Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Is Your Story a Railshooter?

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons and Brian Katt

Last week I discussed why a writer needs to be careful with the time he spends on various aspects of his story in order to minimize the chance of sending the reader the wrong signals. Spending too much time on a description or subplot, for example, can trick the reader into thinking those things are more important than they really are, often confusing the reader. The flipside, of course, is that it’s also possible for the writer to spend too little time on the secondary details. If the writer pours all his attention into driving the plot inexorably forward, the story runs the risk of feeling like a railshooter.

In video game parlance, a railshooter is a shoot-em-up where the player only has a limited degree of movement. The game world constantly scrolls by in a predetermined route, leaving it up to the player to maneuver up and down (and/or left and right) across the limited screen area to shoot enemies that move the same way every time. In story terms, if every event in your scenes marches linearly toward each scene’s climax, your story may be in danger of boring the reader.

While revising one of my chapters this week, it occurred to me that my natural tendency is to make this kind of mistake. For example, if my MC is about to discover he has magic powers, almost everything that happens to him prior to that moment will foreshadow the event, either by having weird things happen around him, or by having strangers make cryptic comments, or… well, you get the idea. So by the time the big reveal happens, my reader will be pretty much expecting it. After all, I figure the reader already has a fair idea what’s going to happen based on the book blurb, so why should I bother to hide it? The answer, of course, is that I don’t want to bore the reader.

I suspect this mindset stems from my days of teaching. During class, I tried to lead my students through the lecture in as linear a path as possible, building on concepts in a logical fashion, so that by the time I hit them with the big concept, they’d already grasped most of it beforehand. Good for teaching, not so good when writing fiction. In fiction, the journey is often more important than the final outcome.

Who cares if your reader already knows your MC is going to gain magical powers? That doesn’t mean you have to lead the reader there by the nose. Have fun with it. Divert the reader’s attention with other things. Convince him the big reveal is happening in the next chapter and then spring it on him now.

 In other words, find a unique way to tell the reader what he already knows. He’ll thank you for it.

17 comments:

  1. I know I tend to railshoot. Or at least go for minimum description.

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    1. Sometimes railshooting is fine, but it's usually more interesting to keep your character (and reader) guessing.

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  2. It depends on what I'm writing as to which direction I go. Sometimes I go overboard on my off-topics, other times it's bleak and to-the-point and I need to add more to make it interesting. Sometimes, it's both! Then it turns into a meandering mess.

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    1. Unfortunately, fixing up these messes is what revising is all about. Thanks for dropping by, Loni.

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  3. It's always a tricky balance, and often you don't know if you've gotten it right until you get feedback from beta readers.

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    1. I'm always asking my beta readers, Is the plot too obvious? I'm always wondering if there is a more entertaining way of telling the reader what's going on.

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  4. I love it when an author actually leads me off track and WHAM! Plot twist. Nothing better, right? It's such an art, knowing what to include and how subtle to be/not be.

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  5. I've never heard this term before but now I'm afraid I do it! Yikes. :D

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  6. I tend to keep my stories plot-focused, but still work twists and surprises in there. Usually I'll divert the reader's attention somewhere else before dropping the surprise, but it can be difficult to figure out if you've done this right. Reader feedback can help!

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  7. Good for teaching, not for fiction! Ha. So true! It KILLS me how many different aspects we need to nail as writers. It's insane… the list never ends… fab post, Ken! (All your posts are fab) :)

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  8. Very true, and very hard to do. You know those great books - often mysteries, but not always - that plant such subtle clues that you have no idea what to expect, but when the big reveal happens, you realize all the info was there? Those are great - AND REALLY HARD!!

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  9. The "I did not see that coming..." moment is the most fun time I have reading. Even if there's a "yet" at the end. I've been trying to catch up to where I can read your chapter, but the hawk attack on our chicken shot down my plans. Her skin was hanging off her chest, and she had multiple puncture wounds. 3 hours of minor surgery and many stitches (which I did because I'm the only one in the family who has a strong stomach) later (plus another week of chicken care), she's alive and clucking but I just feel like a cluck. I did not see the hawk attack coming. Your characters need lives like mine. I haven't been bored since we joined the Air Force. I thought urban farming would be more mundane. Go figure.

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  10. Really good lesson to learn! I like using the Red Herring in order to at least make the reader believe whatever they think is going to happen might not actually happen. I tend to second guess a lot when I read because I always hope to be surprised by plot twists, so I try to do that when I write.

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  11. I spend a lot of time on thinking about such things. If buried too long, the reader gets bored.

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  12. Fantastic advice. That's the trick to writing great fiction!

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  14. I often do what Emma does, weaving in twists, surprises and a few things to lead the reader astray.

    The book blurb doesn't have to give away the plot. In my first published novel, Embrace, the blurb on the back of the book is purposely vague so the reader learns what supernatural element is in the book as my main character does. Great post!

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