Six impossible things

The perils of a better idea

“A writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” – Lois McMaster Bujold

This is an excellent philosophy and makes a great one-line quote, but the other day I ran across a story that showed the perils of applying even such an excellent piece of advice too literally. The story started off as an adventure, with the main character discovering the huge central story-problem (invasion imminent! Must prepare to defeat aliens!), convincing some key people, and doing a bunch of sensible things to prepare for the invasion that was drawing ever-closer.

Then the aliens arrived, and were defeated completely by accident (making all those carefully set up preparations pointless), and the whole story turned into a slapstick, screwball comedy-of-bureaucracy. The second half didn’t match the front half, not in tone, not in content, not in anything except the presence of some of the same characters in both parts.

Mind you, both parts of this particular story were more than competently written, and each was, taken on its own, very enjoyable. They just didn’t match. It was as if two different books had each been split in half at Chapter 15, and the front half of one glued to the back half of the other.

When a reader has spent ten or eleven chapters following the preparations for the alien invasion and getting worked up about which characters are likely to die and whether they’ll get all the ships built in time, having the story suddenly turn into bureaucratic farce is a bait-and-switch. Furthermore, it’s a lousy bait-and-switch, because the readers who really like bureaucratic farce will have gone away long before they got to the middle of the book, and the ones who really like military fiction are not going to be happy with bureaucratic farce. Even the ones who, like me, occasionally like both will probably be going “Huh?” at some point, and will finish the story scratching their heads in confusion.

Possibly the author was trying to do something really clever and sophisticated by taking the mid-book “turning point” and using it to make the whole book into a completely different story. If so, for my money they didn’t pull it off. What I actually think happened (based on no evidence whatsoever, you understand) is that the author had a great new idea in mid-book, and went with it. So far, so good. The trouble was, the new idea didn’t fit what the author was currently writing.

At that point, the author had three choices if s/he wanted to keep working on that book: save the brilliant new idea for some other book and keep on as planned, go with the brilliant new idea and revise the front end to fit, or charge on ahead without ever looking back and let the chips fall where they may.

The author chose Door Number Three, and the chips fell on the floor and rolled down a knothole, never to be seen again.

This class of thing – a mismatch between two parts of a story – happens to everybody once in a while. You have your whole plot laid out and you’re writing along and suddenly you realize that your comedy has turned serious, your war has turned into a romance, your mystery has become vampire chick-lit, or your characters have turned out not to be the sort of people who would do whatever you have planned.

What most of us do, in my experience, is to go with the characters. If they won’t do what you have planned, you let them do what they want to do. If they’re turning the war into an unplanned romance, you let it be a romance…but you go back and tone down the war parts in the front half, and punch up the budding-romance parts, so it’s not so much of a surprise. Sometimes, the war turns into a romance in Chapter Sixteen and the only thing to do is cut the first twelve chapters and write a new Chapter One, because there isn’t any way to tone down the war setup enough to make it work.

To put it another way, if the characters put a tremendous amount of effort into doing something (whether that’s building a fleet to stop the invaders or trying to discover why the third floor corridor is off-limits), the author should not normally render that effort completely pointless (no matter how nice it is that the invading fleet came out of warp drive too close to that black hole, or how reasonable it is to find out that the third floor corridor is having the floor tile redone). Not unless the point of the story is supposed to be the futility or ridiculousness of the protagonist’s efforts (as in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.)

And if you’re writing parody or a life-is-futile story, it really ought to be clear to the reader from the start (or soon after) that this is what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’ll get accused of bait-and-switch even if that’s not what you intended.

It is, perhaps, possible to make a story work, even though the two ends are out of step, by doing a gradual, stunningly smooth transition in mid-book. I can’t think of one that does it, though, and I confess to grave doubts about the matter. It’s the old Chekovian principle at work: If you hang a loaded gun over the mantelpiece, someone should really use it before the end of the story.

Better ideas are all very well, but if they don’t fit the book you have, you should almost certainly either save them for later, or revise the book you have until they fit.

7 Comments
  1. Reminds me of the first novel I wrote (I was 13). It had every Great Idea that crossed my mind, crammed into a 250,000-word monstrosity. Some people’s trunk novels can be revised and go out into the world without embarrassing the writer. Mine…not so much.

  2. Somebody, someday, should write a story in which a gun is placed above the mantelpiece in the first few pages and as the story rises to its denouement, somebody grabs the gun and hits the bad guy over the head with it.

    Sort of a reverse Indiana Jones.

  3. Right now I’m revising the second half of my book because I did something somewhat similar (not quite as drastic though). I set up the characters for a lot of conflict, and then in the second half, they get out of their scrapes fairly easily. Either way, as a writer, you have to be prepared to work at a novel – no novels are perfect in the first draft.

  4. I’m not so much of a natural short story writer but I’m determined to crank out something publishable every month, and when it’s not a novel (or story collection or bundle) then it needs to be a short story.

    Every now and then I produce some “bright idea” vignette in my full-length work in progress, and then it just bothers me until I finally make myself remove it and put it on the side somewhere, because leaving it in disturbs the tone or something else in the main work.

    Whiz-bang — now I have short-story fodder. I’m starting to look at these things as features, not bugs (software developers will understand). As stand-alone stories in the related series, continuity of tone is not a problem. Re-written as stories, 8 or 9 a year give me one more work to publish as a collection.

  5. Hi, Dorothy!

    I remember one movie — whose title has escaped me and run into Patricia’s knothole — where a running gag was the number of ways two characters (one good, one bad) could use common items as weapons. At one point, the good guy pulls a gun on the bad guy. Bad guy sneers and asks about the common items. Good guy: “In this neighbourhood?” Point. He then whacks the bad guy with the gun. “Besides, I didn’t say I was going to shoot you with it.” (Quotes are approximate.)

  6. It’s just fine to have a better idea. It just takes more work. . .

    Oddly enough, I’m going to recommend a recent essay on this topic — from the same place as the last one.

    Creative discomfort and Star Wars

  7. Ah — the ideal counter-quote:

    “It is not much good thinking of a thing unless you think it out.” — H. G. Wells

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