Thanks for joining me in the penultimate edition of the Unlucky 13, where I share the things I hate to encounter in a story.
I love a good read (I read almost any genre), and the most important thing to me is the flow of the story: I want to lose myself in the narrative, whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, without stumbling and re-reading or skimming ahead.
(Textbooks, of course, are a whole different matter – I think we’re meant to stumble there.)
So I don’t know about you, but I can’t lose myself if I encounter stumbling blocks – they break the authenticity of the voice, and remind me I’m reading a book, instead of experiencing a different life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be picky: a great book can have any or all of my Top 13 Hates and I’ll still love it, but if it’s only a good book to begin with, or hasn’t been properly developed and fleshed out, well… it becomes a lot less than good.
So, please let me continue, because I love reading great books.
He started to sit down…
4. She started to run but forgot to tell him to finish.
(Or any other activity with a flow that physically can’t be started without actually continuing).
Right up there with my Number 5, In defiance of every law of physics, he paused for a moment, it’s surprising how often this one crops up.
Let’s think about it: at what point does a person start to run? Crouched at the starting line, fingers touching the ground for balance, starter’s gun fires, and she’s up, back foot pushing off the ground, arms pump—
Now, haven’t we passed the end of starting to run? Isn’t anything else after this actual running? Did she run? You told me started – did something get in her way?
If a character starts to do something, they either have to continue doing it or stop doing it. And if they continue doing it, did we really need to have the action broken into constituent parts? Sometimes, yes. Most of the time, no.
‘She ran’ is so much more meaningful in this case.
But, I hear you object, maybe the writer meant she started to run but changed her mind? Fair enough. That’s a great exception, and I’m not arguing with that (so long as it’s written well).
Here’s an example from Stephen King’s The Green Mile where he showed us exactly that’:
Percy’s eyes widened, and he lunged. He meant to run, but Harry grabbed his arms and a lunge was all he was able to manage.
For the price of a few more words, how much more vivid and eloquent is this? Once again, it comes down to the difference between telling and showing.
Other exceptions include starting an event, an engine, a movie, a journey, a book, or a fire, as these are using the verb with an object, and often it’s the object doing the continuing; or simply ‘she started’ because of a loud bang or other startling event.
Or, I hear you say (and thanks for getting involved), maybe she started to run faster?
No. That is not an exception. The same deal happens here – she can run faster, or try to run faster, or find more energy and feel herself running faster – but she can’t start to run faster because what happens next? Did she continue to run faster? The answer is not obvious.
And she definitely can’t start to run slower (as my mother used to say when I was driving ‘Quick! Stop!’).
Think it through like it’s the script of a play – give every instruction to your characters and think through the next step – if the visual doesn’t work, you’ve given the wrong instruction.
And if you’re having to give instructions to the reader, you’re doing it wrong!
“This is a surprise. How did we get here?!”
“I’m so glad you asked. Let me share my backstory, it’ll only take about six pages. It all started three weeks ago when I had…”
3. “What a dramatic opening chapter line you have there!” “Yes it is! Now, while I’ve got you…”
We’ve all seen this: the last chapter ended with our hero in a life and death struggle of nail-biting tension. He’s on a battlefield. Surrounded by the enemy. Is that his blood all over him? Will he find a way out of this? Is getting out of this even possible?!
The next chapter continues with another part of the plot, building the tension even further. We race through it.
Then finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for – the next chapter is about our hero and it starts with a clanger: our hero is now hanging on the edge of a cliff!
I sit up straight, bite my last fingernail, and read on, even though it’s already way past time to go to sleep – I just have to know the drama that got him here!
And then the author launches into a flashback of the last three days, what happened, how he got to the cliff, who he—.
Forget it. I’ve just put the book down.
I recently read a book by a well published and prolific author who does a speaking circuit to help upcoming writers (I won’t name him, this is not about shaming).
It’s the only book of his I will ever read because he did exactly this over and over. And to make it worse, his resultant flashback sequences were told entirely in past tense.
One particularly acute instance still stands out. It went something like this (I was going to exaggerate, but the truth was funnier):
[Hero] woke up in a strange room. He had a headache and had to pause for a moment to look around. How had he got here? Had he had too much to drink?
Then he remembered. He had had a fight with [heroine]. They had had dinner, and had started arguing. He had thrown down his napkin and had gone to the bathroom, but when he had returned to the table she had gone.
If only he had not gone to the bathroom. He always had to argue. Always had to have the last word. If only he had had a plan B, he wouldn’t have had to be here now, alone.
Then he had gotten up and had a shower and he had also had a shave. He hadn’t had any clean clothes so he had left the hotel and had paid for a night he couldn’t remember.
On top of being boringly tongue-twisting and stilted, I think it’s lazy. And I believe I’m qualified to judge because I find myself starting to do exactly this when I’m tired or face a scene that’s particularly hard to write.
(You like what I did there? I start to do it, but I’m aware of it, catch myself, and stop doing it.)
There’s a much better way of flashing back AND keeping your dramatic opening line, but I’m not going to tell you how it’s done. Go see it in action for yourself – read anything written by Peter F. Hamilton. He is the hawking master at this art.
And with that, I better let the man in the silver jumpsuit finish sitting down – that looks painful (but good for the abs!).
If you enjoyed reading this, then why not catch up on the ones you’ve already missed:
13: “Insert pithy comment here,” he laughed.
12: How to use adverbs dramatically, enticingly and generally really really well.
11: I felt a feeling.
10: Fun with exclamation marks!
9: “She cried a little, didn’t she?” “Don’t exaggerate. There were only a number of tears.”
8. Continuity issues. Don’t they just get in the.
7. Characters can’t speak without stepping forward.
6. ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a placeholder.’
5. In defiance of every law of physics, he paused for a moment.