Monday, November 16, 2009

No excuses

As a mother of four, I've heard more excuses than I can begin to list--more than you want me to begin to list. And I don't like hearing them.

As a reader, I'm not so crazy about them either. And as a writer, I know I've made a few of my own.

I was reviewing some chapters for someone recently and came across a few instances of the author making excuses for her main character. I've been guilty of this, and 'even' published authors are often guilty of this. I read a NYT YA bestseller this weekend that had the main character trying to explain to the reading audience--without addressing the audience directly--why she was doing what she was doing although it might not make sense. The thing is, it did make sense, and the explanation (i.e., excuse!)ended up being distracting and took me out of the story. I ended up thinking more about the author sitting at her computer, saying, "Crap. I'm afraid the audience is going to think Main Character did this out of the blue. I don't want them to think I don't know what I'm doing. I better explain in case they're not catching on." It was jarring, and, frankly, frustrating.

Here's my advice as a reader: If it doesn't make sense, don't have your character do it. If your character has to make excuses, then you know she's acting out of character. For example, if Maisy is shy and quiet and scared of her own shadow, chances are she's not going to run for class president. So don't surprise us with that move. If, on the other hand, Maisy is shy and quiet and scared of her own shadow but wants to change, and her little brother's cancer has made her realize life is too short to stay hidden, and so she decides to run for class president, we'll understand why she's doing what she's doing because we've been following her for the last 70 pages. (*takes deep breath after long sentence*)You don't need to tell us, "This wasn't something Maisy normally would have done but nothing was normal anymore." We already know. Again: Remember? We've read this far already. We're great friends with Maisy by now.

It's about more than giving your reader credit. It's about giving yourself credit for having created a character that we're getting to know well enough to know what his/her motivations are. And if you really, truly believe you have to spell out those motivations, then something is wrong with the story up to this point. You need to go back and ask yourself, "Where have I missed the opportunity to let my readers get to know my characters better?"

And, please . . . no more excuses.


Brigid Kemmerer said...

I'm really glad you posted this. This is one of my top five pet peeves. In that Gavin deBecker book, The Gift of Fear, he talks about one of the ways to know if someone is lying is over-explaining things. People who are telling the truth don't doubt themselves. People who lie feel the need to carry it out farther. That's how this feels in a novel -- like the narrator is lying. It's jarring because this explanation makes you doubt yourself as a reader, and makes you doubt the reliability of the character. It also doesn't give the reader a whole lot of credit, which is disappointing.

Good stuff.

Shankar said...

On the other hand, if the author wants to explain just why Maisy doats and dozy doats, I am all for that. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Bobbie said...

No wonder you're still trying to figure it out, Shankar! Mairzy doats, not dozy doats. Ah... one of my favorite songs from childhood. Now I'll be singing it all day.

Brenda Chela said...

This was really interesting. I guess I hadn't thought about that before. But you're absolutely right!

Anonymous said...

Mares eat oats and does eat oats
And little lambs eat ivy
I would eat ivy too
Wouldn't you

(Nonsense verse)