I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!
Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.
The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.
The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:
Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”
Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.
Hero: “Oh, ok.”
Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.
In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.
In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.
Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.
This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.
When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.
In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.
Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:
It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.
It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.
You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.
Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.
January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC
The unavoidable character
Ask yourself this question about your current work-in-progress: What character is in every scene and on every page? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even an omniscient POV book with tons of head-hopping has a character who is in every scene and on every page.
The writer is inescapably present in every novel. Readers will suspend disbelief about your book, but they never truly forget that they’re reading a story you wrote. Your name is even on the front of it!
This is obviously true for memoirs and novels where a writer intentionally inserts himself or herself into the story. I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the vast majority of novels in which the writer does not intend to be in the story.
You are anyway.
The question then becomes, does your writing minimize your own presence on the page? Generally speaking, the better a writer is the more invisible he or she remains to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of you, you’ve pulled them out of the story. That’s never a good thing.
In working with my clients’ novels, I’ve put together a list of common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to readers. Strive to avoid these:
So-called “author intrusion” is when a writer inserts something into the book which doesn’t feel like it fits. This can happen in narrative, or through dialogue. But usually it comes in the form of an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is often written in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:
The phone dropped from Susan’s hand, clattering on the kitchen floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal sin. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out anyway.
Here, the writer reveals his own opinions about suicide, reveals his religious beliefs, and tosses in a little morality lecture as a bonus. The reader may well agree with the sentiment, but it has no place in the story unless that thought belongs to one of the book’s actual characters. If it’s just your opinion, leave it out.
When readers run into something like this, it’s like you’re waving yourself in their face. “Yoo hoo, writer speaking! Here I am!” Furthermore, it’s impossible for the reader not to be aware of you trying to tell them what to think. Nobody likes that. Even if they agree with you it leaves them feeling negatively towards you.
It is very easy to make mistakes in one’s story that undermine your own credibility as a writer, that sabotage the reader’s belief in you as a person who has any business writing a novel. If readers stop believing in you, they’ll stop caring about the story and probably stop reading. At the very least you make it much more difficult for them to continue suspending their disbelief. There are three main credibility issues I see in my clients’ work:
Plot holes. If the cops take a character’s gun away in chapter three, but then the character fires the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back, that’s a plot hole. It’s a logical inconsistency within the structure of your story, and what it tells readers is that you don’t know your own story well enough to tell it right. That being the case, what confidence can a reader have that the rest of the story is going to be worth reading?
Factual errors. Similar to plot holes, when your characters make mistakes about verifiable facts it tells the reader that you are either lazy or ill-informed yourself. Again, it conveys the message that you haven’t any business writing a novel, or that you haven’t put as much work into the novel as you should have.
One or two of these, when they’re small and on facts that don’t matter much to the plot, can be tolerated. Nobody’s really going to care all that much if you, say, refer to the “nine graceful arcs atop the Chrysler Building,” when in fact there are only eight. As long as you’re not screwing up minor details all over the place, it’s tolerable.
What isn’t tolerable is to make mistakes about facts that matter to the plot, or which are well known and iconic in the culture at large. For example, misplacing the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi, or accidentally referring to 1973 as “the year Kennedy was assassinated.”
Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional responses that are in the book haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative.
For example, if your main character receives a call in the middle of his high-stakes business negotiation informing him that his mother has died unexpectedly, yet he carries on with the negotiation as though nothing happened, readers aren’t going to believe that for a second. Similarly, romance sub-plots where a character seems to be madly attracted to another for no discernable reason just aren’t credible. That latter one is one I see way too much of, and for some reason it seems to be an especially common problem for writers of thrillers.
These mistakes undermines your credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you just don’t understand how real people think, feel, and react. If that’s the case, you really don’t have any business writing a novel that has any people in it. If that’s the case, consider writing Sci-Fi about aliens with wholly different mentalities, for whom dispassion towards their mothers and unmotivated romance are the norm. Or about robots. Robots are good.
If you don’t understand people, you shouldn’t write about them. That’s why this is the worst thing you can do for your own credibility.
Plot holes and factual errors are relatively easy to fix. Any decent editor can help you catch those, as can your writing group or people on internet critique websites. But if your characters don’t act like real people, there’s not much that can be done except to write the whole thing over.
Portraying yourself as an unsavory person
To enjoy your book, readers have to like you. At the very least, they have to be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you, if any, will prejudice them towards or against your book. Thus, your book should avoid making readers feel you are a loathsome human being, or they’re going to have a hard time liking it. How do writers betray themselves like that? Here are two examples.
One client’s characterization of the female characters in his book consisted of, without exception, descriptions their physical assets. Especially their breasts. I could really tell he was a breast man. There wasn’t much else in terms of characterization for these women. As the book progressed, this pattern left me with the feeling that the client wasn’t merely a fan of the female bosom, but was in fact a male chauvinist. The men in his book had goals, aspirations, and even feelings. But the women were little more than glorified furniture. It didn’t leave me feeling good about the client as a person.
Another client had a main character who—and to avoid the threat of being sued for libel I’ll be particularly vague here—did some very, very bad things. However, the book was written with enough author intrusion that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that my client was writing from experience. A little bit of internet research only deepened that suspicion. I quit the project, tore up the client’s check, and I hope never to hear from that client again.
Think about that: I was being paid to read the book, and I couldn’t do it because of my opinion of the writer. The client showed enough of him/herself on the page that every fiber of my being was screaming “get away from this client!” So I did. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
It’s one thing to “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But when what you know would make a person think you belong behind bars, consider writing about something else. I’m just saying.
You are in your book
Like it or not, you are a character in your book if for no other reason than readers never fully forget they’re reading a story that was written by a person. The best you can do is to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding the mistakes I’ve described here.
January 15, 2010 20:32 UTC
Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real
Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.
A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.
The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.
The character’s emotional response isn’t the same
If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.
However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:
Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.
Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”
Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.
Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.
Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.
Always keep the emotions real.
Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.
October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC
How to amp-up your scenes with body language
I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago called Why Jane Smokes that showed some techniques for linking characters’ external actions to their internal growth across a whole story arc. Today’s article is a double-win technique for using body language to amp-up the characterization on a smaller scale, within individual scenes.
Whether they know it or not, everyone exhibits body language. And, much as with dialogue, you and everyone who will ever read your book is an expert in the art of interpreting body language. We all know what it means when someone shrugs, pumps a fist in the air, crosses their arms over their chest, or shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot.
This is just part of being human. We’re all students of each other, because we have to be. Body language gives us essential information about other people’s attitudes, states of mind, and even how they are reacting to us in any given moment.
Tap into your readers’ expertise. Use body language both to advance your scenes and to portray your characters as believable, multi-dimensional people. There are two main ways adding body language helps a scene.
Moods First and foremost, body language is a wonderful tool showing characters’ moods. It is, frankly, an enormously useful writing tool for those situations where you have a vivid internal sense for a character’s particular, subtly nuanced feeling, but are having trouble giving a name to it. Stop looking for a name to give to it. Instead, convey the feeling through body language. Not only does that save you from the trouble of finding the perfect phrase, but it allows you to show instead of tell. Don’t give us this:
From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She sat at the dining room table, weary, worn out in body and spirit.
Give us this, instead:
From down the hall, Jane could still hear the baby crying. She slumped over the table, cradling her head against the heels of her hands.
Setting The second useful aspect of body language is that it turns your characters physical bodies into an extension of the setting. Your scene takes place somewhere—be it a clandestine warehouse, a windy beach, a bedroom—but wherever it is, your characters bodies are there, too. They are an element of the setting. Just as you should look for key details of place—a greasy concrete floor in the warehouse, the salt-air tang of the wind blowing off the water, the 400 thread-count linen sheets on the king-sized bed—you should also look for details of body language to layer onto your characters.
In setting scenes, writers are encouraged to incorporate all five senses in order to make the place itself feel real. It’s good advice, but why stick with just five senses? Why not add the whole other realm of sensations—emotional ones—that body language conveys so effectively? Try it, and see how much more vivid your settings become.
September 14, 2009 23:51 UTC
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