Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Down the Garden Path

Another piece of literary advice I'm trying to get my tiny mind around: don't annoy/ frustrate/ bewilder your readers.
Have been trying to figure out (a) what particularly constitutes a delicte, and (b) if I've done it flagrante.
I'm still vague about it.

Wonder if lubricious plot bunnies fall under this ban. Issues that disappear, are not resolved - unless they are placed in deliberate abeyance (as in a series) to pop up later.
May leave the reader hanging with their mouth open thinking, "yeah, but wot about her sister...Wasn't her sister the reason for the whole thing?"

Reader Interruptus: reader set up for something to happen and the story veers down another track. Sort of like driving down route 401 in pursuit and spotting the chase vehicle roaring past across the median in the other direction.
I think mysteries are largely exempt from such exogamy. We are led to expect false cues and clues in that venue.
Not to be confused with calculated suspense either.

Reader rape: Aliens arriving in Chapter Twelve, ie. introduction of a Zeus element with absolutely no foreplay whatsoever.

Reader tease: Introduction of a detail or a motif the reader may expect to have significance but doesn't.

Worry about that one. I mention Arthur in passing in an opening chapter - as a ticker/parallel - I hope the reader will not expect something conventionally Merlinesque to evolve.

As I said, I am not entirely clear about what truly and categorically annoys the oysters.
Can you help me out here?


archer said...

I am consistently amazed about this issue whenever friends read an MS. Stuff that seems perfectly clear to me gets a "Huh?" Stuff that I thought was mystifyingly obscure gets a "This is great--now I get it." Darlings, as SK says, get killed. I don't think there is ever any solution other than to revise revise revise, trust yourself to do your best, and then listen carefully to the reactions when it's read.

James Goodman said...

I'm bad about the reader tease. I've had to go back cut entire chapters to remove dangling storylines.

Tis one of the hazards of writing without an outline (Which I switched up for my current project, but I'm still not sold on the process).

Bernita said...

I go with the One-Two rule, Archer.
If one reader doesn't get it,and two do, then maybe just a little tweak.
If two don't like it, definitely a problem, fix it.

I'm not sold on strict outlines either, James. Don't know if my wing and a prayer approach is the result of laziness, rebellion or sheer metal vacuity.
I must say though, that motherhood is good practice for mentally keeping a number of balls( ie. plot points) in the air at once.

R.J. Baker said...

Foreplay and teasing...

You've got my attention. ; )~

Bernita said...

English is such a seductive language, RJ.
Have you ever wondered why the most significant, exciting point in a novel is called a climax?

archer said...

If one reader doesn't get it,and two do, then maybe just a little tweak.
If two don't like it, definitely a problem, fix it.

That's true--as King says, tie goes to the writer.

I keep quoting Stephen King's On Writing, which I can't generally whoop up enough, for two reasons:

1. It's a hugely fun read, all by itself.

2. Unlike most books about writing, it's actually helpful.

Bernita said...

King's On Writing may well be where I got the Two out of Three falls idea.

I agree.
Since he IS a fun read, one goes back again and again - so things that didn't resonate the first time eventually make sense.

Flood said...

I can deal with impossible/forgotten plot points and long as the writing is good. I am big on making inferences, whether they suit the author's intention or not. It has to be plausible, though, so that the reader can fill in the blanks. (Maybe her sister went to the nunnery or joined the circus.)

Bernita said...

I'm not so tolerant, Flood, in terms of analyzing technique as a writer - though I may be more forgiving as a reader.
I think a writer should give inferences the odd leg to stand on.
It's a story, not a hide-and-seek-aha-fooled-you game.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Reader tease: Introduction of a detail or a motif the reader may expect to have significance but doesn't.

Now those are supposed to be there in mysteries, murders and the such. I've learned how to do "red-herrings" from one of the best!

But the aliens in chapter tvelve...guilty as charged...I made Miss Snark want to set her hair on fire!

I personally hate when a plot ends really cheesey, with no real or logical resolution, other than..."the bad guy won, o well!"

Bernita said...

Probably should have excluded mysteries and thrillers there too. Red herrings are an expected convention, a desired complication, in fact - but I suspect the smell of them has to be explained at some point and turn out not to be red after all.
I suppose some romances fiddle with who's the true lover, or is Mr. Nice Guy really the villian and Bad Guy really the hero. A convention in gothics or with undercover cops as I remember.
Point is, the herring has to be filleted, the calculated confusion adjusted in denouement.
I'm trying to describe those that stay red.
Told you I was fumbling there.

Rick said...

I call them offramps to nowhere - I put them in for subplots that I never ended up building, but sometimes the offramp is tricky to remove, or so scenic I convert it into a roadside view stop.

Arthur - boy, am I playing a bit of a dangerous game with him. Lyonesse is of course an Arthurian name, and Arthur himself is a historical figure in my world - but my story is a thousand years later, and has only a handful of Arthurian references.

But I've decided to brazen it out, not least for cynical marketing reasons. I figure that a large fraction of people who like the Arthurian milieu will also like a Tudor-esque milieu ... and by the time they figure out they're in the 16th century, they'll already have bought the book. :)

Carla said...

Rick - If Arthur is a historical figure in Lyonesse, then he would be part of its culture and history, and you could no more ignore him than ignore the Norse past that gave names like Strandgate. Passing references would seem entirely appropriate.

Incidentally, Leon in northern Brittany is supposed to be a modern variant of the name Lyonesse, though I don't know how strong the evidence for that is (if any).

I had the same sort of decision to make for my 7th-century tale, because if a historical Arthur really existed he was presumably remembered/mythologised in some form in the 7th century, given that he turns up in Welsh stories thought to date to the early 10th century and to predate the Norman romances (Culhwch and Olwen), and in Nennius' manuscript written down in the 9th century. Not to mention the controversial reference in Y Gododdin, which if original would push the date back to the turn of the 6th/7th centuries and is right in my geographical area too. I felt I couldn't just ignore the Arthur legends unless I was going to categorically decide that they were all made up much later than my period and had no origin in truth at all. Which I'm not convinced of. So in the end I made him a historical figure referred to in passing as part of the cultural background. Not unlike your approach?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

You're right Bernita...when I put in something that I'm using as a red herring...I keep track of them so that I can expalin their cause by the end....don't want them stinking up the place like a three day old fish! LOL

kmfrontain said...

Oh, but this is all I ever worry about when plotting and editing -- backing up the threads of my story and foreshadowing all future incoming Zeus's and making certain I left a hint back when I should have left a hint.

If you have a very simple plot, no biggie to leave a mystery unresolved up to the end, but when it's complicated and runs on for a while, then you truly have to work the details in and hope they stand up to scrutiny. Red herrings I try not to do, though I've had readers trying to read more into a scene and turn it into a red herring. But at this point, it's usually a reader I've hooked and they're trying to figure out my plot like it's a game. How to reach the end before they read the end, sort of. And by then they know me for a twister of plots to the point there are no bets on how the story will actually end.

Sudden Zeus's. That's a trick. Sudden Zeus's making craters in the story should be allowed, because a surprise now and again is good, but I do believe in foreshadowing to some degree, especially if the Zeus in question doesn't seem to want to fit in. (I'm getting this image of holding Zeus and scrunching his head into a book).

When I write, I look at the logic of a series of events and plot that out in my head. It might be easier for some to do it on paper. What led to what led to what? And this includes the "what led to what" that the POV character does not see, and then I add for the reader whatever hints need to be there, before and after, to make Zeus with his pink hair and elephant's nose fit in.

And then, when I'm done all this, I stop worrying about it, because I know that on a first read through, most readers will have missed more than half the hints anyway, but on the second read through, they'll go, "AHA! She was hinting that Zeus ate chili beans way back when, and that's why his fart blew up the diner."

Ok. So that's how I go about it. :D

Rick said...

Carla, I've also read that the name Lyonesse has some connection to Leon, most likely the district around it. The word itself equates (I believe) to Latin leonensis, "having to do with Leon."

What I don't know (and should look up) is what connection Leon et al. have with lions. In a passage I had to snip, but intend sometime to use, the Monite caliph reflects that "if a land in the northwest of the world was called the Isle of Lions, it had surely been so named for its men, not its beasts."

Your Arthur challenge is tougher than mine, since you're writing about our world, not a parallel one! I've only recently (and a bit regretfully) come to think that "Arthur" was probably never a historical figure as such. See this website:

In a nutshell, most of the early stories about Arthur are of plainly legendary character - more analogous, so to speak, to Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe than to George Washington throwing a dollar across the Delaware. Which makes it more likely that a folklore Arthur picked up historical fragments rather than that a historical hero's name accreted legends.

So I'd guess that the "historical Arthur," to the degree there was one, was most likely Ambrosius Aurelianus. He's attested near-contemporaneously, and apparently did the basic thing that Arthur does in tradition, namely lead the Britons with some success against the Saxons.

But that would be a distracting load of stuff to try to fit into your story. Moreover, the question is by no means settled. So your approach looks like the best one in your situation. Even if "Arthur" was really Ambrosius, the connection may already have been made by the 7th century - almost certainly had been, if the Y Gododdin passage is indeed an early one.

We now return to our previously scheduled discussion ...

Ballpoint Wren said...

kmfrontain, this whole discussion was WAY above my head, until you brought in the fart that blew up the diner!


archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
archer said...

Dickens would make notes like "slight," "not yet," then start a new sheet of paper, which he'd mark off in two columns. On the left side he'd write his notes for what he might do, and he'd leave the right column blank for the actual text. Then he'd put the new sheet of paper at the bottom of the stack, so when he finished a section he'd see what sort of hand he'd dealt himself.

Dennie McDonald said...

LOL wren...

I like to leave subtle oh-that-was-why-he-did-that but you never want them to be too subtle or too stupid where the reader is left shaking their head saying: WTF?

I read a book (by a famous author - who up til that point I loved) I chucked it across the room when I finished as she had left hints to this person and that and in the end, the bad guy rang the doorbell in the last chapter (first time we saw him) and whammo he tried to kill the lead character - sheesh! that made me mad!!!

Bernita said...

"off-ramps..." a very visual description, Rick.

Having seen in my lifetime myths attach to historical figures, I can certainly see it happening to some local dux bellorum such as Ambrosius.
Think you would almost have to include Arthur, Rick - just to excite mythologists, if nothing else - because some of the legends of the Lost Land of Lyonesse are connected with him.It dovetails.
The legend of Lyonesse also occurs in Breton folklore.

Thank you, KM!
~chortling over Zeus blowing up the diner~

kmfrontain said...

When in doubt, always go back to fart jokes.


No, but Bernita was right to bring up the Zeus element. It does happen in stories, but it can be put in without totally shocking a reader.

Bernita said...

A great illustration of foreshadowing, wasn't it, Bonnie?

I like subtle, Dennie. When I happen to pick up on a clue it's almost like a secret code between the writer and myself. On the other hand, I've found myself flipping back 30 pages to see that wondering what I've missed in the set-up.

Flood said...

I am still thinking about this. There may be no way to predict how a reader will react to your plotlines and/or foibles.
I read Cider House Rules and loved it. I did not see the movie, but did see Irving's acceptance speech for Best Screenplay. He talked about abortion, and while that was a device in the novel, I did not come away feel the book was about abortion or had anything to do with abortion. To me, it was just a way to get the characters from A to B. I was more focussed on the journey and the personalities. I think maybe, that even if you draw perfect lines, the reader is going to convert the plot into his own points of reference. Does that make sense?

kmfrontain said...

It makes perfect sense, Flood. This is exactly what happens to any book. It becomes personal to the reader, and the reader takes from it what makes him or her happy.

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