Oh No, Not Again!


“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! 


15 comments to Oh No, Not Again!

  • Ken

    That first line…I Hate it when someone does that.

    I’ve seen the “Nothing’s Wrong” element work in where the “Help” either isn’t completely trusted, or useless. I’ve also seen it turn into a major Deus ex Machina where as soon as the cat is out of tha bag, all of the problems get scattered like orange-mint Tic-Tacs.

    Thanks for posting Misty and have fun next weekend…I’ll be stuck here in Michigan.


  • You’ve hit on two of my pet peeves! I hate it when characters don’t share information right away for no real reason other than to drag out the plot. Even if they say, “I need to be sure before saying anyting” it drives me crazy–if someone’s life is in danger, or world is about to be destroyed, it’s okay to speculate. And when the long-suffering hero/ine won’t confide in anyone, I always wonder what kind of friends they have. Same with my third pet peeve, when a character who has never broken the law or done anything wrong is suddenly a suspect when something bad happens and her friends, neighbors, family don’t trust her so she runs away. Or they do trust her but she assumes they don’t so she runs away.

    I wish I could come meet everyone at ConCarolinas–maybe next year! I hope everyone going has a fun and productive weekend.

    Ken–I’m also stuck in Michigan!

  • That is my pet peeve in real life and in literature. I hate when someone says “I need to tell you something…. tommorrow.” Argh! I want it now! In literature, if used correctly, can extrend out character building and tension. However done badly can cause angst and gnashing of teeth.

    I am planning on being at ConCarolinas for at least the Saturday session. Hope to see everyone there!

  • Misty — me too! Hate, hate, hate it!

    And remember — at CC there will be special things for the MWers. Saturday LUNCH!!!! And Saturday night party!!!! Come by the signing tables for the info.

  • Susan

    The one that makes me nuts is when a character sees/learns something and the author then comments about the character “little did s/he know that s/he would need that knowledge in the next 24 hours” I’ve been known to throw books across a room in frustration and anger for things like that.

  • Susan, yes, I hate that, too. The ‘little did she know’ thing feels like lazy writing to me. If an author wants to build tension, there are a million better ways than that.

  • The “figure it out on your own” trope is one of my all time pet peeves – I think of it as the Teacher Who Isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the Socratic method and there’s nothing wrong with learning by doing, but so often I meet mentor/teacher/wizard figures who have all the tools the character could be learning and then they refuse to even explain to the student what he or she needs to know for no other reason that pure sadism. They seem to be saying “nobody helped me learn, so I won’t help you.” I think people often get caught in the trap of thinking that “wise” has to translate to “inscrutable and uncommunicative.” The irony is that real teachers often have the opposite problem – we’re so invested in our subject that we want to dump all of it on anyone who’ll listen even when sitting back and letting the students mull for a bit would be the wiser technique. I’d like to see a wise wizard / apprentice relationship like that in a fantasy novel.

  • Right on the nose, Misty! Lazy, lazy story telling and thoroughly implausible character work. The notion of knowing something crucial but not having time to tell is such a cheap mystery device. I hate it because it’s so obviously a plot device.

    Looking forward to ConCarolinas!

  • Razziecat

    I hate that one, too, but there’s also an opposite one that I hate even more: It’s when a character meets someone new, with little to no background information about that person, and decides to spill their whole story without any real reason to trust that new person. Joe Schmo the apprentice wizard is running for his life, pursued by the evil king’s minions, while carrying a valuable magical talisman, and he meets Jory the Jester at an inn. Over a tankard of ale he tells Jory all about his troubles. Seems a little too trusting, in my opinion, and a lot too convenient, especially when Jory turns out to be the long-lost true heir, or a good wizard in disguise, or whatever.

  • Wish I was there at CC, hope the gang has a blast:)

  • ajp88

    Good list of plotting easy-outs.

    I too will be stuck in Michigan. We’ll just throw our own Con-Carolinas or something.

  • The Mathelete

    I’ve been away for a while — personal issues, crises, losses of faith, and what not. I agree that the simple: Magic savior, failure savior, etc is lame. But, um, adding new characters to a complex story line is pretty necessary. Without that you have the same story with the same people, and without some outside influence, why would those same people do different things? I don’t do the “tell you tomorrow” thing in my stories, but I do have characters who don’t know everything. They may find out tomorrow though.

    And that’d be REAL bad news for them 😉

  • sagablessed

    I have a comment, but it can wait.
    *ducks the incoming smack upside the head*
    I do have a few “wait” characters, but they are integral to the overall story arch.

  • Hi all! [Waves] I’m back, and found this lovely post waiting for me. Yes, I’m really big on the not-asking-for-help thing. Drives me up a wall. Contrived tension is the term I use for it, and it’s one of those things that I always notice in other people’s work and then turn around and do in my own. And that REALLY drives me up a wall…. Can’t wait to see everyone at ConCarolinas.

  • I couldn’t agree more Misty! Great post! See you soon!!