I just got finished–well, okay, I finished a few hours ago–watching the latest episode of Dr. Who (it’s Saturday night as I type this; the episode to which I’m referring is called “Night Terrors.” NOTE: There are spoilers in this post, so if you are a big Who fan and haven’t seen that episode yet, you may want to skip this until you have. Also, due to length I’ve split this post in two. It’s still long, though. Look for part 2 tomorrow).
Okay. Anyway. I have not been a fan of the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat run. Sorry, but I haven’t. At all. Moffat wrote a couple of the best episodes of the Tennant run, yes, like “Blink.” But I’m having some real problems with the writing in Series 5 and now 6, and here’s what they are.
The thing is, everyone has a different view on what is good writing vs. what is not. I’m aware of that. These are my opinions. I’m a writer; these are my little “rules” for writing what I consider to be good books. You may not think I’m a good writer and so don’t like my rules; you may think I’m a bad writer who doesn’t follow my own rules. I do think I follow them, but again, it’s all a matter of perception and taste and all of that, so…the point is, this is the stuff I work on and keep in mind. Some of my pet peeves. Things I consider lazy. But just how I also think beginning sentences with participial phrases is an evil thing and hate it with a passion, my feelings and opinions may not match yours (you’re wrong, though, at least when it comes to using participial phrases to start sentences).
I also want to make it clear that I’m not saying the Who writers are untalented. They obviously are talented. They obviously are good writers. But they’re being–I believe–forced into lazy habits, and bad writing is the result.
So. Many of these came up in tonight’s episode. I will tell you about them now.
1. Don’t Use Crutches. By “crutch” I’m referring to the fact that “Night Terrors” ended much the same way as, gee, pretty much the entirety of Series 5, and a bunch of episodes in Series 5, and “Fear Her” from Series 2 (written by the same guy who wrote “Night Terrors”), ended. Oh, you can solve the problem just by wishing it away! Look, the key is in your mind! Just think it right, and it’s right! Yay!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this ending per se. The problem is after, say, the third time a major problem is solved by “wishing it so/unlocking the key in your mind” it’s a crutch. It’s the same damn story every time.
Not to mention that it leans so close as to touch #2, which is…
2. It Was NOT Just A Dream. How fucking lazy can you get? When people’s minds are going nuts and imprisoning people in some sort of jail built by their minds, or whatever side-gimmick you’ve added to make it seem like maybe you’re not using the exact same ending every time, it’s easy to just pull a “It isn’t real! Pretend it’s not real!” out of your ass and then boom! Everything is back to normal. It’s easy, and it’s lazy; it’s just as lazy as having that character wake up and realize it was All A Dream. This sucks. It’s a cheat.
3. Don’t Cheat. Oh, so much can be and is covered by this one. Cheating is BAD. Cheating is LAZY. Cheating is a deus ex machina, like suddenly the character wins the lottery and all of their problems are solved. Cheating is “You can bring it all back by remembering it!” or “You can save us all by wishing it!” Cheating is giving us a bad guy we’ve never seen before (more on this in a bit). Cheating is having your MC pull a new magical ability or tool out of her ass at the very last second when the reader has never seen or heard of it before, and what do you know, it’s exactly the skill or tool she needs to solve the problem.
Cheating is creating coincidences. Not believable ones, like that the new people in town are evil or that the bad guy and MC both have been to see the only person in the city who has a particular piece of knowledge or information, but unbelievable ones, like that the villain and the MC happen to be shopping in the same store at the same time. Sure, coincidences may happen and characters may overhear bits of information, but you can mitigate that coincidence by having it make sense that what they overhear is being said in that place at that time, and having it make sense that the MC would be close by. Your MC overhearing, while in a bathroom stall at a party, two people discussing her, is a much more believable coincidence than the MC overhearing the villain discussing his or her Evil Plans while the MC is hiding in a public toilet stall at a state fair. You know what I mean?
Cheating is making the plot happen to the MC rather than coming from decisions the MC has made. Again, yes, every story is going to have an element of this, a “Something bad is happening? Maybe I should check it out!” sort of thing. But the MC’s decisions should push the plot; the MC’s actions should bring him/her to the attention of the bad guys, should lead to clues or make things worse. The MC should not be passive; things should not just happen to him or her, but be reactions to his or her own actions. To have a story where the MC just stands around and reacts is cheating. Cheating is not fully making your character and his/her problems part of the world; the story you tell should be a story only able to be told in that world, with those characters; if a character trait makes no difference to the plot, shows us nothing about the world, and matters not one bit to the story, it doesn’t belong there. If a rule of the world doesn’t actually effect the plot, story, or character it doesn’t belong there. Good writing inhabits the world of the story; it doesn’t just exist in it.
Cheating is more than that, too. It’s introducing a character who hangs around contributing nothing and then suddenly at the end is a genius at whatever esoteric task needs doing. It’s not giving the reader clues (more on that in a bit, too) as to who the bad guy is, what the bad guy’s plot is, or how it will be figured out. It’s having your characters make insane leaps of logic based on the most minor of clues and surprise! They’re exactly right! It’s having your characters suddenly know things there’s no way they could know. Or–and this leads into the next one–it’s having characters ignore information just because you want to do a Big Reveal. Yes, Cheating is also–can be also–part and parcel of
4. Don’t Make Your Characters Morons. In the “Night Terrors” episode, two characters who are supposed to be smart people find themselves somehow teleported into a strange house. They’re trying to find a way out. They walk through several rooms. All of those rooms have windows which are curtained or shuttered. Do our “smart” characters do what any halfway-intelligent human being would do, and open the shutters or pull back the curtains, so they can either A) escape; B) see if they can gauge their location; or C) both? No. Of course they don’t. Why? Because if they did, we–the viewer–would then know that they are in fact inside a dollhouse (which we all figured out well before they did anyway), and so would they. The writer didn’t want to tell us yet that they were in a dollhouse (although it was fairly simple to guess, even with the inaccuracies of design–dollhouses do not have hallways. But more on that, too, in a minute) so the writer simply decided to make the characters stupid, rather than coming up with a better way to keep that information from us (like having the windows boarded or painted over).
This is a hard rule to follow, it is. It’s hard to find a way to keep information from readers while still making it clear that the character isn’t a dimbulb. Tough, though. It’s your job to do so. If your character is supposed to be smart, you cannot have him or her running around missing obvious clues left right and center just because you don’t want him or her to know that stuff yet. (When the hubs read this he brought up The Usual Suspects and the Sixth Sense, both of which have twist endings in which we discover characters have missed Big Clues. Again, though, we’re talking about a different type of story structure. It was very clever writing, not lazy writing, that kept us from knowing about Keyser Soze and the truth about Bruce Willis. And, the whole point of both of those twists–well, not the whole point, but you know what I mean–was that Bruce Willis was in fact willfully blind, and Keyser Soze did in fact outsmart Chazz Palminteri. You can have characters miss clues, sure, but there should be a reason for it, not that they just didn’t think of that really obvious answer.)
This is where red herrings come in (and that’s one, too). You can use a red herring to throw the MC off the track, to give yourself time, etc. But it still has to be believable. Your characters cannot just ignore big glowing GUILTY signs and obvious clues hanging over the heads of others. Your character cannot just decide s/he doesn’t feel like chasing the killer that day or decide to keep that doctor’s appointment instead. Your character cannot fail to check the wallet s/he found for ID just because you’re trying to hide the bad guy’s identity for a few more chapters. Your character cannot, when tied up somewhere, figure “Oh, well, damn,” and not even try to untie the knots. This moves into the next rule, which is:
5. Red Herrings Must Be Worthwhile. The “Night Terrors” episode spends some time–five minutes, perhaps seven or eight–setting up the Evil Landlord and the possibility that, being Evil, he could be behind the Bad Things. The landlord serves no other purpose in the story except to threaten. About five or ten minutes after the Red Herring scene, we discover that no, the landlord is a victim as well. Which means that whole bit was a big-assed waste of time and effort.
You can’t throw in a red herring who does nothing for the story except just being a red herring. A red herring must exist in his/her/its own right; it needs to serve some other function. If the only time Mr. Green appears in the book is to say something suspicious and then wander off, and delivers no information/provides no clues as to the real bad guy’s identity/does not advance the plot/etc., your red herring is a waste of space and needs to either do something real or go away.
It also shouldn’t be heavy-handed. Just as it should not be obvious from the second he’s introduced who the villain is–if your bad guy walks into the book kicking puppies before him, twirling his mustache with one hand while writing racist graffiti with the other, you really ought to think about his character a bit more–it should not be obvious, either to the MC or to the reader, that your red herring is innocent. Your character should not be stupid, remember? An effective red herring is neither so obviously guilty that the reader won’t buy it when they turn out innocent (or loses interest), nor so obviously innocent that your MC just looks like an idiot for suspecting them. (Note: Yes, there are some story structures where the reader knows who the bad guy is right off the bat, and that’s different.)
Like I said, I’ve cut this in two because of length, so tomorrow I’ll post the rest.