Six impossible things

Surprises and Themes

A while back, I was talking to an Earnest Young Writer, who informed me with great intensity that the story she was writing had a Theme, and that she couldn’t do anything about certain objections she was getting from her beta readers because that would destroy what she was trying to say. More specifically, she had several plot twists planned out that didn’t take things in the direction her beta readers thought the story was going…and when she told the beta readers this, they universally informed her that what she had planned would not work and that she had to send things in the direction they were expecting. One went so far as to tell her to “toss out your theme and let the characters do what they want,” which was, of course, what the beta-reader was sure they wanted. The writer was quite rightly indignant at being told she had to write her story their way, and wanted my opinion.

What I really wanted to do was tell her that both sides were right. Or wrong, depending on which angle you were looking from.

The writer was, as I said, perfectly right in her basic objection to being told what to write (the plot twists the beta readers expected) and how to write it (“set your characters free!”). She wasn’t starting with characters or an action plot and letting the theme develop out of whatever actions they took, which is how a lot of writers do it. That’s not how she works (at least, it’s not how she worked on this particular story). She started with a specific goal for the story – a theme, something she wanted the story to say. She was also correct to say that the plot twist the beta readers expected/wanted would have ruined the story she wanted to tell

Where she was wrong was in her assertion that she could not do anything about the objections of her beta readers, and should therefore ignore those objections completely.

The beta readers were wrong to say that the writer’s proposed plot twists could not work and would have to be changed. They were monumentally wrong in trying to force the writer to write the story they were expecting, instead of the one that she wanted to write.

But the beta readers were absolutely correct to say that there was a problem, and that as things stood, the writer’s proposed plot twists would not work. They were probably even right about the characters as presented not wanting to do the things the writer insisted they were going to do.

The real problem was that the writer was so focused on her Theme that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the believability of the story she was telling. It was as if she had decided to tell a story about the terrible effects bullying has on its victims, and cast The Terminator as the hapless victim. Of course her beta-readers were expecting a story about the bullies choosing the wrong guy (so very wrong) to pick on! And of course they were disappointed and disbelieving when she said that no, she was telling a story about how bullying can destroy even the strongest personality! She’d set her victim up as so strong that none of them believed she could pull off the changes in his personality that her theme demanded.

This doesn’t mean she couldn’t pull it off, though; it merely means that her readers didn’t believe it based on what they’d seen so far, which meant she needed to put a lot of work into making the story convincing – work she was determined not to even think about, partly because her betas had been so adamant in telling her she couldn’t do what she intended.

But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing. Everything has to work together at least as smoothly as it does in stories where the theme grows naturally out of the actions and reactions of the characters and plot. If the writer does it effectively, there is no way the readers will be able to tell that the theme didn’t grow organically.

The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories. They work a bit like a subliminal sound track – when the music gets ominous, we know someone is sneaking up on the hero; when the bullies decide to pick on The Terminator, we anticipate their complete humiliation. A story-teller who wants to subvert these reader expectations has to work harder than a writer who is playing along with them, because the subversive writer needs to do more than convince the readers that these characters would do X. They have to convince readers that the characters really would do X instead of the Y that everyone is expecting them to do.

If the characters are selected and developed carefully, the readers’ expectations can work in the writer’s favor. If the reader is expecting the characters to do Y because Y is a familiar trope under these circumstances, but the characters just don’t seem like the sort of folks who would do Y, it sets up a certain tension, and then when they actually get to the point and do X instead, the reader gets a double tension release. There will always be a few who don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what must happen, and all one can do about them is ignore them. When all one’s beta-readers are complaining about the same thing, however, it behooves the writer to pay attention – not necessarily to their specific suggestions (“Do Y! We expect you to do Y!”), but to setting up the plot and characters so that when X happens, those same readers will believe and accept it even though they were expecting Y.

10 Comments
  1. Great story! (And excellent points. I love how clear-sighted you are about the process of writing and how clearly and cleanly you convey your perspective and experience to those of us hoping to follow in your footsteps.) Did you share these points with Earnest Young Writer? Did she listen? Or was she merely looking to have her own biases confirmed? “See, you wrong-headed beta readers, Patricia Wrede agrrees with me!”

  2. Beta readers are just about certain to be right about there being a problem, even if their idea of what the problem is is way off.

  3. “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
    —Neil Gaiman

    • This is a paraphrase of Clarke’s First Law. And very nice, too.

  4. “But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing.”

    This is exactly true. I have points to make – and I find myself working VERY hard so they appear to come naturally out of the characters and plot. If you can see the preaching, the scaffolding, the skeleton, I’ve lost – and you are right to throw it against the wall.

    I don’t have a choice – the story was vouchsafed to me as a unit, and it’s all I can do to write it. I question it constantly, make it earn its successes, load it with adversity, go for the knees to bring it down.

    The advantage? The Muse who gave it to me works very hard to keep me on the quest – because she can’t write, and I’m her only way out.

    She should have picked someone easier to push uphill.

    I do love it, the writing, the story, being able to keep figuring out the pieces. In that the Muse picked well. So maybe she did pick right.

    It’s still very hard work.

  5. That’s an absolutely classic example of both How Not To Critique and How Not To Take Critique. Impressive! (Though unfortunate for the EYW involved.)

  6. “The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories.” <–A lot of new authors try to "do something totally unique" and so they try to set these tropes on their heads. The problem with this is when they don't set it up correctly. A character's action has to make sense.

    • Yes, this is the answer we used to give on rasf.composition, to questions of “Can I do X?”

      “If you can get away with it, you can get away with it.” Where “getting away with it” includes writing it well enough that your readers can’t bring themselves to disagree with you.

      I don’t think I’ve ever written anything with a theme. Like Tolkien, whose shoelaces I am not worthy to untie, I just wanted to tell a story.

      • “…includes writing it well enough that your readers can’t bring themselves to disagree with you.”

        Or if they do, they can still appreciate it.

    • I was just thinking about this. I have a woman character who’s a very proper lady with surprising skills (and I think, since we’re here on Patricia Wrede’s blog, I’m not the only one … this is someone who’s more like the middle-aged version of Mairelon’s mother, if she’d been a more ordinary Cimorene as a young woman). I was thinking, oh, that’s a bit of a trope … and then thought, but hey, I really like that trope. I never fail to get enjoyment out of the clash of propriety and, er, both a real sense of humour and kick-ass competence. So why not? As long as I have reasons why Mrs. Etaris is the way she is (and why she is both very proper and has those skills is an important plot point, or will be in subsequent stories), there’s no problem with it. These things are tropes for a reason — people like reading about them. They can still be original characters and stories, if you write them well …

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003, gc@cbltd.com

Books

Appearances