This week’s blog is by Ellen Larson, editor of the Poisoned Pencil. Ellen is the person who reviews all submissions the Poisoned Pencil and makes recommendations to the publisher about which manuscripts to acquire. Here she discusses the effects of implausibility in writing, with examples and recommendations.
When you read as many mystery manuscripts as I do each year, you become conscious of a closed set of weaknesses in writing technique* that occur again and again.
Some are deal-breakers; gaping fissures in plot or theme that dwarf a book’s more successful features. Frequent sightings include the protagonist who does not actively seek answers to the mystery at hand and the random scary event that is never explained in terms of motivation.
But less fatal Surface Cracks inevitably appear even in manuscripts that are eventually accepted. In the young-adult mystery manuscripts that it is my pleasure to read, examples include the ever-popular failure to tell the cops when they witness a crime and the related failure to react with sufficient horror when someone tries to kill them. The antagonist who leaps to the conclusion that the teen sleuth with a hunch is a serious threat and immediately makes a (failed) attempt to spook said sleuth so that she will cease sleuthing is also alarmingly common.
That said, by far the most common Balloon Comment I make consists of a single word: Implausible.
The Implausibility Factor
Storytelling is largely about building expectation in the mind and heart of the reader and then fulfilling that expectation. Part of that expectation, the part that assures that your characters will be realistic and that your readers will be able to identify with them, is that your characters must act in plausible ways. Always. This means testing every action of your sleuth—every word she utters—to make sure that it is not only in character, but something that a reasonable observer will expect her to do and say. Readers will have a problem identifying with your characters if they feel that the characters act in implausible ways. As with more serious human sins, there are two types of implausibility: commission and omission.
Sins of Commission
A common example of overt implausibility is the teen sleuth who, having decided to interview a suspect to further her investigation, heads off to confront a witness or suspect. All well and good. But here entire plan apparently consists of saying “What do you know?” Upon which the interviewee coughs up some useful clue. Sorry, no. It’s a mystery; some form of detection is going on. It is implausible that a suspect/witness will simply blurt out information they may have reason to hide, and it is even more implausible that whatever they blurt out would be exactly what the amateur sleuth needs to hear. All of which can be avoided if your sleuth goes into the scene seeking specific information, and with an argument for why the interviewee should cough up that information.
A related goof is the scene where the police detective who, in the course of interviewing the teen protagonist, obligingly explains the whole case, clues, suspects, and lab results. What police detective spills out the details of the case to anyone, let a long a kid? Could it be more obvious to the reader that the author wants her sleuth to have the information for her amateur investigation? It doesn’t happen in real life, and it doesn’t happen in good mystery fiction.
Sins of Omission
Sins of omission are perhaps more common, as we writers tend to (often rightly) believe that if we don’t bring something up, it doesn’t count. Absence of mind-numbing fear, inexplicable decisions to , trying to pass off a lack of self-preservation with bravery are so common in YA fiction as to be clichés. Yes, I know teens are largely oblivious of their mortality, When you find yourself going through gyrations to circumvent an obvious need for a reaction that you think will kill your plot, just stop and go back. Think of simple alternatives. I promise they are there—the most common being to allow the action you fear to take place and see where it leads. If your young adult detective doesn’t have a really good for pursuing a criminal, and a way of doing so that doesn’t involve physically besting older and more experienced, not to say dangerous people, you’re headed down a dark and narrow literary alley.
A Little History
In highlighting this issue, I’m in good company. In Aristotle’s Poetics (the original FAQ on writing) we find: “The poet being an imitator…must of necessity imitate one of three objects: things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be.” And: “If he describes the impossible, he is guilty of an error.” And that was 2365 years ago.
Now you may think that this reverses the well known belief that the story is the thing, and that all other storytelling considerations must bow to story. But cluttering your story with justifications for implausibilities is not serving the story at all. What you want is lean and mean. One of the highlights in my tenure as editor of the Poisoned Pencil was reaching the point in M Evonne Dobson’s delightful Chaos Theory where the protagonist, who had been doing a little amateur sleuthing, realized that she was in danger. What did she do? She went home and told her parents, who promptly called the cops. And, in the words of Fox Mulder after he and Scully kissed, “The world didn’t end.”
All editors—all people who review text for a living—develop hypersensitivities to certain usages and plot glitches. For some such hypersensitivities (like the supposedly horrifying less/fewer goof) a roll of the eyes followed by swift correction should be sufficient. But IMO the Implausibility Factor is one that all writers should and can learn to identify in their own writing and promptly slay. You want to elevate your writing? This is how.
* So what do I mean by “writing technique?” I mean the million choices you make when you set about telling your story; how you structure and order your scenes, what literary devices you use to build tension and elicit an emotional reaction, what you decide to tell or not tell the reader, how you use dialog and description, etc. More on this another time.