“I’m so glad you’re there. I’ve got something really incredible to tell you! But it’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
Have you ever had someone say this to you? If you’re even a little bit like me, being told that you have to wait on whatever information is coming is enough to drive you into a mildly homicidal rage. Telling me there’s something to know but dragging it out is just mean, in my opinion. Either you’re ready to tell me, in which case spit it out, or you’re not ready, and you should have kept your mouth closed from the start.
The same thing annoys me in fiction. I don’t always mind having information dangled like a carrot before me, If it’s done properly, it piques my interest in figuring out the mystery and sometimes serves as a good clue. But all too often authors use the carrot merely to increase word count, dragging a scene farther than it ought to be dragged. A character who isn’t suffused with patience will not want to wait for the important chunk of gossip she’s been promised. If the author doesn’t make her wait, there might be serious damage. (Which might not be a bad thing, story-wise.) If the author makes her wait without becoming irritated about it, the scene will feel false, and the reader will spend the next six chapters wondering what on earth that was all about. It’s a cheat.
Another of these cheat moves is the ‘Nothing’s wrong’. A character is faced with some dreadful dilemma, and sits down to the table to think and plan her best way out of trouble. Her best friend/twin brother/beloved uncle sits down opposite. “What’s wrong?” he asks. She looks at him for a second. The friend/brother/uncle might be someone with lots of experience handling the world, or someone with the strength of an ox and the cunning of a fox, but instead of asking for help and drawing on the resources at hand, the character says, “Nothing’s wrong.” We then spend twelve chapters watching the character get herself deeper into the trouble, all the while knowing that she had help at hand. This move only works for me when the character has begun the story as a complete loner, distrustful of everyone. Anyone who has friends or family is going to turn to them in times of need. Sure, maybe the villain has threatened the family, too, but if someone had threatened my family, I would tell them about it. They deserve at least that much, and I think a character who comes from a supportive background would feel the same way. Authors fall on the ‘Nothing’s wrong’ cheat when they want to drive their character to work alone, and frankly, I’d rather see them use some more creative impetus.
Even worse, though, is the ‘figure it out on your own’ technique. An older mentor appears in the tale, clearly there to guide the character into whatever his destiny might be. But every single time the character is faced with a moral dilemma or a physical danger, the mentor locks his lips tight and watches, disapprovingly, until the character screws up enough to finally figure out the right way on his own. Which leaves me wondering what the mentor is there for in the first place. If he’s supposed to teach our hero, then he needs to get cracking. I can’t imagine how far students in a school would get with this sort of teaching style. Working things out on your own is great, but sometimes being taught the old-fashioned way is pretty dandy, too.
Now I don’t mean that these devices are wrong, and shouldn’t be used. What I’m trying to point out is that they’re used a lot. Enough to have gotten under my skin (and probably many other readers’ skins, too.) If you’re going to use any or all of the listed plot moves, feel free to do so, but be sure that it fits your character. If you’re just trying to pad your word count, take a deep breath and think of something else to put your character through. Your story will be more interesting, and your readers will thank you.
By the way, AJ, David, Faith, Kalayna and I will be appearing at ConCarolinas next weekend. If you’re planning on making the scene, please find us and say hello – we love meeting our MW friends!