David Louis Edelman January 19th, 2007
Here are ten writing tricks and techniques you sometimes see in amateur manuscripts that I think it’s best to avoid. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, some of which I’ve noted below; there will always be exceptions to the rule. But in general, if you hew to these guidelines except in very special circumstances, you’ll be a better writer for it.
Let’s use a football analogy here. Sure, once or twice a season, you’re going to try a wacky, off-the-wall play that will completely take the opposing team by surprise. But your win/loss record is going to be largely based on how well you master the fundamentals: running, passing, blocking. The smart coach knows that the aim of most plays is to advance the ball a few yards down the field, not to make the spectacular 95-yard touchdown.
What I’m trying to say is this: If you find yourself using one of these tricks, give your story a close look to see if there’s some other problem you’re trying to compensate for. That’s all.
1. The unreliable narrator. This little sleight-of-hand has been done to death, and it doesn’t really add anything but cheap tension to the story anyway. Now, biased narrators are perfectly okay; everyone’s got a point of view and there’s no reason a narrator should be any different. But narrators that outright lie to the reader solely to throw a wrinkle in the plot should be avoided. Notable exception: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
2. The typographical special effect. Prose is not a visual medium. Yes, the look and feel of the book in your hand can add to the experience (or detract). But I believe that typographical special effects and font changes should be used sparingly in most works of prose. Just like you don’t judge a wine based on the type of glass it’s served in, the ink and paper are just vessels to get your story across to the reader. Notable exceptions: Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.”
3. The intruding author. Inserting the narrator as a secondary character in a fictional story is boring, boring, boring. We’ve all seen a million examples of the wall between author and reader breaking down a la Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo and half of Stephen King’s novels. Richard K. Morgan had one of his characters at the end of Market Forces read a novel whose plot matched that of his Altered Carbon series, and I found that it temporarily jarred me out of an otherwise absorbing story. (Keep in mind that there are plenty of good fictional stories authors have written about themselves; but that’s not the same as chucking the author into an otherwise traditional fiction just for the surprise value.) Notable exceptions: Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Breakfast of Champions.
4. The fictional character who knows she’s a fictional character. Similar to #3, if you’re going to write a story about characters who know they’re characters in a story, make sure you’re versed enough in metafiction to tell that you’re not just retreading over old ground. We’ve all seen this trick before, so make sure you’ve got a damn good reason for pulling it out of your hat. Notable exceptions: Most of John Barth’s novels.
5. The throwaway topical in-joke. “‘I can’t seem to find the weapons of bass destruction!’ shouted King George from the prow of the fishing boat. ‘Can’t anyone help me?'” Lame lame lame. What seems like the road less traveled today is going to be the ultra-paved, six-lane, mega-highway of narrative in five years after the late night comics, bloggers, talk show pundits, etc. get a hold of it. Try sticking a Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill in-joke in your story and you’ll see what I mean. (Now, of course, if you’re writing a topical satire, this rule doesn’t apply.) Notable exceptions: Just about anything by Christopher Buckley, Joe Klein’s Primary Colors.
6. The confused chronology. That’s not to say that everything you write has to naturally follow a direct timeline from A to B. There are a number of commonly used structures (frame tales, for instance) that mix and match chronology. And obviously when you’ve got multiple story lines, sometimes you’re going to need to jump back and forth to keep everyone on the same footing. But putting narrative events out of chronological order specifically to be coy and mess with the reader’s expectations is an annoying trick best left to the amateurs. Notable exceptions: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow.
7. The total surprise ending. Surprise is usually the author’s friend. But not when it’s completely unforeshadowed and tacked on simply as a gimmick. The reappearance of Saruman in the Shire at the end of Return of the King was a good use of surprise: it makes perfect sense with the loss-of-innocence vibe of the book. The sudden appearance of Jack Half-a-Prayer in the final few pages of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, I felt, was not: here’s a peripheral character, barely mentioned and inconsequential to the larger story, who pops up suddenly to lend our heroes a helping hand. Notable exception: Jay McInerney’s Ransom.
8. The sudden cliffhanger. Occasionally a cliffhanger ending is all right, if it’s for a good reason. But in general, it’s an artificial construct that has nothing to do with the actual point of the story. Example: “The accused trembled as the jury foreman stood before the judge. ‘Have you reached a verdict?’ said the judge. ‘We have,’ replied the foreman. ‘We find the defendant…’ [Chapter Break] It was a sunny day three thousand miles away in Shanghai.” (Now, having your character fall off the cliff at the end of a chapter is okay. But leaving them stuck in mid-decision or mid-action is often a sign that the author doesn’t have enough confidence in the natural tension of the storyline.) Notable exception: Can’t think of one offhand. Anybody?
9. The second person fictional narrative. The second-person narrative is to writers what “the aristocrats” joke is to comedians. It’s something you do backstage with fellow practitioners of the trade to show off your chops, but it generally doesn’t work in front of an audience. Why? Because second person is an awkward and unnatural construction that readers have a difficult time identifying with. If your story has a reason to use second person, then by all means give it a shot — but in most circumstances, it will only distract from the story you’re trying to tell. Notable exceptions: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
10. The retelling in a new setting. If you’re going to dust off an old classic and rework it (“Pinocchio set on the Bizarro planet!”, “Hamlet in a Muslim theocracy!”, “the legend of King Arthur as told by headlice!”), make sure you’re not just repeating the old classic. Make sure you have some new and intriguing angle or point of view. We’ve all heard these stories before, and unless you have a good reason for updating them, you’re just going to make your reader pine for the originals. Notable exception: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.