Hello and welcome to another installment of “Bad Words” (actually, I just made up that name – the first installment didn’t have a series title, but guess what? It does now!) where we take a look at some common mistakes many writers make and how YOU the reader can learn to identify them for fun and profit. Just kidding. There’s no profit here for you. About the best you can hope for is to get a laugh or two and look at the pictures. On the other hand, if you’re an author, you might see something you do from time to time that you never knew bothered me. And, OF COURSE YOU’LL WANT TO CHANGE THAT BEHAVIOR! Pleasing me should be of paramount importance in your everyday life and so it is a matter of course that your writing should also take my tastes into consideration.
I have wants, people! Needs! They must be satisfied or… or… they will continue to be unsatisfied! And that is unsatisfactory!
But seriously, some of the stuff I point out below is just me making mountains out of molehills, but I thought I’d take the time to explain what bothers me about them because I’m seeing them a lot lately. I’ve been doing some intense reading of other self-published works in my chosen genres (mystery, fantasy/sci-fi) and although most of the stuff out there is garbage, there are a few writers who are quite good and I’d like to read more of their work. However, even though they are clearly talented and can make words do pleasing things on the page, they still make very aggravating mistakes that make me want to pelt them with Cheetos and slap them with deli ham! I want to grab them by the nipples and shake them and scream into their faces “Don’t you know how close to awesome you are? Don’t you know how many truckloads of ham and Cheetos I want to dump on you? DON’T YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU?”
But I’d likely get arrested for that, so instead I’ll just tell you how I think some writers could be soooo much better if only they’d stop doing dumb shit like…
The deus ex machina: You’re probably already familiar with this term, but for those of you who may have slept through a few too many English classes, I’ll explain. It’s a Latin term meaning “God from the Machine” and it refers to any sort of resolution to a conflict that seems to come out of nowhere. This is easily forgivable if an author just uses it to tie up loose secondary plot threads, but is unforgivable when it appears in the main action of the story.
Ridiculous Example: Our swashbuckling hero is busy bravely fighting the forces of doom and destruction at the climax of the book, but things take a turn for the worse and he finds his back against the wall and his feet in the doo-doo. His every strength has been countered and now the enemy is about to destroy him by exploiting a known weakness! Lament! Oh, lament! But wait? What’s this? Our Doubting Thomas of a hero can reach down deep within and summon the strength of a god? One of the allies he thought lost suddenly and inexplicably bursts in and aids him? The spirits of his ancestors distract the enemy just long enough to provide an escape? The evil-genius villain decides to walk toward the hero instead of just shooting him from across the room? Our sword-wielding hero can suddenly cast magic missile?
And on and on. You see what I’m getting at. A final confrontation only ends satisfyingly when our hero uses the tools and experiences he picked up through his journey to defeat the final boss. Nothing should suddenly appear. The reader should be able to trace the solution to the problem to something (or things) that happened earlier in the book or else it all just falls flat.
Getting lost on a tangent: This is where the author attempts (as all good authors should) to weave a multi-threaded plot line, but ends up losing the main thread, either for too long or permanently. This is incredibly easy to do, but is also fairly simple to spot on revision. While you can afford to spend perhaps a whole chapter devoted to a secondary plot point, any more than that and you risk confusing the reader regarding what’s actually important. Unless you use those one-sentence chapters, then I suppose you could spend a chapter or two or nine. God, don’t get me started on one-sentence chapters. What an arrogant waste of reader attention.
Ridiculous example: Our hero is hired to rescue a kidnapped princess. After investigating for a chapter or two, he finds she’s more or less a willing prisoner of her captors. She tells him to get lost. Unsure what to do, he spends a day thinking it over and during that time he receives a message from an old friend in need of some help. The hero shrugs and leaves to go aid his friend and for the greater part of the book, the action revolves around that new plot point. After more or less resolving the problem, the hero eventually comes back to convince the princess she shouldn’t hang with the bad guys and that brings the story to a close. Maybe the author makes some loose connection between the two conflicts, but FAR too much time was spent away from the “rescue the princess” plot to have it be at all meaningful anymore.
Stretching suspension of disbelief to the breaking point: There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in genre writing. The reader is often expected to believe in time travel, instantaneous communication through space, magic, fantasy worlds, etc. All of this is generally accepted as de rigeur, but I’ve noticed in one area – specifically dystopian sci-fi – authors seem to take just too many liberties. If you’re dealing with Earth or even an Earth-like planet with human-type peoples, you have to keep in mind that your readers will have certain expectations that can’t be disregarded.
Ridiculous example: The world is going to die within a handful of generations and humanity’s only hope is to gather up its smartest people and lock them away so they can tech our way out of it, hopefully. But the organization behind such a noble effort turns out to be nefarious in its designs. When the smartest people enter its secured compound, they are never heard from again! And… nobody wonders why. Not one single lonely boyfriend or worried mother picks up the phone to call. Nobody. Everyone just simply accepts that the smarty pants people need to “concentrate on their work.” Our hero only finds out that something is amiss when one of the smarty-pants finally manages to sneak a message out… YEARS LATER.
Seriously? You’re talking about humans here. Humans on Earth. No one would accept such an obvious kidnapping for any length of time much less for years. Well, unless there is already a clearly established system of gulags and work camps in your world. That might pass inspection. Or maybe everyone has been pacified with some sort of chemicals in the contrails of planes or something. Or perhaps a really taste brownie mix tainted with hallucinogens that trick family members into believing they’re still in contact with the smarty-pants relatives could work… Anyway, the point is – don’t forget the human condition. Never forget that. No matter how much your writing revolves around zombies or vampires or robots, your readers are all very human.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, except to announce this week’s winner of the T-Shirt giveaway.
Congrats, John! Look for the newsletter in your inbox (or possibly junk folder) and reply with desired size and mailing address.
So long everyone! Don’t forget to review a good book and tip a nice delivery driver!