Thursday, July 10, 2008

What Writers Should Avoid—or Not?

From the Writer's Digest Book Club, I recently bought a book called DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, by Chris Roerden. The author discusses twenty-four categories of mistakes and overused devices that can induce the "screener-outer" (first reader) to reject a manuscript. Most of Roerden's advice isn't actually peculiar to mystery novels, but applies to any kind of fiction. The missteps discussed include many of the usual suspects, such as over-reliance on adverbs, aimless chatter instead of dialogue that advances the story, character descriptions consisting of indiscriminate catalogues of physical features, wobbly POV, cliches, misuse of prologues and dream sequences, too-obtrusive dialogue tags, etc. Many of Roerden's points strike me as right on target, and the many examples he provides from best-selling mystery authors give texture and depth to his counsel. The book reminded me of areas where I tend to get lazy if I don't watch myself. Goodness knows, it's all too easy to describe a character on first appearance with a list of traits rather than remembering to weave description into the action.

Some of this author's advice, though, works against the grain of my preferences as a reader, as well as a writer. For example, he comes down hard on excessive backstory. Now, I realize I'd probably lose the reader quickly if I dropped into an extended flashback after the first page of the first chapter (as I did in more than one unpublished work, before I learned better). And I acknowledge the wisdom of working the characters' past into the ongoing action little by little, as the reader's appetite becomes whetted for it. But Roerden's antipathy to long flashbacks of any kind doesn't fit my tastes. I love backstory, whether narrated as a straightforward flashback, contained in a document the protagonist reads, or told to one character by another. My favorite parts of Stephen King's IT, PET SEMATARY, and BAG OF BONES are the episodes from years or generations past that enhance the horror of these novels by lending them layers of depth. I'm very fond of "club stories," the device of framing the tale within the context of people sitting around telling stories to each other. Speaking of methods of presenting backstory, DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY contains a whole chapter on "Toxic Transcripts." What's so deadly about giving the protagonist a document to read? Roerden says it's not a good thing to expect your reader to read a long section that consists of a character sitting and reading. I understand this contention in principle, and I admire the techniques he recommends to break up the sitting-and-reading with action and suspense—if the information wanted can in fact be adequately conveyed by disconnected snatches from the document in question. As a reader, however, I don't in the least mind reading many consecutive pages of whatever the protagonist is supposed to be reading, if the journal, letter, etc., is interesting in itself. I imagine Roerden doesn't approve of Dorothy Sayers' CLOUDS OF WITNESS, in which Lord Peter reads a letter several pages long to the House of Lords to exonerate his brother of a murder charge. (To make matters worse, the letter is printed first in French, then in English.) And how about Roerden's prohibition against having a technical expert lecture the detective on the expert's area of specialization? I love that kind of thing. I had trouble following the plot of the brilliantly conceived first-contact SF novel BLINDSIGHT, but I eagerly devoured the appendix in which the author explains his vampires' biology and psychology. While watching the TV series NCIS, I get irked whenever the head of the team cuts off medical examiner Duckie or forensic scientist Abby in the middle of explaining the technical minutiae of their latest discoveries. I want to hear those explanations! I realize the 45 minutes of a TV show don't leave time for them, but there's no reason, from my viewpoint, to shorten them in a book.

Am I so atypical of the modern genre fiction reader? Doesn't anybody else love reading backstory and watching characters explain things to each other in lengthy detail?

1 comment:

  1. This backstory problem was actually mentioned on a couple of panels I was on at Westercon this past weekend.

    The problem is that beginners don't know how to do it -- and will insert IRRELEVANT backstory at the WRONG point.

    The trick with backstory is to make the reader panting-eager to learn the fact -- then give them HALF that fact.

    The trick with flashback is to keep the story moving FORWARD though the time-line loops backwards.

    How you accomplish that is to stay on your because-line which is the plot-sequence.

    What you put in the flashback is the BECAUSE that caused what just happened and therefore CAUSES what is about to happen next.

    Writing is all about "because."

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg