Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Words About Words: The Hidden Precedent

While my computer is valiantly failing to install Vista Service Pack 1 so that I can play Starcraft II, a game for which I've been waiting twelve years, I thought I'd reflect some more on the art of writing.

Pictured: A very early draft from one of my stories. Art it ain't.

When someone says something is "unprecedented," that should be a big thing. Society is structured on the basis of the known, the understood, the easily comprehensible, and something coming in out of the cold without any justification to its name besides itself will always be of concern to some people. It shows up primarily in law, but it's just as important to consider in the field of writing as well. Unprecedented appearances in written works are one of the easiest things for newcomers to misuse, and one of the most direct ways to compromise the quality of a story.

The other day I pulled such a story out of the slush pile - this is where unsolicited submissions to magazines and publishers go, generally to be sifted through by a low editor on the totem pople in the hope of finding a speck of gold amid the dross - and it does happen, though it is difficult. Some of these magazines get hundreds upon hundreds of submissions vying to fill the space of a single issue. As to whose pile it was, or whose story, I will not say because really, there's no point, but it gives me a worthwhile perspective on the creation process. The key issue is that the story involved a change brought onto a character, without his knowledge, due to his association with a particular object.

There's nothing wrong with this idea on the face of it - indeed, it's the sort of one that's been used since time immemorial, with the "particular object" usually being something of magical significance. Today, it's easy to imagine technology capable of doing the same thing. What's wrong with this idea is doing it in such a way that the revelation of why everything happened as it did comes as a complete surprise to the reader, and not in a good sense. While this story had a second character explain the source of the first's troubles, it rested on another piece of technology that had not been mentioned once before that point. I did a search of the document when I got to that point to see if I'd missed something, but no, this had not come up before.

I can understand why the author might have not established that detail - with that specific technology established earlier in the story, many readers would quickly be able to guess what the character's problem was well before the climax. That, to me, is an example of a plot that's not been thought all the way through. If a plot is so unsteady that knowledge of one aspect of the world that should be common for everyone living in it is enough to make it transparent, it should be reconsidered and rewritten. You can't expect to make a good work by hiding key details from the reader, and then at the end going "HAH! Fooled you! Bet you didn't see that!"

Readers like stories that make them think, that let them stretch their minds forward and give them an opportunity to solve the protagonist's problem before the protagonist does. That engagement with the reader is one of the things that keeps the written word vital. What they don't appreciate is getting dicked around by an author who doesn't lay all the cards on the table.

Earlier Words About Words:

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