Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fun with fiction

Writers are an odd sort. Who else, in their right (write?) mind, would voluntarily neglect themselves, starve themselves, go without sleep and risk being labeled “strange” as we publicly babble nonsense, all in the name of writing a good story?

Still, moments can be had that you just don’t get to innocently walk away from unless you’re a writer. I remember quite clearly how, when I was sixteen, I got a good laugh out of my neighbor when I appeared on his doorstep only to inquire if he knew Russian. I can also recall how I asked my brother-in-law to tie me up a certain way so that I could physically determine how my character could free himself. Then there was the time when, as I wore an eye patch due to eye surgery on a train ride home from New York to Connecticut, I had the ready reply of any curious onlookers: “Point forty-five.” It’s too bad nobody asked about the patch, because I was all ready to launch into a story of how I’d been found out while working undercover for the FBI.

And only recently, I had a good chuckle when a friend I was chatting with gasped, “Dawn, do you KNOW someone who killed his wife?!” I explained that I was talking about whether someone who knew about this murder would accidentally say so in a fit of rage, right in front of the murderer, because I was giving a novel a publisher asked for a final read before submitting it. (Don’t worry, I took that out after my friend answered that no sane person would do something like that, no matter how mad they were.)

Still, writing fiction can have its downsides. When we create, we keep creating. Somehow, some way, we seem to forget some very important details we have set into place earlier in the story because we keep trying to figure out new plot twists and suspenseful ingredients to keep the story interesting. Say, for example, we made sure readers know that a character doesn’t know how to shoot a gun in chapter two. Later, we have them expertly firing a pistol in chapter ten, and we never even wrote a scene between those chapters showing our character learning how to shoot. Those things need to be there, and not in our heads. We can’t shrug it off with a, “Readers will figure it out for themselves.” If our characters learn a new skill which is later put to use in the story, that scene must be included.

Sometimes, though, it’s the little things that get overlooked. A character’s eye color is blue in chapter one then gray in chapter seven. A character is 6’2” in one chapter then 5’8” in another chapter. A character with his own car later grumbles about having to take the bus to work every day.

The above examples are just a few goofs that slipped into that novel. I had a good dose of forehead-slapping moments as I frantically worked at correcting any mistakes and inconsistencies. Some things I had to end up guessing, like how a character would have to wear his arm in a sling after being shot in the shoulder (I figured he wouldn’t be able to use the arm for a while, anyway). But, for the most part, I made sure a character with green eyes at the story’s beginning still had the same eye color later on. (Then again, if I’d already mentioned her eye color once, there’s really no need to mention it again unless I have another character saying “Grandmother, what gray, I mean, GREEN eyes you have!”)

There was actually one part where I wrote that my hero’s son was 9 years old. Later, I had my character mulling over how he wasn’t able to attend his son’s birthday party that day, his NINTH one. Oops.

Still, some novel goofs aren’t that obvious. I had my story’s antagonist go through the whole book convinced my protagonist was his ex-wife, who’d left him three years ago. (Actually, he murdered her, but he has conveniently forgotten that part.) And I never happened to mention whether or not the guy still wore his wedding ring! This little detail came to mind after I sent the first five chapters off to some beta readers and I started to wonder what kind of points they might make. Sure it might seem like an unimportant detail, but I don’t want my readers to have to ASSUME anything! You can’t let your readers assume anything; you have to TELL them. You can’t have them thinking a character knows how to bake like a pro because she made a prizewinning cheesecake in one chapter, because they’ll realize that assumption was WRONG when, later on in the story, our character bakes a cake that you couldn’t cut with a saw if you tried. (This actual incident has happened to me, once upon a time.) Then the readers will feel cheated. See, they put SO MUCH faith in the author of the story, and when the author lets them down in some way, it can be a huge turn-off. Some readers MAY forgive the infraction and keep reading, some may get angry and STOP reading. And the last thing you want to do is get your readers angry at YOU (or even have them stop reading)! You’re the storyteller; it’s your job to tell the story. The WHOLE story.

Even if it means taking a class on how to shoot.


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