So yesterday, if you missed it, I posted a bit of a rant about how disappointed I am with Dr. Who (link will open in new window) these days, particularly with the writing, which seems to have traded emotional depth, story, characterization, continuity, real suspense, and pacing for cheap manufactured twists and self-aware “cleverness.” I feel like this has been going on since the first episode of Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat’s run, and it makes me unhappy.
(In the links to that post someone posted a link to a similar discussion on their blog, here–also in a new window. It’s definitely worth a read, and don’t skip the comments; there’s some good stuff there, in particular “Mary”‘s comment at 10:25.)
Anyway, using Dr. Who as a jump-off point, I’m posting my little writing rules, the things that I keep in mind when writing and the things I, well, think make a book good. (There’s a whole big disclaimer on this in the original post, so I’m not going to repeat it here. I will repeat, though, that just because I’m disappointed with the writing, and feel that it’s in general bad writing, doesn’t mean I think the Who writers are bad writers. They’re not. I’m not sure why the writing has gone off the rails so badly, but I don’t think it’s their fault; I think they’re doing the best they can with what they’re told to do.)
So here we go, with the rest of my rules.
6. No Monologuing. Monologuing is Lazy. You know why? Because it means your character(s) can be stupid. It also very likely means that your pacing is off and the first half or more of your book is boring, because you haven’t planted enough clues as to what’s going on. Remember, with most books your main plot–if it has any kind of mystery/suspense/thriller type plot at all–is actually two parts: Whodunit, and WHY. You need to give us clues as to both of those. If you haven’t planted your clues well enough, your bad guy needs to monologue at the end in order to get us all caught up. That’s lazy; it’s you not wanting to do the work of letting your characters figure it out themselves.
Now as with the others, yes, there are places where this can work. I’m thinking specifically of Agatha Christie and all those great old-school mysteries where everyone gathers in the drawing room so Poirot can tell them How It Really Happened. I love those. And if you’re writing one of those, then fine. You still have to have given the reader all of the clues so they could figure out the mystery themselves. And really, you’re probably not Agatha Christie, or Josephine Tey. Odds are greatly against it. (A sidenote: this is where I get so hugely annoyed at people who try to justify their inappropriate adult/teen/teacher/student/whatever “romances” by bringing up LOLITA. Guys, LOLITA is not a romance. You are not supposed to root for Humbert Humbert; you are not supposed to dream he gets his happy ending riding off into the sunset with Lolita. You’re supposed to be disgusted by him [and by her, really, because she’s not exactly pleasant either]. Please stop trying to claim it’s okay to write pedophilia because Nabokov did it. You are not Nabokov. End rant.)
7. Your characters must think and behave in a manner consistent with their character. This one is pretty simple, I think. If you tell us your character is smart, they need to not wander around acting like idiots. If you tell us they’re fun and likable, they need to not be dull assholes. Noble characters are not petty; kind characters do not laugh at others; caring characters do not shrug and walk away when others are in pain. This is another reason “Night Terrors” and Amy and Rory’s failure to look out the windows or realize sooner where they were was so frustrating. It was obvious where they were. They should have figured it out sooner. There’s been no indication before, really, that they’re a couple of dolts, so why did they behave that way in that episode? Did the writers really not think the viewers would figure it out? In “Night Terrors” it turns out the little boy is some sort of alien, and the Doctor just leaves the kid there with his hapless parents and no idea what might happen next time the kid gets scared, or if a teacher at his school or a bully or whatever upsets him. The Doctor is supposed to be wise and smart and caring, but in the last season-and-a-half he’s trampled all over lives, ignoring any possible consequences–and why not? There have been no consequences. Real life doesn’t work that way.
Which brings me to #7, which is:
8. Your Readers Are Not Idiots Either. I hate this. I hate this, I hate it so much. Do you know what you as a writer are doing when you have characters ignore obvious clues, when you skim over stuff, when you go back on the rules of the world? You’re treating your readers like idiots. You’re telling them you don’t think they’re smart enough to figure things out on their own. You’re telling them “This is good enough for the likes of you.” You’re taking for granted that they’re willing to just sit there and take whatever you throw at them. Again, to go back to “Night Terrors,” Amy and Rory were trapped in a dollhouse. The thickest viewer figured that out before Amy and Rory did. Additionally, they were in a dollhouse which somehow had these long narrow hallways; dollhouses do not have hallways. Rory said he couldn’t open a door because it had no knob, but it had handles, and last time I checked most dollhouse doors don’t actually have working bolts and/or locks. Not to mention other doors, later, had working knobs. Viewers were apparently expected not to notice or care about any of this.
Now, yes, I’m aware mistakes happen (hell, I’m the one who forgot where Chuck’s was located in Downside; no one has yet pointed it out to me, but yeah, it’s in a different place in the first book than in subsequent books. Sorry. I just fucked up there). But I think there’s a difference between a mistake which doesn’t matter–really, the fact that Chuck’s is at 55th and Ace and not 50th and Ace in subsequent books doesn’t change the story one iota–and a mistake which breaks the rules of the world.
(Interestingly–well, to me anyway–someone emailed me once to say I had done this, with psychopomps. Because psychopomps can’t be killed, right, but in UNHOLY MAGIC Chess kills one, and then again in CITY OF GHOSTS. Here’s why that’s not breaking rules:
Spirit psychopomps–the ones who respond to a witch’s summons–can’t be killed per se, no. But the psychopomp Chess kills in UNHOLY MAGIC is not a spirit psychopomp; it is a living bird (living birds act as natural psychopomps, remember? It’s explained in both books). Living creatures can be killed. The raven psychopomp Chess “kills” in CITY OF GHOSTS isn’t killed so much as destroyed; it’s torn apart, and so cannot move or carry out its duty. But it’s not technically “killed.” Had it been a dog the bullet probably would have just punched a hole in its skull and it would have kept moving, but a bird’s head is a lot smaller, so the bullet reduced it to powder, basically. There’s evidence all the way back to the opening chapters of UNHOLY GHOSTS that spirit psychopomps can be destroyed if the skull from which they erupt is destroyed. So there you go.)
Here’s the thing. I don’t write books for stupid people. (Again, the disclaimer: that doesn’t mean that if you don’t like my books you’re stupid, I’m not saying that at all.) What that means is, I have a target reader in mind, and that readers is smart. That reader gets my little in-jokes and references; that reader gets *me* and my work, and is clever and quick and can keep up or even be a step ahead. I like to let my readers figure things out along with the characters. I assume my readers will be able to do so. I assume they pick up on the little hints and clues dropped in there, even the offhand stuff. I assume they’re just as smart if not smarter than me, and I refuse to preach to them, to talk down to them, to overexplain, to head-pat, or to condescend. I assume that if my characters miss a big-ass clue sitting right in front of them, my readers will see it and be pissed. I assume if my characters are suddenly behaving in a way very different from the way they usually do–and there’s no reasonable explanation for it–my readers will notice it and be pissed. I assume my readers will notice, and be pissed, if there’s a difference between what I tell them about a character (i.e. “Lisa is smart and beautiful and everyone loves her”) and what I show them about a character (i.e. Lisa wanders around the plot like an idiot not doing anything, not solving any mysteries, having everything handed to her and being nasty and rude to everyone else).
As with the others, this bleeds into the next rule:
9. Being Clever Is Not a Substitute For Being Good, and Showing Off Is Boring And Distasteful. Okay. I know I’m going to get a lot of crap for this one. There’s actually a big subrule/adjunct to this one, too, which is
10. Good Writing Is Not Aware Of Itself; Good Writing Does Not Call Attention To Itself.
This is where my big issue with the Steven Moffat run on Dr. Who really gels. Yes, I get it, Mr. Moffat. You’re Very Clever. Good for you! But you know what? I’m pretty clever myself, and I get extremely annoyed when I tune into a TV show expecting to be entertained and instead am forced to watch someone repeatedly jerking himself off, writing-wise. There’s a smug tone to it, a “look how clever I am, la-de-da!” tone to it, and I hate it. I hate it. There’s a comic writer I won’t name whose work I find just as irritating, for the same reason; it’s aware of itself as writing, and it’s very concerned with pointing out its own cleverness, and as I read it I can see the writer grinning and thinking “Ha! That is hilarious! Look how great this is! I am so awesome, man, look at that!” It’s self-conscious, but not in the sense of being shy; it’s self-conscious in the sense that it knows it is just words on a page, and it is trying very hard to impress the reader with those words without thinking or realizing that the words shouldn’t get in the way of the story.
Neither should tricks. I strongly dislike watching something or reading something and having the distinct sense that the writer is fucking with me; that s/he knows the answers but just isn’t telling me. Kind of like the writer is one of those assholes at parties who like to say outrageous or offensive things just to see what people will do, and then insist they were just kidding when people get rightfully offended. As I believe I’ve said before here, playing mind games with people doesn’t make you cool or clever, it makes you an asshole; people are not toys. Playing mind games with your reader may not make you an asshole, but I think it’s bad writing, because it’s all about YOU; you’re not trying to entertain the reader with this awesome story, you’re trying to point out to the reader how awesome you are personally. Good writing makes the reader see and feel the story. Bad writing makes the reader notice the writing.
Plot twists are great. I love them. I put them in a lot of my books, be they large or small (I did an interview a while back for a German reader blog where I realized my attraction to plot twists may well relate to my childhood adoration of MISS NELSON IS MISSING, with its Big Twist ending. I loved that book–it’s the first book I ever read, and I learned how to read it by memorizing it from having it read to me so often–and I love twist endings. Seriously, if you haven’t read MISS NELSON, do. It’s a corker). So I am totally not complaining about the plot twist or twisty plots in general.
But again, there’s a difference between a plot twist that surprises everyone and a plot twist that just makes the reader feel stupid. There’s a difference between a twisty plot where the reader follows along confident that the writer knows what s/he is doing, feeling that they are safe in that writer’s hands, and a twisty plot where the reader follows along feeling as if the writer is playing tricks on them and snickering behind his or her hand. And again, to me the difference is in how good the writing is and how much respect it has for the reader, which leads me into
11. Good Writing Plays Fair. This sort of encapsulates many of the others; it’s sort of the same as #2, and sort of the same as #3, and very much the same as #s 4, 5, and 7. (Here I borrow a joke and say “Yes, but what if six was nine? Wouldn’t you mind?”) It is, I think, the ultimate rule. Don’t deliberately hide shit from readers so you can look like a smarty-smart at the end. Don’t cheat on what you’ve written before. Don’t pull deus ex machina out of your ass. Don’t expect your readers to sit through a bunch of boring nonsense just because you think it’s fun to watch them flounder. Don’t skimp on foreshadowing. Don’t turn your characters into idiots because you’re too lazy to come up with a real problem for them to face, and don’t have conflicts and problems just magically solve themselves because you can’t bear to explore some of the darker aspects of your characters or make them look bad for even a second. Don’t ignore the emotional consequences of your characters’ actions, or the actual consequences; when somebody fucks up they have to live with it, even if they don’t get caught. Good books are often about tough choices, and good writing shows those choices in a realistic light. You don’t just leave the alien kid with the “parents” who have no idea what may happen to him, when you don’t know either. You don’t let the human bomb just walk away into the sunset, where he can accidentally kill lots of people one day. That’s not a happy ending, it’s reckless irresponsibility, and it’s hard to see from a character who is supposed to be wise.
And don’t draw attention to yourself like you’re the star of the show instead of your characters. And all of the other stuff.
So that’s it. I’m pissed off at the bad writing in the last season-and-a-half of Dr. Who, and I’m pissed off at bad writing in general, and those are–mostly–my little rules.