Thursday, August 28, 2014

PITFALLS: 2 - Colloquialism

Def jams, yo
Someone recently asked what makes people stop reading a book in annoyance, what kind of thing is so offensive or just frustrating about a book that you quit instead of reading it.  There are a lot of common answers to this, but one of the things that annoys me most is when a writer can't keep their writing in genre.

The film A Knight's Tale and especially Your Highness did this extensively.  By trying to appeal to modern audiences, they used period or fantasy settings with jarringly modern language, attitudes, and even music.  The most recent adaptation of Moulin Rouge had hip hop music in it and included buildings and architectural style that developed after the story is set.

In a literary setting one example is The Mummy or Ramses the Damned by Anne Rice, where it is set in time by referring to Verdi's Aida being written 50 years in the past, which would mean the story takes place in the roaring twenties.  But there's no reference to WWI, the fashions are Victorian, and there's a reference to the Egyptian Department of Antiquities which would certainly have come up in a story about a mummy.  Its possible she had in mind an alternate reality or history, but also possible she just didn't bother with much research and didn't care.

Many historical novels fall prey to this, with the characters using modern slang, having modern attitudes and behavior, and even referring to things that didn't exist at the time.  Feminist women who defy convention are a regular injection into period novels, either due to the writer's personal feelings or some market sense that this will sell better to women.  One such woman might be a prodigy, but if most or all of the women of the time are this sort, then its a problem.  Why bother writing a historical novel if you don't care for and want to avoid the setting?

There are times when an author can get away with this, by using it for humor or have only one minor example used effectively, such as a minor character moved a few years for an encounter.  Another usually accepted use is romanticism, such as the King Arthur stories having men in full plate armor with stone castles, when the tale is set much earlier before those developments in Briton.

Science Fiction can get away with this easier, as it can use time travel, alternate historical settings, and alien influence.  Having a Connecticut Yankee show up in King Arthur's Court (said Court being set in the 1300s or so) can happen in science fiction.  However, even with such a setting the author should be careful to keep their setting consistent; no jazz played in a story set in 900 BC, even if the story is about a time traveler.  Unless its on his I-Pod or something.

Fantasy writers in particular are challenged by this.  If you build a separate world and carefully craft its magic system and races, draw a fascinating map in Tolkien's style, and invent a powerful dynasty of kings, then have the characters refer to molecules, DNA, and say things like "the cat's out of the bag" then you need a very good excuse.

In a fantasy novel the writer has to either explain carefully or utterly avoid colloquialisms, idioms, and real world scientific devices.  Things we take for granted such as standard measurements and weights, catch phrases, and cultural references generally make no sense in a fantasy novel.

If your characters in a medieval fantasy setting are measuring weights by kilograms and dismiss the possibility of a creature because of evolutionary biology, where did they come by this knowledge and system?  We in modern culture are so comfortable and familiar with science that sometimes it is difficult to avoid slipping references and assumptions about it into our work.

And now, some tasty licks.
And the slang we use so readily makes no sense coming from someone from an entirely different world.  "The cat's out of the bag" is a 17th century British Naval reference, to when the cat-o-nine tails was pulled out of its baize sack to begin lashing a sailor.  Once that thing came out, it was too late for the punishment to stop.  For a fantasy character to make that reference, they not only have to be familiar with the terms, but it has to be such a culturally established and ubiquitous phrase that everyone knows what it means without explanation.

This can be difficult and frustrating.  Terms such as "thug" (from the Thugee cult in India, not used until after the 1830s) are so presumed and comfortable that a writer may never even notice their use.  Its a struggle to try to clean all this up in a manuscript.

So either you have to come up with another explanation (perhaps something based on a pun such as in the Xanth books) or just abandon its use entirely.  Because each time this happens, you reduce the immersion of the reader.

Immersion is when your reader has been pulled into the story so well that they at least partly are willing to believe this is real, so that they forget its a story to some degree and begin to feel a part of what is taking place.  This is a beautiful place for a reader to be, from the perspective of an author, and anything you do to damage that is not beautiful at all.

Any time you find yourself using a phrase that you loved in the last film you saw, or that has become commonplace (such as "...really?" used sarcastically, or even older slang like "cool" and "awesome") stop and ask yourself if that fits in your world or setting.

Because if it doesn't, it hurts your story and you'll hear about it from sharp-eyed readers.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PITFALLS: 1 - Contrivances

Immense dark side power, impossible to detect
There are some fun lists and articles written every so often about things that writers should avoid.  A recent one is 75 ways your book might be a cheap rip off of Tolkien.  In this they ask questions such as:
  • 'Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?'
  • 'Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about "The One" who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?'
  • 'Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won't break the plot?'
  • 'Is the evil supreme bad guy secretly the father of your main character?'
The bulk of these questions are about ideas that were once fresh and interesting, but have become so overused and tired that they are starting to define poorly written fantasy.  Its not that they couldn't be used interestingly and with a fresh approach, only that they've become cliche in the worst sense of the word.  

Yes, another book about a minor character who becomes of immense importance, with a vastly powerful item they must guard to defeat the all powerful evil bad guy. And oh, there's a somewhat absent minded mentor who conveniently doesn't help out very much or even tell everything they should because otherwise the story wouldn't unfold the way the writer wants.

Which brings us to the point of this post.  This is the first in a series on things to avoid as an author.  Most of the time I support and encourage people in what they do, even if it seems like its been done before, because everyone has a fresh way of telling a story.  By the time the Harry Potter books came out, the prophesied One who was destined to defeat the all powerful overlord using powerful artifacts was so overdone and dusty that the whole concept was looking much like a mummy.

But J.K. Rowling made it interesting and fresh by how she told the story.  Like I said in my post on ideas, its not the idea that is good or bad, but how you write it.  If you can make a story about a teenage girl in a love triangle with a vampire and a werewolf work, then you have a good story.

That said, there are things you can do horribly wrong and should strive to avoid unless you're doing it for comedic effect.  And the first of these is The Contrivance.
  • deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.
  • created or arranged in a way that seems artificial and unrealistic.
Calvin believes in contrivance
Contrivances are the source of some of my most furious burning outrage and contempt at a book, movie, TV show, or any other media.  If you've done it, you've earned my ire, and most everyone else's that's paying attention as well.
A contrivance is when you set up a situation or have someone act in a manner not consistent or reasonable for them given their character and setting, but in a manner that achieves a goal for you as a writer, such as to get to the next part of the story.  Here are some infamous contrivances from stories in the past:
  • In Jurassic Park, when the strangely intelligent velociraptors walk past a table loaded with food to open a door and hunt children based on the sound of a falling piece of metal.
  • In Star Trek when Spock had a previously unknown second set of eyelids to prevent his character from being permanently blinded.
  • In Star Wars parts I-III the massive powers of the Jedi to sense dark jedi and the presence of other force users suddenly short circuits for the entire storyline to prevent them from noticing the obvious evil of the emperor.
  • In Harry Potter and the (Sorcerer/Philosopher)'s Stone when Harry's touch kills the evil professor Quirrell.  Actually the Harry Potter books have a lot of contrivance involving the right spell at the right moment without any previous mention of it (petrificus totalis, the spell we never use again).
  • Dickens used this almost continuously in his books.  In Oliver Twist the boy's first target to steal from just happens to be an old friend of his father's, then later is forced into a burglary of a house that turns out to be his aunt's.
  • In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the eponymous Yankee just happens to show up at the exact time an eclipse he had no plausible way of knowing about takes place.
  • Les Misérables is filled with contrived coincidences, such as Valjean leaping over a garden wall to run into the very man he saved the life of a few chapters ago (but had no way of knowing where he was).
  • In Romeo and Juliet, even Shakespeare is guilty: Romeo just happens to not get the note explaining the plan by Juliet, resulting in tragedy. If he'd gotten the note, it all would have worked out happily.
  • And of course, in The Hobbit, the party arrives at the Lonely Mountain exactly on the right day to open the secret entrance.
Nearly every romance story written has at least one ridiculous contrivance to prevent the two lovers from getting together, usually something just being normally curious or talkative would have avoided.  The heroine spots her love interest going out with another girl and hugs her, but its his sister he never mentioned!

Poorly written mysteries has the same problem, with conveniently leaving out details that solve the case (this is called "bad faith" writing, where the author gives the detective clues the reader does not have) or having incredible coincidences occur so that the reader is thrown off the scent, such as in Mystic River when the best friend kills a pedophile whose body is never found so as to appear guilty of killing the main character's daughter.

Now, they say you can get away with one convenient coincidence per episode of a TV show, and probably one or two a book is tolerable, but you should be very careful not to overuse that.  The best way to handle a plot is to avoid anything that requires a coincidence to resolve.  

The second best is to only use ones that can be plausibly explained (such as in The Hobbit; Gandalf could have reasonably timed their trip to the mountain so they would show up at the right time).  Paul Atreides just happening upon the smuggler gang that Gurney Halleck fell in with is reasonably explained by his growing prescient abilities in Dune.  Leeloo falling into the one taxi cab containing the man she has to fall in love with to save the world in Fifth Element can be explained by her being the perfect being.

And if you use convenience as a gag, its always welcome.  In the Batman TV show, he always had exactly the precise Bat-Gadget in his belt for any situation, no matter how bizarre or unreasonable.  This was played for laughs, as part of the wink and goof played along with the viewer.  Yes, its silly but the whole show was.

Yet this is used, often by otherwise quite capable authors, to the point of outrage.  It is insulting to readers and shows laziness in your plotting to have the right person show up at the right time, with the right thing, with the right people, at exactly and only time he could possibly do so to save the world.
Having your character's grandfather leave him money just when he needs it, or having him stumble across the ultimate weapon just when he's got to face the ultimate foe, or having a misunderstanding that happens only because it is required for the plot (Romeo and Juliet, above) all are no-nos.

Its not that this cannot and does not ever happen in real life, its that relying on them feels cheap to readers.  It smacks of being unable to think of any other solution, and robs readers of any sense of interesting plot development.  Some storylines almost beg for this treatment - romances for example aren't strong enough a story to carry an entire book without seemingly random and absurd things being thrown at the pair to keep them apart because the story ends when they declare their love and wed, typically.  But the best way around this is to include other elements that enrich the story and give it bulk such as a war, or business dealings, or a mystery.

Avoid contrivances like this.  Don't force your plot points on the story, let them grow and expand and move from point to point reasonably and naturally.  Your readers will thank you for it.