“The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”--Tom Clancy
If you want to know what the most Deadly Sin in writing of any kind is, I want you to check out the trash can closest to your favorite reading area. Once you’ve located it, check the wall for scuffs and dents. These have probably been made by you throwing your book--as hard as you can--into the trash. What would cause that? Make you damage your own wall with satisfying dents and multicolored smears? The leading reason a book is rejected, my friends.
Sure, you can argue that the entire romance genre is “unlikely” at best. That gorgeous looking man who smells good, cleans his house and his feet, loves his dog, dreams of children and wants to be with down-to-earth us might not exist. That we’re creating fantasies and while we’re at it, we should dream for the stars.
But I’d still smack you down.
The best fantasies are the ones that seem real. Even the wildest dreams can be believable if the viewer is immersed in things they can accept along with things they cannot. It’s sort of like when your child cleans the house spotless, does their homework without being told and asks for extra veggie portions at dinner. That kid is either up to something or covering it up. You just don’t buy that you’ve got the greatest kid on the planet. Why would you expect readers to believe the same kind of thing?
Let’s begin with identifying what makes something implausible. How “neat” is your story? By this I mean, how many things tie themselves up into perfect little bows, like little presents of perfection? Life ain’t neat, pieces rarely tie together quickly or easily. The presentation should never be “perfect”. Take a look at these elements and see how your manuscript adds up.
Inciting incident: Do characters and situations just happen to come together? Is there a reason other than “fate” why they meet? Does your FBI heroine just feel like investigating in a certain area or is she sent there for a specific reason?
Characterization: Do your characters have all the same interests to explain why they like each other? Have you exposed any depths of them to the other to provide sexual tension, or is that created completely by physical reaction? When they claim to be in love, can they tell the other character why without mentioning a single body part?
Plot: No matter how complicated your plot needs to be--a romantic comedy or a single title mystery--you need to be sure that there are no magic wands involved. Your plot is the spine of your book, enabling it to stand and walk. If it hangs on information falling into the hands of the primary characters at just the right time, you’d better have something better than luck to explain it. Bad guys don’t have magical changes of heart. Heroes and heroines don’t just throw away the chances of a lifetime without some regrets, remorse or reasoning. How you build your plot is just as important as how you resolve it.
Situations: Remember the slasher films? Bubbly bodacious blonde bombshell in babydoll bumbles into basement...and evil, undead killer? Dozens of movies worked that in and dozens upon dozens of times you rolled your eyes. No woman in her right mind--and lets face it, how often are the stupid that brave?--is going to make such a moronic decision. Judge the decisions your characters make by the same stick. Is the situation cliché? Does it lead down a path you’ve read in dozens of books (ie: rugged and brilliant adventurer saves bookish heroine from sure death, leading her into a forest/jungle/vast wasteland of some sort where they can run for a few days, making sure to be uncomfy, tired, dirty, oh and don’t forget aroused. Generally sex occurs, leading reader on secret baby or heroine afraid of committing to dangerous man plotline.)? Do your characters NEED to be there or are you just putting it in because it sounds good?
Motivations: This is a killer almost every time. Why are your characters doing what they do? There are three options:
1) Internal Conflict: They are motivated by things that happened in their past.
2) External Conflict: They are motivated by someone manipulating them in the present.
3) Because that’s what it says in the script.
Best described as the issues that haunt your character and prevent them from moving forward with their relationships, IC is a cliché graveyard. One of these days, I’m going to write down the IC of each character in each of my keeper shelf books. Just to see how many have the same problems--Physical Abuse as a child or spouse; Mate cheated on them and they’ve lost respect/interest for the opposite sex, but might still be convinced in sleeping with them; Inability to commit because they had no good examples as parents and fear damaging partner & as yet invisible children.
IC is mental and extremely important to your character’s motivations. It dictates why they make certain decisions and run away like their hair is on fire (at least emotionally) in others. If you give your character a paper thin internal conflict--read as cliché--so that it’s easier for you to write or understand them, you will find their motivations will not be clear. They will overexplain why they are making decisions because the reader would question them otherwise. Big clue here: If the reader needs to be explained to in depth as to why a character is making a decision, it should ONLY be when the character is shifting and changing to a healthier mindset. If they still explain things that are in character for them to do based on their internal conflicts...you either need to add some beef to that conflict or trust your reader--and your own writing--to know without being bludgeoned.
External conflict is an unfriendly beast to many. EC is what is making your character’s life so hard right now. It is the situation they cannot escape. It is usually complicated by their internal conflicts. Hero is afraid of heights. He’s been ordered to work security in a gala affair at the Space Needle...in the restaurant at the top. He’d prefer not to do this job, especially without explaining his phobia. Except his daughter is kidnapped and being held inside. He now has a serious external situation--the kidnapping--complicated by his internal conflict--admitting he has a fear.
The best way to handle EC is to really pour it on. Layer by layer, chapter by chapter, add to the tension by upping the stakes. Reveal that the hero cannot leave this situation to anyone else because.... Hammer him over the head with escalating opportunities to overcome his fear--jumping a gap high off the ground, placing the daughter within his reach if he can just get over himself--that he fails.
You see, the more important the mission you character is on, the more at risk and the less availability for escape, the more likely they will be willing to change. Leave them options for getting out of it and they would--like anyone else--take them. Your reader will not believe your hero would rush into the building he fears so deeply if there are dozens of better trained professionals nearby to do the job. He’s risking his daughter’s life for pride? Would you cheer that kind of man on? No. But if there is a singular, all-important reason for him to go in despite his lack of the best skills...then you’ve got a story your reader might be interested in turning the page to.
That third reason? It’s a quote of my father’s for when that bodacious blonde arrives on the scene. It’s what is called “lazy writing”. You want the story to go a certain way and that’s all that matters to you. You must be able to provide a physical drive or an emotional reaction that dictates the decisions of your characters. If you cannot, it’s because it’s in the script. If that’s the case, rejection is in the script as well.
Now, all your elements are passing muster. Your characters have begun their adventure for a reason that makes sense. They go places that have reasonable merit to whatever it is they are trying to achieve. They make their decisions based on emotional reaction dicatated by their internal concerns as well as those of the situation they are trying to find a way out of. You’re doing well. The final hurdle is before you.
What do your characters say?
Dialogue: A great plot and brilliant characterizations can be utterly destroyed by the wrong word choices. Stilted dialogue will make a page turner into a wall banger in ten seconds flat. The ultimate killer is dialogue changes. The absolute worst thing a writer can do is change the way a character speaks, simply because his situation has been resolved. I call this the “My Darling” disease. It’s heinous and evil and yes, if I find out you did it, I will beat you with unsanded sticks.
The “My Darling” disease usually occurs at the end of a book, in most cases. The hero and heroine have survived the rigors of gaining their relationship, perhaps overcome the lies of others, miscues and mortal peril and the hero will take her into his arms, press his lips to her forehead and in all shades of desperation proclaim, “My darling.”
He generally says something after that, but I never find out what because the book is across the room. Preferably in half.
Rule of thumb: If your character wouldn’t use endearments normally, they won’t use them at all--not even for post-coital bliss.
Characters who use the phrase, “Darling” will use it at other points in their lives. It should crop up somewhere in their language prior to the final page. There are plenty of people who use it; I’m told it’s the endearment of choice for Europeans. But it’s not for everyone. “My Darling” isn’t the only bookstopper of that kind. Insert the endearment of your choice. All that matters is if they wouldn’t use one on page 3, they sure shouldn’t use one on page 240.
Another dialogue crime is using dialogue for info-dumping. For exposition, yes; have at it. Have characters discuss their situation and in conversation look for resolution. Use dialogue for plot resolution or emotional catharsis; of course. With my blessings. But do not, for the love all that is holy, have them use it to provide incidental details. A character who waxes on and on about how people know each other, are related, enjoy basket weaving and boating...you will bore your reader to death. They may even beat their own heads in with your book.
Do you have your character walk down halls, down stairs, through the lobby, to the car, down the road, turn left, turn right, wait for the green and finally come to a rest at the house of their hero or heroine? Nope, you’re a smart writer. You don’t need those transitions if nothing is happening in them. You have the character leave work in one line, the next, they pull up at the house. Don’t do the same thing in dialogue. Stick with pertinent facts, slide clues and red herrings in along with voice and personality. The less you overcrowd your dialogue, the more believable it becomes.
That is the final aspect of this Sin. Decide the most pertinent information you need to deliver to your reader. Include that--via each of the above elements--first. Then elaborate with style and texture. Be sure in your editing to refrain from stripping the meat off the bones, leaving only the fluff. Meat is what delivers the nutrients, the proteins, the building blocks of believability to your story. Take them out, spread them too thinly, and your books will not satisfy your reader because the fantasy never becomes real. Master reality and everything else will come together beneath it.
Thanks for spending the last seven weeks with me, I hope this series has given you some insights and possibly helps clear the path on your road to publication.
Best of luck to us all!