Format Under Construction. My apologies for the current unsightly mess.

Because I Say So: My Literary Criticism Homepage

Or: How to Avoid Alienating the Reader by Accident

by Fiona Clements

Part One: The Story as a Whole

This was written for a writing workshop at a media fandom convention in 1999, which was before fandom went well-and-truly online. I haven’t brought it up to date, so there are some assumptions in it that may seem bizarre - such as the assumption that the story is being written for publication in a zine.

Part Two: From Paragraph to Paragraph

Part One: The Story as a Whole
Avoiding Reactions from Boredom through Outrage


Do You Have a Story Worth Telling?

Why are you writing the story?

If it’s:

- to get a contributor’s copy

- because friends have been pestering you to do it

then your heart may not be in it, and it may show.

If it’s:

- because you want to know what happens

- because you can't get the idea out of your head

then it’s probably a real story.


How Long Does the Story Need to Be?

How big and original is your idea?

How much setting up do the main points need?

Do the scenes you have in your head actually belong to the same story?

Maybe you're dealing with several short-stories instead of with a long story.

Example: The English Patient. Enough original ideas to make an excellent short story about allegiances and about the way that the end of a major event produces a large number of people who are temporarily adrift. Graft these ideas to an unconvincing and predictable romance (or two) and the result is an indifferent, self-indulgent novel.

How do you tell?

- Sometimes you can only tell in the course of writing it.

- Discuss with friends in the early stages.

- Use an editor once you’ve written enough to show the shape of the story.


If You’re using the Story to Make a Point, does the Structure of the Story Support the Point in an Efficient Way?

Or... are you being honest about the fact that you want to make a point? If you feel that points are supposed to be smuggled in to a story (“otherwise it's preaching, and people don't like that”?), you might add things to the story to try to disguise the point. It probably won’t work as disguise, so it’s wasting the reader’s time on padding and also insulting her intelligence.

Example: The Bridges of Madison County. Waller’s real purpose was to make a (dubious but sincere) point about the redundancy of a particular type of masculine hero (your “high plains drifter”) in the modern, feminism-tamed world. But instead of writing a story that illustrates this point directly, he tells us right at the beginning that his hero is this kind of hero, and then makes us wade through a lifeless and unconvincing love story, the real purpose of which is to set the woman up to acknowledge the man as a primal masculine force. The story is framed to make it look as if the love story is the focus (and that it’s worth telling because it’s precious and tragic), but in fact Waller puts no effort into imagining and conveying the connection between the two people; all of his passion is saved for praising his hero.


Tension and Logic and the Laws of Physics: Playing Fair in your Plotting

There are certain types of story that are particularly compelling for the reader because they involve a ritual build-up and release of tension that means that, once started, the reader is almost guaranteed to finish the story, even if the writing itself is poor. “I have to know how the story comes out.”

The main types that deal in this build-up of tension are (in descending order of compulsion):

Detective Novels


Romance   Horror

The compulsion is reduced as the rules about plotting get steadily more relaxed. If you feel that the writer has left herself the option of taking the story off in any direction at any time, then it’s almost as if you as the reader could invent your own ending that would be perfectly valid, and you can put the book down at any time. But if the writer has committed herself to structuring the entire story around strict rules, then you know there is only one possible end, and the writer is the only person who knows what that end is, so you have to stick around and wait for the writer to tell it in her own time.

Now, if you’ve set up a story so that it looks as if you’ve committed yourself to strict rules, the reader may persist with the story even if the writing is flawed. If you stick to the rules, the reader’s tension will be released properly at the end, and she’ll be willing to read more of your work. If you don’t stick to the rules, and don’t offer something else substantial in compensation, the reader is going to be very, very angry with you. “I stuck with this shitty novel, and for that?!”

So, you need to be aware of what the rules are so you can avoid breaking them:


Detective and Thriller: there must be a logical reason behind everything that's happening, and one that obeys rules that will be recognized by every reader (i.e. the laws of physics)

Example of breaking this: novels by Peter James which are set up like detective/thrillers but which turn out in the last chapter to have a “supernatural” explanation. The first one I read (on a strong recommendation), I was on the edge of my seat, thinking, “How on earth is the villain managing to do all of these things? How is James going to tie all of these things together?” It turned out in the last chapter that the villain was a ghost, and could therefore do anything - and I threw the book across the room. Later, I tried another, thinking that they couldn’t all be like that, but it seems that they are, and I’ll never attempt another.

I might have been able to cope with James switching tracks if the introduction of the ghost had illuminated or resolved other issues in the book - i.e. if it had worked at a metaphorical level - but there were no other issues, because James had put all of his effort into making me think this was a detective story, and none into making the ghost make sense on any other level. It might also have been acceptable if it had been a really interesting ghost, so I’d forget my unresolved tension in marveling at the power of his imagination, but it was an absolutely standard malign stalker.


Thriller.. Conspiracies

In thrillers, conspiracy plots are sometimes used as the equivalent of a supernatural “resolution”. You get to the end and are told, “Ah, well, Group A was really working with Group B,” and all you can do is shrug and say, “If you say so.” You can’t prove that it’s wrong, but it’s unlikely to seem like the only possible solution; groups that get involved in conspiracies are usually remote and mysterious, have motivations that are incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, and communicate and cooperate perfectly, even if they have nothing in common except the thing they’re conspiring over. It takes an exceptional writer to make the decisions and actions of conspiring groups seem like those of real human beings.


Detective: the truth has to be revealed in an structured and logical manner

This rule isn’t as strict for a thriller, because in a thriller the action continues through the story and you can make things happen to add clues that weren’t there in the beginning. In the classic detective story, the action (the murder) is over before the hero even enters the story, and the detective can only work from a fixed set of clues, and from what the survivors say.

You may choose to tell the reader the truth before the detective has solved the puzzle (e.g. Silence of the Lambs), in which case the tension changes from detective-tension to thriller-tension, but you still have to be very strict about how the detective then solves the puzzle. How and when does the detective learn things, and how and when does she/he make use of this knowledge? Does the detective pass the knowledge on to the reader in a consistent manner throughout the story?

Extreme example of breaking this: stories in which the narrator appears to be in the role of the detective throughout the story, and then at the very end reveals herself to be the murderer. There is an Agatha Christie that is probably the classic of this type, but there’s also a Clare Francis that does the same thing, and 1 recently read a third (by Chaz Brenchley). While, in reality, you don’t expect anyone to give you a completely accurate account of events, this approach raises too many awkward questions about why, if the narrator has chosen to tell her story and has full knowledge of the facts, she doesn’t just tell us the crucial fact right at the beginning. Answer: because there wouldn’t be a story; but if you want to use such an improbable device, which also spares you the effort of having a real detective solve the problem logically, then you have to put in the effort elsewhere, to convince the reader that this narrator would tell the story in that way. In the three examples, Brenchley almost manages this, the other two don’t bother.

Milder example: the recent film, Washington Square, which is about a rich, awkward young woman who is being wooed by an attractive, penniless man. Unlike the novel, the film is set up, to some extent, as a detective story, keeping very largely to the point of view of the woman and her family, so you, as the viewer, join them in trying to decide if he’s sincere, or just after the money. However, there is one scene at a party where the heiress is walking with a more-attractive friend, and the man approaches to introduce his sister, who immediately starts talking to the friend, saying, “My brother has told me so much about you.” He corrects his sister, but then, once they are alone again, says, “Thank you,” to her. So it appears that he had briefed his sister to behave like that so that it would look as if he had told his sister that the heiress was beautiful. It’s clever, but letting us see that “Thank you” breaks away from the previous approach to point of view and again raises awkward questions about other scenes between him and his sister or friends that we might have seen earlier.

If you try these kinds of experiments with secretive narrators and with multiple points of view, the reader is likely to feel that she’s being manipulated, and by someone who isn’t taking much effort to hide it. If you’re going to be an omniscient narrator in a story that might appear to be a detective story, do it from the start, before the reader has had a chance to build up a head of detective-steam., Washington Square is still a fascinating story, even when you know almost immediately that the young man is bad news. It’s the sudden change of approach that pulls the reader out of the story.


Horror and Romance: more flexible, fewer guarantees

Horror and Romance both deal with the ritual tension: “Will this work out for them?” for romance, and “Will they survive?” and “Can I cope with this?” for horror. However, the rules are those of human psychology rather than physics, and are much more flexible and open to interpretation. It’s easier to give up on a horror or romance story than detective or thriller, but you’re also less likely to throw it across the room in disgust because you think the author has cheated.


Part Two: From Paragraph to Paragraph - Avoiding Sighs of Exasperation