Wednesday, September 26, 2007

River of Disbelief

Dingman's Ferry - Upper Delaware River,
George Cope,
oil on canvas, 1886.

Warning: I'm about to mix implied metaphors like a kid mixes paints.

Most readers of fiction are willing passengers. They pay the toll.

They trust us to scull them safely to the other side.

To paraphrase something Angie quoted over on Charles' blog: readers trust you to suspend their disbelief, not hang it by the neck until it's dead.

And most writers strive to avoid dumping their human cargo over the side at midstream.

(Of course, there are always some - usually other writers - who insist on standing up in the boat.)

But River Jordan is deep and wide.

And most boats leak.

Narrative logic holes are easy to miss in spite of careful caulking, because they are often very small.

One may set a scene that demands silence and stealth - and then have a character burble outloud at length.

One may have a character lean back in a chair, and then - by means of preternaturally long arms - manage to adjust their pant legs at the ankle.

Such slow leaks don't usually swamp a boat, but constant wet feet can certainly irritate your passengers - even those who are willing to bail for you in the interest of reaching the other side.

Enough bilge water can make travellers decide to leap overboard. And take another ferry the next time.

Groaner Q & A:
This one's for the Church Lady.
Q: What do Eskimos get from sitting on the ice too long?
A: Polaroids.


Angie said...

Thanks for the quote. :) Just as a data point, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley who said it, wearing her editor hat re: the Sword and Sorceress anthology series and MZB's Fantasy Magazine. It was one of her favorite sayings, or at least I remember reading it from her in several different places.

And it's a good point that even tiny holes will sink the boat eventually. I think we all know that major plot holes will turn off the reader, get them eyerolling and making snarky comments to their friends about the book and the writer. But enough tiny holes -- little things that don't make sense and are never explained away, things that sound like the writer just wasn't paying attention -- will still leave me with a negative impression.

I might not be able to name the writers who've lost me after twenty or thirty pinholes, the way I can name writers who left me in a boat with a single hole in the bottom big enough to wrestle a shark through, but that negative impression is still there in the back of my mind. It comes up when I'm browsing through a bookstore and see that writer's name again. I might not remember specifically why I dislike him or her, but that "Ick!" response upon seeing the name will be enough to keep me from buying another book.


Sam said...

Hmmmm. I see what you mean, and often it IS like that: little things I just can't put my finger on that make me put the book down with a shake of my head.

Jaye Wells said...

This is where a good critique partner is key. We become blind to a lot of these little sins.

Robyn said...

Many times I dread sex scenes for that very reason. A woman described as wearing a long-sleeved, zipped up the back dress when going out to dinner, is later pushed against a wall with her arms pinned overhead, while her date lowers her bodice. WTH?

In the rush for the required 'hotness' factor, the characters become contortionists of unimaginable skill. I often have tilt moments trying to figure out the physics of such scenes.

Bernita said...

That's exactly it, Angie and Sam.
The little red flag goes up.
To use another comparison, disbelief is like a Damoclean sword, it can be cut with one stroke or be frayed by mice.

True, Jaye, but stringent self-editing can help avoid it.

Bernita said...

"WTF" is especially appropriate in some cases, Robyn...

Church Lady said...

**What do you call coffee snorted through the nose?**

I don't know--not clever enough to find that answer. But your jokes are really hysterical!! :-)

Great post! A logic flaw with my story was one of the first things I had to edit. 'Why' the 2 boys wanted to travel back in time had to be answered. Then it became 'how' could they understand the Flemish people. I pray to the boat gods that there aren't any other leaks.


Bernita said...

Why, nasal spray, Chris.

Those holes are easily patched, I should think.

Demon Hunter said...

Stephen King mentioned in his non-fiction book, "On Writing," that he remembered a professor who was his beta reader who chuckled at one his WTF moments. Stephen had written something close to this, "The townspeople gathered every year so that they could shoot the peasants and eat them." Stephen King meant to say pheasants!

I also remember one of my beta readers pointing out the fact that I had a character eating dinner after he was killed in another scene. Uh, he was not a zombie... I agree with Jaye, critique partners and/or beta readers are essential. Great post, Bernita...

raine said...

Love it, lol.
Great quote, Angie/Marion!

I've had a few of those "ack!" moments in reading, hope I catch most of them in my writing.

And yes, having a good crit partner (or editor) on the nearby shore yealling, "hey, idiot, you can't hoist the sails--it's a canoe!" is invaluable.

Bernita said...

Thank you, my Demon.
Sometimes editing causes these glitches. You decide to kill someone off, miss a single reference - and we have a resurrection.

"hey, idiot, you can't hoist the sails--it's a canoe!"
That's exactly it, Raine.

Vesper said...

Love the title of your post.
I think sometimes, even a small "hole" is enough to interrupt the illusion...

Kate Thornton said...

I have been known to throw my beta readers into the River of Disbelief, then wonder why they were tracking up the boat with their wet remarks.

Great post, Bernita - all those pinholes. Reminds me of my Army days, when we would fall asleep in the hot, boring classroom, only to respond to the barking of the instructor with, "Checking my eyelids for pinholes, Sir!"

Bernita said...

Thank you, Vesper.
Perfection is an impossibility, I'm afraid.

Better than being stuck on a mud flat, Kate!
There's few quicker on the draw than a soldier.

Seeley deBorn said...

Ah, but sometimes watching for those tiny pinholes can cause one to overlook the waterfall coming over the edge of the dinghy.

I've busted myself missing the elephant while looking for mice.

Charles Gramlich said...

Goood point. One reader might miss such a lapse while another catches it. Other readers may not consciously recognise the error but will feel some general unease, and that leads them to pull away from the work. I wonder how much of this I've let slip into my own writing.

Bernita said...

We need eyes in the back of our head, Seeley.

Charles, I always have than uneasy feeling about my stuff.

Cynthia Bronco said...

Love the picture! I lived in Dingman's Ferry for three years, and it looks like the southern side of the toll bridge.

Scott from Oregon said...

I would think writing fantasy and scary demon-stuff would lend itself to these errors...

Knowing when one is out-of-bounds in reality is one thing...

But when you make it all up from scratch?

How does one remember the rules of their own universe?

Bernita said...

That is so nice, Cynthia.
I like it when painters identify their scenes useful for the historical record.

They can occur in any genre, Scott.
You remember them by writing them down and checking constantly for inconsistency.

Jeff said...

I think we owe it to our readers to produce the best possible stories with the least amount of errors.
Every writer makes mistakes, we are only human.
I believe most readers (myself included) are willing to overlook the minor mishaps and enjoy the story. The problem is when the mishaps become the rule rather than the exception.
I like your analogy of readers helping bail the sinking boat. A little is okay. Too much becomes tiresome to the point where readers don't care whether it floats or sinks. They just want to be rid of it. Also, they are less likely to buy another ticket for passage from that particular writer again.

Travis Erwin said...

You are right one or two minor holes can sink an entire ship. I quit reading Larry McMurtry's work for that very reason.

Angie said...

Scott -- one takes copious notes. :) For me, how many files and how they're organized varies with how much worldbuilding I did and how long the story is. A short story might just have a single accompanying file in my STORIES folder while something novella or novel length might have a folder to itself with all the bits and pieces collected.


SzélsőFa said...

a very useful post, Bernita.
I don't remember having encountered leaks/plot holes, but perhaps, I am overlooking facts and not following really closely...?
A careful reader, someone other than the writer, BEFORE publishing is a must, obviously.

Bernita said...

You sum it up nicely, Jeff. Thank you.

Travis, we do expect the writer to perform normal dry-dock maintenance.

Indeed, Angie. And there's a lot of reasoning that never makes it into the final copy but must be performed nevertheless.

Thank you, Szelsofa.
Perhaps you are like me. In simple reading mode, I'll overlook minor leaks.
When I'm in writing mode I'm much more sensitive to wet feet.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very good points, bernita!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Written.