Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Not To Lead Your Reader Astray

I tend to sprinkle short, humorous vignettes throughout my stories to amuse the reader, even when those bits don’t always push the plot forward. Some writers maintain that every word in the story should advance the plot in some way, but I don’t always agree. The Harry Potter books were chock full of these not-important-to-the-plot but fun-to-read-about bits, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed the series so much. The trick, however, is figuring out how to slip these bits into a story without causing problems.

For example, let’s say one of my minor characters is an alchemist who turns out to be allergic to many of the ingredients he uses to make his potions. It’s not important to my plot (although I suppose I could always try to arrange things so it was), but I decide the amusement factor is sufficient to add it in to the story. My first inclination would be to reveal this fact through some exposition, perhaps via a quick one-liner if possible, but I know I’m supposed to show, not tell, so my second option is to either reveal it through dialogue or by writing a scene where he experiences an allergic reaction.

But here’s where it gets tricky. If I devote too much time to delivering this information via a scene, my critique partners (and ultimately my readers) will assume it’s important to the plot. And when it never gets mentioned it again, they complain. Loudly.

And it’s not just humorous bits either. Spend too much time on any aspect of your story—even descriptions—and you’ll have your readers scratching their heads. I recall reading a story once where the author spent half a page describing the way in which a road meandered down a hill, along with a description of secondary crossroads, the surrounding terrain, and compass directions. He gave so much information, I braced myself for the battle I assumed was about to take place there. Turns out that location was never mentioned again.

Sometimes you want to trick the reader into thinking some irrelevant fact is important, especially if there’s a mystery involved. But if that’s not your goal, you should always keep in mind that the reader subconsciously depends upon the cues you provide to decide what’s important. Don’t accidentally lead them astray.

ChemistKen


14 comments:

  1. You could always have a scene that is important to the plot take place in that guy's lab and then add in the reaction.
    I remember reading a fantasy book where the author spent a whole page describing a character's dress. Neither the dress nor the character were mentioned again. Yes, excess description that's pointless is annoying.

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    1. That's the way I usually try to do it, but sometimes I just can't think of a good way for something to happen without taking up more space than its worth. That's when I have to bite the bullet and toss the idea out of the story.

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  2. I laugh because this is totally a Dickens thing to do. (Or any other classic author.) I think you have to see things like the allergy being character building, and thus work them in as you would any fun-tid bit of a character's presentation. A quick line of dialog would do the trick--one character recalling a debacle due to the alchemist's allergy with a quip of, "Let's never do that again." Or perhaps a shudder from the character as his hand brushes over one of the substances that caused an adverse reaction with a short (one to two line) recollection. There's always a succinct way to layer in fun details, but not bog down the prose or chapter. Figuring out that balance, that's the tricky part. =)

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    1. My biggest problem is finding a nice short way to show it to the readers. I tend to overwrite and take way too many words to say something that should only require a sentence or two.

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  3. Great post! I know the feeling. I love to write dialogue, especially the witty stuff, but sometimes too much talking and joking isn't adding to the plot. It's painful to cut the words I like, but in the end, you want to keep the reader on track.

    P.S. I love the idea of an alchemist being allergic to many of his ingredients! :)

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    1. The idea just occurred to me. I'll have to add it to my story somewhere!

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  4. Another way to do it is to make it a running joke throughout the book, so that whenever we encounter the alchemist, he's suffering from some absurd reaction to his ingredients, each one more outrageous than the last.

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    1. I do like that idea, although I already have a few running jokes going on already. thanks for the suggestion.

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  5. Yes, we need to put the emphasis in the right places, on the spots where we want the reader to dwell and the things we want them to remember.

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  6. I agree. The right emphasis in the right places is good . . . but how to do that, oh how? :) I have some stuff in my novels about how my MC used to be a prankster and originally I meant it to be something that fit into her skill set (stealth and climbing and such), and then I ended up making it part of her emotional character development (she realizes she may have been just a little mean now and then). I also have a tough time not introducing unimportant characters - I like naming everyone and their falcons. :)

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  7. That's a really good point about the HP books - she does manage to work in a ton of details, and it's never boring. I think it works when you create a whole universe like she did!!! But yes, it's totally OK to work in stuff that doesn't advance the plot, as long as it's fairly brief and very entertaining :)

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  8. Pointless description must be the domain of romance novels, since it's so common in that genre (no wonder I don't like it!).

    I completely agree with you, though a little side-trek of fun that doesn't mislead readers into thinking something is important when it really isn't doesn't have to be a complete no-no.

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  9. I find a book tiring if they DON'T have those funny little asides. Then again, humor is a huge part of my life. Sometimes, if it's too hard to work in naturally, then it turns into one of those darlings best cut.

    I do love your idea, though. My alchemist only set fire to his lab. :)

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  10. Umm, actually, practically ever scene of the Harry Potter series is not only important, but vitally so. Everything pans out in the end as pertaining to the plot. The scenes that seem like they don't early on always have some greater meaning. Harry and Ron eating all that candy on the train in the first book was actually to tell us about Nicolas Flamel so all the readers would have the same sense of eerie de ja vue as Harry. And basically all the scenes add up to the logic trail that's revealed at the end of the book. So yeah, not actually vignettes, but rather amazing awesome (even down to the wandmaker waxing poetic about the power of voldemort's wand turned into a MAJOR plot point for the books).

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