The ugly “Because”

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Remember when you were little and adults tended to tell you that you couldn’t do something “because they said so?” That because I said so probably caused quite a bit of sulking (I know I was always miffed). It didn’t answer the question. It didn’t satisfy.

And it doesn’t satisfy in fiction either.

Right now you are probably saying, “Wait. Hold on, kalayna. Who would use ‘because I said’ so in their fiction? ” Okay, so writers don’t actually say those words, but many manuscripts convey that same idea. How? With illogical/lazy world building and with improperly motivated characters.

The dreaded “because I said so” syndrome appears in world building as “because it’s magic”. Reading any type of fiction requires a certain amount of suspension of belief but reading fantasy requires the most. Which means the fantasy writer needs to make her fantastical creatures and world all that more believable.  The reader will accept that wizards can fling fireballs at zombies, but if that fire turns the zombies into butterflies, there better be a good reason why and it should be consistent with the world building. Accepting magic as being real in a story is easy, but accepting that magic is the only explanation won’t last long.  If the writer doesn’t know how magic works in her world, it will show in her story and that is when the reader will shake his head and toss the book aside.

When it comes to characters, I see the unsaid “because I said so” most often as “because that’s how the story has to go”. The next point on the plot is a scene at the ice rink, so against all reason, the character heads off to the rink. The big busted co-ed  heads down into the dark basement all alone and in just her underthings when she hears strange noises. The character is mugged but never even considers calling the police. Why?

Why indeed. Because that’s how the story goes. But that isn’t a satisfactory answer. It just makes the character look stupid and makes the reader yell at the book. To avoid the need to answer because the writer must make sure the character is properly motivated and not just being pulled along the plot by the writer’s plan.

Both holes in world building and in motivation can be hard to spot in our own work. That’s why fresh eyes are so important. If your critique partners or beta readers are writing back with comments like “why does she do this?” or “why/how does this happen?” then you might have an unwritten because I said so in your manuscript. And no one likes that answer.

Happy hump day everyone! This is the last Wednesday of May, so look for Faith to be returning to her regular spot in June.

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22 comments to The ugly “Because”

  • Huzzah, Kalayna! This is probably one of the best lessons I learned while working with my writing group. Whenever I tried to slip something past with that “because” explanation, one of my cohorts always caught me, and made me answer.

  • Great reminder, Kalayna. Thanks for this and for stepping in for Faith this month. See you at Con Carolinas, I hope.

  • 100% right, Kalayna.

    Why?

    Because.

    (You knew that was coming.)

  • Usually, if I get that niggling feeling at the back of my mind that tells me that the character is acting out of character, it’s usually right and means I’m trying to force something to happen that shouldn’t. When those issues arise I have to sit back and have a mental conversation with the character, so to speak, with the, “well, what WOULD you do?” line. Then I have to find a way to fit that into the story so that it still gets me where I need to go in the end. Usually, it makes for a better scene.

    Me and some online gamer friends came up with a bunch of horror movie cliches once on a zombie RPG forum and those kind of remind me of this when I’m writing.

    Still, there are some “because I said so” answers that I don’t mind in novels or movies.

    I think David had a post on magic with the advice of you don’t have to explain every nuance of the magic system in the book, but you do at least need to know how it works and be consistent throughout.

    Sorry for the morning ramble. My coffee only just now finished brewing… -_-

  • Misty, a CP who doesn’t let us get away with ‘because’ is totally worth her weight in chocolate!

    I’ll see you there, AJ! (I don’t think we have any panels together, but I’m sure I’ll see you around the con.)

    LOL, Stuart.

    Daniel, you are absolutely correct. Trying to explain everything on the page would turn into an info dump and slow pacing, but the writer should still know the rules so that they flow through the story consistently. That nagging feeling that something is off can be subtle. Great work zoning in on it!

  • BillSmith

    This is good advice. People do have a tendency to fall back on ‘because’ when they are unable to explain something. Which to me means that, if the author can’t come up with a reasonable explanation for something to happen, then it shouldn’t be happening.

    Fortunately I’ve found I don’t have to rely on the ‘because’ in my worldbuilding as much as I thought I would. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of my characters. Find it pretty difficult to come up with reasons for the character to do something that actually fit the character.

  • K — totally agree, because is a dirty word! I don’t worry so much about it in writing a rough draft, but I really am picky (brutal?) in the first rewrite, which, for me, is the next morning after I finish a rough section. I try to get rid of the *because-es* first thing. Magic systems have to be sensible and reasonable, despite the fact they don’t really exist!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for these important reminders. As a reader it certainly CAN be frustrating to come across a piece of world-building or plot that is logically inconsistent with the rest of the story. Related, though, is the sadness of realizing that an opportunity for coolness was missed because the author did not do a fully consistent follow-through on some of their interesting twists (I feel like this accounted for most of my sadness with the recent Tron movie).

    On the writing side though, it’s sort of scary to think of tackling these sorts of holes in a story. CERTAINLY it’s best if you can catch them WHILE you’re drafting the story, but I suspect even the most diligent authors have this sort of problem crop up sometimes in their drafted manuscripts, and for just-learning people like me it seems almost a given. Beyond the trick of spotting these holes, do you have any advice on ways of approaching mending them? (Sorry, that’s sort of a big question and maybe would take a blog-post of its own. Holes come in so many different sizes…)

  • I admit I’ll accept just about any “because it is the way it is” in worldbuilding, so long as it makes a shred of logical sense.

    On the other hand, characters who do stuff that I don’t understand–or at least that has no good explanation–really irritate me. I mean, people do dumb things for completely understandable reasons, but when someone does something crazy for no good reason at all, it annoys me. And I HATE when characters who are smart, savvy, together folks suddenly get an attack of stupid and do something that an ill-informed twelve year old would know not to do! It moves me from sympathetic to annoyed.

  • Unicorn

    I love strong characters. They save me from “because that’s the way the story goes”. If I try to make them do something they don’t want to do, they throw themselves on the floor and screech until I give in.
    Glad you’re coming back, Faith! Kalayna, please don’t go away! I like all of your posts.
    Unicorn

  • Just ran into a good example of unjustifiable “because”:

    The protagonist was inexplicably captured by her nemesis (She was told to “get in the car” and obeyed only because it furthered the plot point) and was then brought by the nemesis on a rather long walk toward the evil fortress. It wasn’t until she was brought inside the fortress and surrounded by a dozen evil myrmidons that she decides to attack her nemesis – even though she had been *alone* with her for probably twenty minutes prior to this.

    Why? Because it made a showier fight.

    Sigh.

  • I love this piece of advice. My friend Raven often asks me these questions about my world or characters. At first it scared me, because I felt inadequate for not already knowing, and would occasionally just splutter out the first half-baked explanation that came to mind. After the first few times, though, I realized that I could take those “why”s and turn them into something else.

    The other day, one of her “why” questions about my villain (who is no where near scary enough) spawned a huge chunk of plot that really fills out the magic-side of my HELLHOUND world. For some reason, all the mundane interaction between the characters in that world went great, and all the magic-y bits just didn’t quite live up to the snarky conversation points like: “How is French Vanilla different from regular vanilla?” “It’s not. It just think’s it’s better. And it owns a tiny dog.”

    I now have a big bad, a protagonistic antagonist (enemy’s enemy and supposed good-guys…but not the MC’s friend), and my MC and her pack caught between them. I also have a lot of revision to do. Haha.

    HUZZAH for coming up with better answers to those “because” areas. 😉

  • Wolf – love the example. That’s exactly the kind of contrived writing that gets on my nerves.

    I think the because problem is a corollary to the “too stupid to live” problem. I’m fine with a character who is foolish or ignorant or has whatever flaw they may have, but when a character who plainly knows better does something against all sense or reason just because it fits the author’s plot wishes then I want the character to suffer the consequences and fail miserably. It reminds me of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. The heroine is kidnapped by the villain/love interest Mr. B and spends the whole novel wandering around his country home past open doors, lacksadaisical servants and handy weapons doing nothing to save herself. Mr. B, who is intent on raping her, likewise multiple, unimpeded opportunities to do so and just never quite makes it to the point of actual violence because… well, because Richardson just couldn’t quite let it happen, that’s why. It’s a thoroughly frustrating book. And of course, she marries him in the end. Blech.

  • What a great piece of advice, Kalayna. I’ve been battling with that a few times recently and I found the best way to get me out of that was to ask myself, “What needs to happen? And how can I make it make sense in the rules of this world I’ve created?” I’ve put my now-finished WIP away for now with the full knowledge that it needs work, but without looking at it I’ve already thought of a few “becauses” that need to be addressed.

    Thanks for lovely month of posts! Can’t wait to see you at ConCarolinas! (And maybe the MW party?)

  • Nice post, Kalayna. Writing is such a balancing act. Characters choose to do stupid things sometimes, but the *reader* needs to know and accept why the choice made sense.

    Maybe the “just because” problems give us a good measure of how much is enough world building (an activity I love getting lost in): How much world building do you need? Enough for your readers to make sense of the events in your story.

    I have an example of “stupid character tricks” too. I was watching an episode of The Closer last night and a half dozen police officers were having a shootout with a bad guy wearing body armor. They literally shot a hail of bullets at this guy, and his body armor protected him. Did anyone think to shoot the guy in the head? He was only about 50 feet away. No, they had to wait until he was about to throw a pipe bomb at them before they started shooting at his little black bag of nasties (which was no bigger than his head the way it was positioned, and on the ground to boot). Why? Because they wanted to ratchet up the tension and end the scene with a giant explosion. Grrr.

  • Razziecat

    So that’s why characters do stupid things–Because! A stupid character will make me put the book down & usually, I never finish reading it. I’d hate to have that happen to one of my own stories, so I really try to make sure I know the reasons behind everything that happens. Sometimes the “because” will jump out at me when I’m reading over what I’ve written; sometimes there’s that nagging feeling and I have to dig for it.

    What is it about heroines with mysterious husbands? I read part of a novel once in which the scared, naive young bride of a powerful sorcerer went wandering all alone in the basement of his mansion and deliberately opened the ONE door she was told not to touch. Of course, something nasty got out. It made her seem so stupid that I never finished reading the book.

  • I’ve discovered that my fingers and my characters are sometimes in cahoots against me. When I try to slip a ‘because’ in, my characters balk and my fingers refuse to type the words until I can come up with an explanation that satisfies them.

  • Great post Kalayna. Nothing frustrates me more as a reader of fantasy than to see a blatant “because” in a story. It is one of the clearest indicators of sloppy or lazy writing. We as writers must take care to fully understand the “rules” of the worlds and magic we create. If we have fully developed those rules, then explaining it all to the reader in forced asides or narrative dialogue is unnecessary. The explanation will largely take care of itself in the unfolding of a well written story.

  • Razzicat> Ooh, that one I understand. The Bluebeard myth–the don’t open this door, and she does, and finds the dead wives! That “do what you’ve been told not to do” temptation I understand. That’s the whole Adam and Eve thing. ONE fruit. Just ONE they can’t touch… but they still do. One spell you can’t say, one sin that can’t be forgiven (okay, that one was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story). The “you can have everything but this…” draws on what I think is a basic human compulsion. I still want to scream “NO! DON’T DO IT!” when it happens, but I totally get why it does. It is the “gee, there’s a dark alley! I think I’ll go down it alone and unarmed!” that irritates me. :)

  • Been a pleasure having you on an extended visit, Kalayna. Thanks for stepping in.

  • niknicnac

    I have really enjoyed reading your posts, Kalayna. You always have a lot of good points. I could see where the “because” mode would be easy to slip into if you’re not careful.

  • Sagely advice. My first book suffered from this quite badly in the first draft as I hammered the plot into the shape I wanted and didn’t know the characters as well as I needed to. This is a great lesson for writers to understand early on and to remember going forward. You can write wonderfully and have elaborate worlds and characters, but readers are smart and will pick up on every little ‘forced’ decision.

    Somehow a reference to filling Faith’s big shoes doesn’t seem right, but nevertheless, well done.