Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beware the Expert Reader!


Convincing the Expert Reader is hard, because whatever you write, there's always an expert reader waiting to pounce. But expert readers are good for writers. Yes, they really are because when you write with an expert reader in mind, you get your facts straight.

In many movies and books, some of the characters do the most uncharacteristic (or plain dumb) things. (See my previous post discussing the movie Prometheus) I hate it when something a character says or does just sounds wrong, or else I know it cannot be done. I happened upon a great article by John Yeoman of Writer’s Village: How can you make your characters’ actions appear plausible?

Many a good story has collapsed because a character did something that just didn't ring true.


Tom Hanks looks exhausted!
The plot of The Da Vinci Code, absurd enough from the start, topples into farce about halfway through the story. Why? All the action—spanning 180,000 words—is supposed to take place within the space of just 24 hours. Yet in that brief time the characters have run, flown and driven halfway across Europe and England.

Nobody ever sleeps! (Have you noticed?) By chapter 105, Prof Langdon is still making brilliant deductions, having been awake for 30 hours. Somehow, it doesn't 'ring true'...

Beware the expert reader

Every story has an expert reader who will embarrassingly point out that, for example, your 25 stone villain just could not have wriggled down a 15-inch wide manhole in a New York street, circa 1920, while disguised in a fire-fighter's uniform. But if you get even the tiny details right, that expert reader—highly impressed—will buy everything you write thereafter. And your story will also convey the 'ring of truth' to everyone else.

Q: How do you enhance your story with a 'ring of truth', effortlessly?
A: Make your story plausible and your characters 'real'

Helpful Hint: If you want your character to do something unusual, do it yourself.

Otherwise, you will never be able to convey—convincingly—how the experience looks, feels, hears, smells, or tastes to the character. True, you might not wish, personally, to flee a drug-crazed axman or abseil one-handed down the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. But if it’s do-able, do it.

When I wanted my character to rescue a heron snarled high in an ancient elm, I scaled my plum tree. After ten feet, my hair was thick with dust, leaves, and insects. (I had never realised how dusty tree bark can become in dry weather.) My trousers grew green with mould and I became massively perforated like St Bartholomew with little twigs. Of course, I then got stuck. (Branches are never as close to hand in real life as they are in fiction.) My wife had to rescue me with the window cleaner's ladder.

On another occasion, I needed a thief to climb an old staircase with a lantern in his hand. So I did exactly that. I found it was necessary to step on the inside of the stairwell to avoid telltale creaking noises and to breathe very slowly (ditto). I also had to tread on the balls of my feet (ditto) and to balance myself on the banister by my left elbow. (I didn’t want to leave tell-tale finger marks.)

Have you ever dragged yourself across an attic floor, gibbering? In a different tale, I decided to have my protagonist explore the eaves of an old castle in search of dark family secrets. Luckily, I live in an old house. So I dragged myself across a blanket of 18th century dust. My knee went through one of the ceiling planks. Below it, I found an orange—perhaps the lunch of some bygone builder. The orange was entirely hollow. Its inside had withered away to leave only a perfect mummified shell. It nicely symbolised my fictional family—immaculate before the gaze of the world but rotten within.

You can't make these details up. You have to discover them.

So if a detective finds the full mark of a flat foot on a dusty stair, I realized, it had probably been put there for a deceptive purpose. Because people typically climb stairs on the balls of their feet. All these little points of observation found their way into my story.

When historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick sets her stories in medieval castles, she visits them—with camera, notebook, and tape measure in hand. If she tells you that her hero in 1395 wriggled out of a kitchen window of Ludlow Castle that was exactly 15 inches wide, 16 feet above the courtyard and ten paces from the main gate, you can trust her. She’s measured it.

Climb that castle wall first!

That’s one reason she has a loyal readership. Apparently, some readers make a point of visiting the locations of her novels, just to check her measurements!

Don’t imagine it. Do it. Walk your story, as far as sanity permits. And readers will then believe you and your story.

So there you have it, dear writers (and readers). Never guess how long/high/light/far/heavy etc. something is. Do it yourself! Run from the Louvre to the Opera House (The Da Vinci Code), climb that mediaeval castle wall if possible, shimmy up that tree and really try to rescue the cat (Trust me, they don’t cooperate).

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