Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part IV)

Moving on to Twain’s ninth rule, we see an admonition against dues ex machine.

The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

Twain is telling us that we should obey the rules of the world we have created. Twain used miracles some in his own writing, such as in A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court, so he isn’t against fantasy as much as he is against things that happen without cause.

I saw an example of a problem in a television show I was watching the other day. The show was portraying the fall of the City of Troy. The show had a villain who moved between the two camps through a door (painted to look like stone) that someone had put in the wall of the city. I can’t help but wonder why anyone would bother building a horse to roll into the city when all they had to do was walk through the hidden door. We also have to wonder about the builder who would put a door like that in a wall built to keep out the enemy. So it seems that we have a bit of magic that exists to give our villain a pathway between the two camps. That is something we should avoid in our own writing.

The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

I’ll call this one, Save the cat. Kill the rabbit. Blake Snyder tells us that if we want people to like our characters we should have introduce the character with a scene in which he does something we expect likeable people to do, such as saving a cat from something. On the other hand, if we want people to dislike our character, we can have him do something despicable, such as killing a red shirt for the fun of it. Maybe we have him boil the pet rabbit.

Whether the character is good or bad, we don’t want people to be unfeeling toward the character. And we don’t want people to hope the good guy loses or that the bad guy wins.

When we write a series the chances are greater that we will fail in this regard. I noticed this when I read Brandilyn Collins’ Amber Morn. If you haven’t read the book, the book is about a man who holds the people at a coffee shop hostage in hopes of getting his son released from prison. Not having read the other three books in the series, I was cheering for the protagonist, but he dies in the end. I didn’t care for the patrons of the coffee shop. It was after I read the book and read other people’s comments that I realized I was looking at it in the “wrong” way. If I had read the series I might have felt some affinity for the patrons, but in Amber Morn they don’t do anything to make me want to like them. I think what that tells us is that we need to fully develop our characters in every book, instead of assuming our readers already know our characters.

The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

This is a rule where I need to improve. When we look at Twain’s characters, they aren’t like real people. They are more like caricatures of real people. Dickens’ characters are the same way. The problem with real characters is that people are so fickle. In real life, if someone were to do something unexpected, we would dismiss it. Maybe she isn’t feeling well. Maybe she misunderstood. When reading a novel we are much more likely to question why a character does something. If we question then we want an explanation.

When the characters are clearly defined we expect a character to react a certain way. Since we are expecting him to do something, we don’t question when he actually does it. Then when the character does something that we aren’t expected, it makes it that much more interesting.