Writing crimes and how to avoid them (Volume II)

Last time we rounded up the usual suspects of writing crimes and sweated them in the Box until they ratted out their buddies. Turns out there are more of these literary perps than you can shake a quill at. So, let’s look at some writing errors that will keep you well supplied in rejection letters.

The Case of the Missing Suspension

Let’s talk about suspension. No, not the shocks on your ’59 Chevy. I’m talking about the suspension of disbelief. It’s at the core of almost any type of fiction or storytelling, whether on the page, the stage, or the screen.

As the author, it’s your job to make us, the readers, believe every single made-up idea you’re slinging our way. If you’ve ever watched a movie with bad special effects, you’ll know what failed suspension of disbelief feels like. It’s the moment in the movie where you’re suddenly aware of the fact that this is a movie, with cameras and make-up and cardboard backdrops and therefore: Not Real (e.g. “Tornados don’t behave like that, man!”).

But if you maintain the suspension of disbelief, you transport your reader into another world. That’s writing gold. To make sure you don’t break suspension of disbelief, you’ve got to make sure your scenes pass the “Yeah, right!” test.

That’s the moment in the story when your reader puts down the book and says, “Yeah, right!” Then, they usually go pick up a copy of the book by the writer They Like Better Than Your Sorry Ass.

The culprit? The writer (you) got a bit lazy. You’ve not done enough of the literary heavy lifting. Instead, you’ve imported a narrative element because the story needed it, rather than making it appear organically, as part of the normal course of events. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

A character suddenly acts against type.

For most of the story, you’ve established that Sal is a misogynist boss who sexually harasses his female staff at every opportunity, driven by his deep hatred of all women. Near the end of the story, and without any preparatory scenes explaining this miraculous transformation, Sal sacrifices his own interests for the sake of our female protagonist.

Sal leered at the new temp, Gillian, while eating his double fat-back burrito with extra messy sauce. What he wouldn’t do to get her alone in the storeroom after closing time… If only she wasn’t such a stuck-up Feminazi. Sauce from the burrito dripped onto his shirt which already carried the stains of countless burritos that had fallen victim to his appetite for cheap Mexican food. He didn’t care. It was his wife’s problem to keep his shirts clean so he could look good for the ladies at the office. Although he didn’t really call them “ladies” in his deepest, darkest fantasies. No siree.

Morgan, the best accountant at Sal & Sons, ran into the office, looking like she had just been thrown from a moving vehicle. Which was exactly what had happened. She glanced around and spotting Sal, ran over to him where he sat in the common area, gulping down another burrito. It was two-for-one-Tuesday at Messy Joe’s Taco Shack.

“Sal! You’ve gotta help! My boyfriend’s gone insane and kidnapped me. He keeps babbling on about killer squirrels! I just managed to escape by jumping out his car.”

Sal was suddenly overcome with a sense of purpose and compassion he hadn’t experienced since third grade, when his favorite teacher, Ms. Taylor, stuck a green star-shaped sticker on his forehead for remembering to feed the class hamster, Bungie. He realized that his life of leering at and harassing of women was a giant lie. Morgan needed his help, dammit! And he was going to provide it.

“Sure, Morgan. I’ll assist you. But only if you can’t handle it yourself as an independently-minded young woman and if you don’t mind that I’m fulfilling my male stereotype of knight-in-shining-armor.”

Yeah right! Avoid.

What would work better in the example above would be for Sal to offer his help, but only with some pretty sleazy and morally repugnant conditions attached. That creates conflict and tension in the story, which is narrative gold.

The convenient convenience.

Sometimes, you can write your protagonist (or antagonist) into a bit of a corner. Maybe you’ve set up a killer scene where your hero is trapped inside the trunk of her car, which has just been pushed into the deepest, coldest part of Lake Hypothermia by the villain’s cronies. How is she going to survive this one?

No problem! You’ll just write something like this:

            Kya woke because water was dripping on her forehead. Cold, icy water. Through the fog of her still-unscrambling consciousness, the memories came flooding back. Dr. Slime’s lakeside warehouse filled with mutant killer squirrels. The trap. Getting bundled into the trunk of her mint-condition ’59 Chevy (with original ivory sideboards). Hitting the water, then darkness after her head made unplanned acquaintance with the Chevy’s solid steel chassis.

She felt around for anything that could help her escape. Lake Hypothermia was really, really deep and really, really cold. No way she’d be able to swim out once the car hit bottom. Then she remembered. The lock-picks she stowed in her boot five chapters ago without telling anyone! The years spent in an orphanage/mob front where Old Smelly, her mentor in the Dark Arts, taught her how to crack any lock, from the feeble single tumbler to the multi-combination, super-secure, bank vault time-lock variety.

She’d be out of this tin-can in no time. Slime was going to pay!

Nope. If you want your hero to survive peril because of secret knowledge, hidden equipment, or an idiosyncratic backstory, you best introduce those tidbits well before they are needed in the story. Otherwise, readers are simply going to surmise that you’ve come up with those conveniences just now, because you couldn’t be bothered to go back and revise your story properly. And your readers would be right, of course.

The ghost in the machine.

You may have heard of something called Deus Ex Machina. This is where an author employs one (or more) “out-of-nowhere” skyhooks to save her protagonist. This is similar to the convenient convenience mentioned above, but usually far less subtle. Example:

            Kya had seconds left to live. The ledge she was standing on was as slim as her chances to get elected chairman of the local chapter of the League of Decency. Below her was a five-story drop onto jagged rocks and a roiling, unforgiving ocean. Her only means of escape was blocked by Dr. Slime’s minions, every one of which was decked out in the latest power armor and semi-automatic las-cannons.

Just as she was rehearsing what she was going to tell St. Peter about all of this, Slime’s minions disappeared in a puff of greenish-yellow smoke. For absolutely no discernable reason whatsoever! Kya smiled. She wasn’t going to die after all! That fifty she slipped the author of this novel was really starting to pay dividends…

Readers are pretty alert to your attempts at miraculously lifting your hero out of peril. Don’t underestimate their intelligence or knowledge of genre conventions. Rather let Kya fall down that cliff. Or re-write a solution that makes sense and doesn’t require your authorial hand grabbing the reader by the lapel and jerking them out of the story.

The Case of the Unspecified Place

Beginning writers, perhaps doubtful whether their hometowns will really excite their readers as story settings, often default to something like this:

Theron walked into the dark confines of The Club. Music was blaring and strobes cut through the gloom, freeze-framing the scantily-clad patrons of this den of sensual decadence. He had known about The Club ever since he had arrived in The City from The Farm. But he wasn’t going to be tempted by the pleasures of the flesh. His was a higher calling. The Mentor had told him about the empty promises of The World. Theron was made of sterner stuff. The Way was his way. And the World wouldn’t corrupt him like it did The Others.

Once upon a time, in certain role-playing supplements and avant-garde fiction, it was considered pretty cool to abstract settings and world-building elements to their Platonic, iconoclastic pure-forms. That time was the early 90s. And even then, it didn’t really work all that well. Mostly because the authors who tried it weren’t, in fact, George Orwell. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Rather describe your setting in all its perfect imperfection that you can muster. Your reader will be far happier for it.

The Case of the Unconscious Intruder

I am convinced that writing is a direct, pay-per-view channel to the unconscious.

Let’s not debate what the unconscious is all about. Maybe yours is a Freudian pressure cooker of Really Weird sexual impulses. Or perhaps you prefer the more chilled-out cognitive version of everything-I-couldn’t-make-sense-of-today? Whatever your preferred notion, I’m pretty sure that our unconscious ranges freely when we write. But sometimes, that is not really all that helpful.

I was once part of a writing program where one of my fellow students submitted writing pieces that were, well, let’s just say that they featured some pretty suggestive scenes between a certain mother and a certain son. Upon revision, those scenes improved, but other, later scenes between the brother and his sister were what scholars refer to as, “A bit creepy.”

We all have issues. They lurk underneath the collective surfaces of our collective psyches. There’s no shame in that. It’s just human. But when they intrude on our writing, it can be a problem. Look out for these in your own writing. Not creeping or freaking out the editor of the market you’ve submitted to will definitely improve your chances of getting published.

That’s it. Now go write like there’s no tomorrow. And a casual glance at world politics right now suggests that there probably isn’t.

Marcel Harper writes speculative fiction, weird stories and horror from the comfortable redoubt of his secret basement laboratory. As a day-job, he dabbles in psychological science, teaches writing skills, and pretends to be a content strategist. He also likes beer. A lot.

He's published both academic and popular articles on cognitive science and social perception. His short fiction has recently appeared in Jersey Devil Press. He's currently working on his first novel which will probably be banned by the League of Decency shortly after publication.