Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

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Outlander: Monsters, Villains, and Redemption

(A note:  I drafted this some time ago, when the second season of Outlander was wrapping up on Starz. But as the new season has started filming  … I thought I’d go ahead and publish it, as it contains what I think are some Rather Important Points.)

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Tobias Menzies – Parade.com 

A few weeks ago, I made an impassioned plea to the writers of the series Outlander to get to know the characters a bit better before they started to write about them willy-nilly. But this week’s episode left me particularly disappointed and dismayed.

Outlander, to recap, is the first book in a series by Diana Gabaldon. The series focuses on the story of Claire Beauchamp, thrown back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. There, she’s forced to wed young Jamie Fraser for protection, and quite against her intentions, falls in love with him. She chooses to remain in 1743, forsaking her 20th century husband Frank Randall, and she and Jamie start a quest to stop the Battle of Culloden Field, the last gasp of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 – and the event that destroys the Highlands and the clans.

As I’ve said before – YES. I know that adaptations have to be slightly different from the books for various reasons, including time constraints, money, etc. But the characters? They have to remain the same. HAVE TO. Otherwise, why are you bothering to even try to create a television series from the book? Millions of people love these characters, and are expecting the writers to Get It Right.

Nowhere is that more important than in the main antagonists, though. Take away their characters, and what do you have? No one for the protagonists to go up against, to react to.

Such was the case this week with Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall, of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.

Masterfully played by Tobias Menzies, Randall is the one character – as Diana Gabaldon has often said – that people simply cannot quite grasp. They constantly ask how did this awful, evil person come out of YOU?! How could you write him like this? What was your inspiration? And as she’s also often said – a writer has all their characters inside them already. Randall is as much a part of her as Claire and Jamie are. What makes him so awful, you ask? Well . . . for starters, he’s a sadist. The very first time he meets with Claire, he attempts to rape her; the second time, fed up with Claire’s inability to answer his questions, he hits her hard in the stomach (“I trust you are not with child, Madam,” he said in a conversational tone, “because if you are, you won’t be for long.”). The third time, he tries to rape her in front of her new husband. The fourth time . . . well.

And yet. Gabaldon takes pains to paint him as a full, nuanced man. Take for instance this scene from Outlander (which also highlights Claire’s sarcasm, notably absent in the TV series, too):

“Don’t tell me,” I said finally. “Let me guess. It’s a new form of persuasion you’ve invented – torture by bladder. You ply me with drinkables until I promise to tell you anything in exchange for five minutes with a chamber pot.”

He was so taken by surprise that he actually laughed. . . . Having let the facade crack, he didn’t stifle the laugh, but let it go. Finished, he stared at me again, a half-smile lingering on his mouth.

“Whatever else you may be, Madam, at least you’re a diversion.” He yanked a bellpull hanging by the door, and when the orderly reappeared, instructed him to convey me to the necessary facilities.

As readers, we need this three-dimensionality. We need to see Randall as more than a caricature, more than the ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Sure, he’s a sadist, but he’s a sadist with a sense of humor.

However, to understand how truly depraved he is, you have to know that in the end, he forces Jamie, already in prison, to trade his body for Claire’s – and Jamie has to prove the point by allowing Randall to nail his hand to a table. By the end of the first book, you know one thing about Randall:  he is evil, pure and simple. Even a demon can have a sense of humor.

Had Gabaldon left it there, that would be one thing. But she didn’t. No. Because she’s a better writer than that. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, we learn that Jack Randall has a younger brother, Alex, who is quite ill. When Alex loses his job, Randall steps in, paying for his room, his medicine, and in the end, tracking down Claire in Edinburgh to request her help. No, it’s not entirely without benefit to him:  part of their unholy deal is that he is able to relive Jamie’s rape at leisure with the one person on earth who knows him the way he does. “We are linked, you and I, through the body of one man – through him.” But Randall is willing to trade British Army secrets – turn traitor – in exchange for Claire’s medical skills. Because there is one thing in life he loves – his brother. So much that he even marries Alex’s pregnant sweetheart, at Alex’s request.

In the book, you understand that whatever else Randall is – and he’s quite a lot of Really Bad Things – he has one redemption:  his love for Alex. It is these final scenes, more than anything else, that ’round out’ Jack Randall, making him fully human. In real life, there are true monsters – but in fiction, unless you’re writing some Die Hard fanfic, even your antagonists have to have a redemption. Gabaldon made the difficult and correct decision to allow Randall this, so that we might see both sides to him.

But in the show . . . OMG.

I’ve been disappointed in a lot of episodes, but this one truly disgusted me on several levels, not the least of which was the utter lack of redemption Jack Randall was given. Throughout the show he’s been portrayed as nothing other than a sadistic, evil rapist. And in this episode, nothing changed. Alex made the request; Randall denied him and stormed out. We got one small glimpse – early in the episode, Randall found Claire and asked her to tend Alex, and she made the bargain:  she’ll care for Alex in exchange for intelligence on the British Army. Rightfully so, Randall was infuriated. So was I. This is a man willing to turn traitor if it will help his brother, and yet, the show’s writers can’t even give him that?

But wait, it gets worse! He refused to marry Alex’s sweetheart, Mary; when Claire tracked him down and demanded he reconsider, he basically said, “You know what I am and what I do. You’d turn a sweet, innocent girl like that over to me?” He is given no redemption. Ever. Not even in those final moments when Alex dies . . . rather than weep at his bedside, he jumps on the bed and punches Alex’s corpse. Not once, but several times. And makes no apology for it. (If it makes you feel better, he won’t be alive much longer anyway. At least, if the writers don’t screw that up, too. However, I have little hope of that at this moment.)

Let me be clear:  Diana Gabaldon doesn’t go too far with trying to redeem Randall. She remains true to his sadistic nature throughout. But.

Jack Randall is a complicated character, as all great antagonists should be.

At least, in the books, he is.

Plotters Anonymous

“Hi, I’m Robyn, and I have a problem with plotting.”

(A chorus of “Hi, Robyn!” goes up around the room. Someone says, “So how long has this problem been going on?”)

It’s hard to say. I never used to think about plotting. I mean, who does when they first start out? You’re just excited about the characters and the setting, and sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and write, or you get home late from work and write to unwind, and you just don’t think about the plot, because you have to get the story out. You know? And then one day you wake up and realize you’ve Got A Problem.

“Tell us about it!”

Glad you asked. I used to be a pantser. Sometimes, I pretend I still am. I used to just let the characters dictate the story to me. I’d write for hours, letting them do whatever they wanted. The coolest part? Waking up and realizing that I didn’t remember a single thing I’d just written. It was all fresh and new, and exciting. I had no idea what I’d written, but I liked it. It was good.

And then . . . I sort of stopped doing that.

“Why? What happened?”

I don’t remember when, or why. I just remember things going differently for me. I mean, I’d get flashes of scenes and dialogue, and I’d write them down, and then I started having to work different hours, and . .  . I went to college. That was it. I’m sure that’s then the problems really started. Academic writing requires thinking and planning and thesis statements and proof and research. Outlines. Drafts. Somehow . .  . somehow, that made it into my fiction. Yes. I’m sure of it. That’s when it happened. That’s when it all changed.

And now . . . I’m stuck.

(Lots of nodding heads and knowing looks.)

Yes. I have a plot problem.

This is the typical plot diagram we all know and love –Plot-Structure-Diagram-800x618 and love to hate. Looks simple enough, doesn’t it? Fill in the blanks, and make up the rest. So why isn’t it easy for me? Why can’t I use this darn thing? I see it, I want to use it – but you might as well be asking me to do a complex equation in theoretical physics. In fact, that might be easier.

(A few laughs. Someone in the back starts to hum “Soft Kitty.”)

It’s not funny! Not really. I mean, I know my characters so well, and . . . but do I? Do I really? (I look around the room, into eyes that are beginning to question my sanity.) You know, I’m not sure I do. Not all of them.

Not my antagonist.

Your protagonist can only be as great as your antagonist makes him. Isn’t that right? So what is my antagonist doing to my protagonist? While she’s working on subplots and research and all that, what is my antagonist doing behind the scenes? Holy cow. Is that it? Can it be that simple? Can it be as simple as what is my antagonist doing to get what it wants?

It’s the same question my MC always asks, too. What does this thing want? It’s an answer she does get in the end, but . . . what is the antagonist doing to get what it wants during the rest of the novel? Not a damn thing! Not really.

And that’s one of the problems with plotting, and one that I think a lot of books and articles on plotting don’t really talk about:  your antagonist drives the plot just as much as your MC and your secondary characters. It has to, doesn’t it? Your MC wants something. So does your antagonist. What they want is often either the same thing, or things that are at cross-purposes with each other. Think about Indiana Jones and Rene Belloq. They want the same thing:  the Ark of the Covenant. But they want it for totally different reasons. Or think about Harry Potter and Professor Quirrell. Quirrell wants the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry wants to keep him from having it. (Though it’s funny that in both cases, what’s driving the antagonist is loyalty to a background character – for Belloq, the Nazis; for Quirrell, Voldemort.) Take Katniss and President Snow, then. Snow needs Katniss to do just one thing:  either win or lose the Hunger Games. But Katniss isn’t going to let him have what he needs, is she? Nope.

Your antagonist does need a good reason for doing what he’s doing, and wanting what he wants. Your antagonist needs to be believable, after all. Is it a crossroads demon that needs to collect souls? We get that. Is it a vampire that needs to drink blood and keep its secret from the world? We get it. Is your antagonist a power-hungry politician? We’ll be rooting for him to die at the end. 🙂 Either way, both of them have to drive the plot.

Your MC is only as great as your antagonist makes him. Your plot, therefore, can only be as great as they both make it.

I’ve got some work to do. 🙂

The diagram can be found at www.stanthonygardena.org.