, is told via dialogue. There is very little description, very little exposition. This is not uncommon in this author’s work, and because these works influenced my younger self quite a lot, my early writing also had a lot of plot in the dialogue. But that’s not what dialogue is for. Sure, conveying some information pertinent to the plot via dialogue is okay, but it should be limited. In this book, it is anything but.

Another problem very common in this author’s works is that the protagonists are hardly ever seriously challenged. They encounter no major setbacks, and they always seem to be financially well off, so money is never the concern it is for most people. Without challenge, a character can’t grow, nor can the reader feel much suspense. The ultimate impact of the book will be lessened.

Did you not have an editor or what?

Being a writer essentially forces me to look at any story, whether books or movies, from a writer’s perspective. And as this example shows, it often reduces my enjoyment of the stories – even when the works themselves are praised, and by highly regarded writers.

So yes… read a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Just don’t be surprised when what you learn is how not to write.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Dialogue, Plot, Problems, Writing Process, 0 comments

Who’s Writing This Stuff?

One of the more interesting things about fiction writing is when your characters assert themselves, taking your story in a direction you didn’t expect. This has happened to me a few times over the years. Most recently, just this past weekend.

It began simply enough. I’d reached a point in the new book (Redemption, the sequel to Reckoning) where my protagonist was dealing with some difficult decisions and relationship issues. And then, as I was considering them, she said, “Dude, look… if I’m dealing with relationship issues right now, don’t you think there’s a pretty big one hanging over my life?”

Two things stand out about this. The first is that I hate it when she calls me “dude.”

Really? Why, man?

The second is that she was right. This particular relationship (an estrangement) had been casting an ugly shadow for most of her life. It was time to revisit it.

So we did. And… it went okay. Not the way I expected to, but… I liked it. The ugly shadow isn’t gone, but it’s not quite as dark as it was.

But then, while waiting for her flight at the airport, she said, “That went well. Let’s do another.” So there came a random meeting at the airport with a couple important people from her college days.

And that one went well, too. And again, in a way I didn’t expect it to go. For that matter, I never expected to revisit this particular shadow again at all.

It’s fine. We’ll come by soon.

Sometimes I wonder who’s writing this stuff.

Of course, I don’t always do what she says. I may change my mind about one or both of these events. Writing is a process, after all. Once you have an idea down, there are revisions, refinements, re-evalutations, and so on.

But when ideas seem to come to you from your characters, rather than your own conscious decision-making… I’ve found it’s usually worth a serious look.

 

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process, 0 comments

Days of Coffees Past

A few years ago, I became enamored of Turkish coffee.

Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.

I had it at a nice little place here in Sacramento called Kasbah. Technically, I had what they call Cafe Berber, which is Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom and clove. I absolutely loved it and, before too long, started making it at home. Sadly, I’ve never made it, or had it anywhere again, as good as that first time. Including the cup I’m drinking right now, which, frankly, is definitely not my best effort. But then, it’s been nearly a year since I last made it. Probably because it’s a slow process that can’t be rushed, and requires undivided attention.

The third chapter of my forthcoming book includes a scene where the protagonist is introduced to Turkish coffee. It may just be my favorite scene in the entire book. I was thinking of this scene earlier today (which is probably why I felt the need to prepare a cup), especially with regard to the way the story is going now, nearly twenty chapters later. Those early chapters have a pace to them that is fairly relaxed. And that’s as it should be, since those chapters are of times long past, in the context of the book. They’re the necessary history leading up to “today.”

Past a certain point, that relaxed pace disappears. Events take on a more urgent tone. There’s less time for waxing poetic about beverages, for example. And I find I really miss those early chapters. I’m not certain why. If I put on my psychoanalyst hat, I might posit that I’m nostalgic for those chapters in the same way that I’m nostalgic for my own younger years, that I’m having a mid-life… not “crisis,” exactly, but… something.

Nostalgia was better in the old days.

I’m not under any illusion that my younger years were idyllic. Far from it. Nor were they for my heroine. But the times then did seem simpler, less stressful, and more filled with promise and hope. “Today,” both in my life and the heroine’s, is filled with… less pleasant things.

Perhaps what my life needs is to make more Turkish coffee. It won’t change my life much, but it will add a few pockets of peaceful pleasure. And perhaps I also need to put more of that into my current writing. It is, after all, meant to be my heroine’s memoir. The later chapters could use some more deep, sweet earthiness, too.

Posted by vmwales in Details, Plot, Setting, 0 comments

Wrap It Up

Yesterday, a friend remarked to me about how she’ll often be reading a book and can’t conceive of how the author is going to tie together all the plot elements and wrap it all up. I told her that sometimes the authors wonder that, themselves. I know I do. And that’s where I am right now.

It has just hit me just how complex I’ve made the climax of this story. I’ve complicated matters by having the climactic scene take place in a location that, by its nature, adds several obstacles to the success of the protagonist. I could change this, of course, and that would make things significantly easier on me. But that’s the lazy way out. The more challenging it is for the writer to pull off, the more rewarding the payoff for the reader.

Today, there won’t be any new writing. Today is plotting and planning, weighing all the possible avenues, not just for the big finish, but for how each approach to the finish will affect the first sequel.

Too… many… choices…

Am I sure I can pull it off the way I want to? Actually, no.

But that will make it all the more satisfying when I do.

Posted by vmwales in Endings, Plot, Writing Process, 0 comments

Writer’s Cul-de-Sac

As an extension to my last entry, “Writer’s Detour,” I thought I’d mention another hazard on the road of writing. See, I have a tendency to get tripped up in my own plots. I seem to write myself into a plot corner at least once in every book. Writing my way out of it is sometimes easy, sometimes not, but never is there a clear way out.

I’m unclear… What are you trying to say?

When I was writing the previously mentioned unpublished first novel, I’d written myself into a doozie. I was utterly stumped. I had an event that absolutely had to happen, or else there was no story. In order for this event to occur, two other events needed to take place. Problem was… one of them couldn’t happen.

One evening, a friend and I were sitting at our local restaurant hangout. I had the manuscript with me (written in longhand, this being before I even owned a computer) and was fretting over the problem, staring at the offending pages. My friend was an avid reader, so I thought I’d voice the problem to him. I pointed to relevant lines of text as I described the problem, finishing up with, “But that event can’t happen…” My voice trailed off as my finger traced a line under a few words on the page. I blinked stupidly. “…unless I delete this sentence.”

My friend nodded sagely and said, “Glad I could help.”

In my most recent day of writing, I realized I’d unwittingly set myself up with a seemingly insurmountable barrier to the plot moving forward. It was something I’d (obviously) never thought of before. Damn that pesky thing called factual accuracy!

Maybe I’m getting better at this whole writing thing, because – after less than two days of fretting over it – I had one of those moments of inspiration where the solution came to me. And I’m pretty happy with it, too.

And remember… If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Let’s hope my next dead end is so easily escaped.

Posted by vmwales in Inspiration, Plot, Writing Process, 0 comments