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Uncle Chris’s Writing Tips #1: The Folly Of Wilful Obfuscation

‘Old man,’ said the boy, ‘you have hinted at my great and terrible destiny and the power within me that may one day save the world. Won’t you please tell me who I am, that I may defeat the Dark Lord in Chapter Six, instead of having to plough through another seven books before our climactic showdown? Because honestly, you haven’t really come up with any reason why you shouldn’t, and you clearly know all my secrets, so you may as well, yes?

The old man chuckled. ‘Patience, my boy. You will know when the time is right.’

Aaaargh.

It seems that I’ve read so many stories like this. The hero is pushed around from pillar to post, herded from plot point to plot point by a wise (read: frustratingly reticent) mentor or an array of weird and wonderful characters all of whom know more than he does but for some reason won’t tell him. This is usually cloaked by some guff about how he has to grow and learn before he’s ready to understand the true nature of his heritage/mystical power/whatever, but there’s an even more teeth-grindingly annoying tactic, which I shall call the Lost approach.

The Lost approach is as follows: whenever the One Who Knows All The Answers (in Lost‘s case, it’s Ben, leader of the Others) begins to finally crack and start dishing the dirt, he only gets as far as a few cryptic hints before there’s an earthquake/someone screams nearby/an abominable snowman attacks, at which point the heroes hurry off to deal with it. When they’re done, for some reason the moment has passed, and no-one thinks to say: ‘Hey, Ben, what were you just saying about the mysteries of the island, I mean, it was pretty important information, right? Sorry about that abominable snowman and all, but y’know, carry on, eh?’ Instead they are content with the few scraps they’ve been given until the next time the writers need to drop us another hint, at which point the whole thing begins again.

For God’s sake. Sayid was a professional torturer. They could have dispensed with pretty much all of season 3&4 (and the rest for all I know; I gave up on that show by that point) just by tying the guy to a chair and pulling his fingernails out. Instead, multiple friends and allies died just because no-one would man up enough to shoot him in the nuts and make him spill what he knew.

A little of this is okay. More than a little and I start to go crazy. It drives me insane when I find myself reading a protagonist who spends the whole book being shuttled from place to place, following the meagre clues given by his wiser co-stars, and usually complaining about it as they do so. ‘What’s it all about?’ they wonder. ‘Why me?’ Usually there’ll be some collateral damage on the way: a best friend or lover gets killed. The protagonist laments the tragedy of it all, never once thinking that if they hadn’t been spinelessly following the dictates of their mysterious elders then their lover wouldn’t have gotten killed in the first place. But it doesn’t matter, because by that point I’m so mad at the hero for being such an utter wimp that I’ve thrown the book into the fireplace and followed it up with a tactical nuclear strike. Many’s the time I wanted to kill the entire cast of Lost. Whatever torments they’re going through now, they deserve them all.

The thing is, in situations like this it’s impossible for me to avoid the feeling that I’m wasting my time. If I could have been told the whole situation up front, why do I need to plough through a whole book just to have the information drip-fed agonisingly into my brain?

The issue here is lazy plotting. Of course you shouldn’t reveal everything up front, and drip-feeding information is far better than dumping it on the reader in one great wodge. But it’s bad drama to have a wildcard in your story that appears in a cloud of dry ice whenever the story slows down, just to tell the hero what to do next (or to offer him a hint, which amounts to the same thing, except that perhaps the author thinks the reader doesn’t notice that way). The hero should discover these bits of information by themselves. They should be earned, not given.

That’s not to say you can’t have a mentor. You just can’t have a mentor that keeps his information from the hero he’s trying to help, for no convincing reason. A good mentor figure was Gandalf. Right up front he’s all: ‘Dude, that’s the One Ring you’ve got there, we need to go and lob it in Mount Doom, oh yeah, and there’s Black Riders coming to get you, etc etc.’ If he didn’t tell the hobbits something, it was usually because he didn’t know it at that point.

So next time you’re putting together a story and you’re tempted to give your hero a hidden destiny or similar, think to yourself: why on earth do the people who know not tell the hero everything? If you can’t think of better reason than ‘The hero’s not ready to know yet,’ then you’re heading for trouble. Be ruthless with yourself. It’s hard work to come up with ways to dramatise the steps your hero will have to take on his way to pounding the Dark Lord, but having them provided for you by one of your characters is a cop-out, and it will make your story suck in the end.

More on this in the next pithy drizzle of wisdom, entitled The Protagonist Drives The Story, Dammit!

20 Comments

  1. CJ says:

    Will there be a Kindle version of Retribution Falls? I ordered the paperback version from the UK (I’m in the US) some time ago and loved it, but I’d like to have it on my Kindle since I travel so much.

    CJ

  2. Joseph Evans says:

    Lost is an interesting thing to look at in terms of storytelling. It has done phenomenally well financially and I’ve often wondered, as I’ve been watching it, if other people are as bothered as I am about its unfathomable mess of a plot. I imagine they are, but, like me, they still watch it, because despite being so messy and ambiguous, it’s utterly compelling.

    Before I start criticising Lost, I have to say that I’ve watched every episode so far and think it’s been revolutionary. The beginning of season two, in which it was revealed that a man was living in the mysterious hatch (Desmond), was, for me, by far the ultimate highlight of the show. At that point I was totally blown away by Lost and I thought it would continue to hold that level of interest in me for as long as they ran the series for.

    This wasn’t the case – I began to lose interest as early as towards the end of that season. I wasn’t that interested in the constant flashbacks to before the crash, and a lot of episodes seemed frivolous in contrast to the bigger questions that had been asked before them. My biggest problem though, that seemed to just get worse and worse with every season, was that it was getting the audience to ask themselves about two or three major plot questions each episode, and the writers were barely, if ever, answering any of them for us.

    I remember a particular episode in which a character was found in an abandoned facility somewhere on the island, strapped to a chair in front of a giant television screen that was projecting psychedelic visuals in some kind of Clockwork Orange-esque fashion. The cast rescued him but the strain of the ordeal left him unable to talk about it (won’t say any more on this for spoiler reasons). The questions the audience were clearly meant to be asking during this episode are – Why is he there? Who put him there? What is the purpose of this strange experiment? And so on. But in the increasingly predictable Lost fashion, the cast just seemed to accept this bizarre event and didn’t even bother to comment on it after the episode was finished. I have never heard them mention it since, and if they did mention it, it must have been so far into future episodes that I didn’t care about it any more.

    I almost gave up on Lost at certain points during seasons three and four, but I’m actually glad that I didn’t. I stuck with it based pretty much on the strength of the first and second seasons and in the hope that at some point they will just stop asking questions and start giving us about four seasons worth of answers to questions that really need to be resolved before asking us any more.

    And to the people that gave up on Lost before the most recent season, the writers actually did this! At the halfway point of last season, some kind of penny dropped and they started flooding us with answers. There were about twelve or so episodes of just pure explanation, which was long overdue and such a relief. Obviously, there had been so many questions asked that they were answering things that most people must have forgotten about by now, and I think they’ve probably still only managed to answer about seventy or eighty percent of them, but at last they’re actually in the process of revealing solid information.

    Since the arrival of Lost there have been many similar shows that work on the same enigmatic structure. Thankfully the ones that I’ve seen haven’t yet let themselves get lost in the same plot jungle (notably Heroes and the recent Flashforward).

    Aside from Lost I’ve been trying to think of books that I’ve read in which the protagonist is led by enigmatic, destiny related waffle by an elder or mentor, and even though this seems familiar (with the same feeling of frustration as you seem to have) I can’t bring one to mind. Were there any books that you had in mind when you were writing this article?

  3. Raihor says:

    I’ve always felt this way! I hate reading this stuff where you find yourself thinking “hang on… Normal people don’t do this… WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS STORY!?”. More people should listen to your advice!

    In fact, I feel like writing a story about a man living a boring, mundane life finds out he’s got some sort of world-changing supernatural power, and the mentor says
    “Well, Protagonist? Are you ready to face your destiny?”
    “Nah, I’ll pass.”
    And he goes back to his normal life. The end.

    The book I’m reading at the moment has a little of this ‘super destiny thing’, but the woman who is part mentor figure, part love interest, very Mary-Sue-ish but still likeable seems to just tell him the important stuff when she thinks of it. “Everything you write comes true in my world and we need you to fix it for us. Kthxbai.” (Hmmm… I think somebody’s read Poison…)

    Oh, and I see that crack at Harry Potter there. So true. Can’t stand those books.

  4. Joseph Evans says:

    By the way I realise that the opening is in reference to Harry Potter, I was just wondering about the other books that you had in mind. I didn’t actually feel that this was a problem in Harry Potter even though it was present. The first three Harry Potters, were, in my opinion, outstanding. The rest lost too much of its humour and ended up being so miserable and downbeat that I struggled to finish them.

    In relation to Raihor’s novel pitch, I don’t think that extraordinary events and grand destiny based plots are a problem – in fact I would be disappointed with a fantasy novel if it didn’t include any of this. There are a hell of a lot of books out there which follow characters’ mundane lives from day to day with no story arc to speak of, and I find it very difficult for them to keep my interest and attention. The master of this is Haruki Murakami.

    People look to fantasy novels for fantasy. A fantasy novel in which the characters decided to leave the fantasy and lead a mundane life instead would be a general fiction title like one of Murakami’s.

  5. Summer says:

    *applause*

  6. shyviolet says:

    This bothers me too, although in Harry Potter I think the idea is that the adults doing the obfuscating realise it was a bad plan only with the benefit of hindsight. I’m sure I’ve read a book once where the protagonist did suddenly decide to stop putting up with all the little hints and do his own thing, but other than that the story wasn’t very interesting so unfortunately I have no recollection of the title or author. Seriously, I’d never put up with that sort of crap if I were these characters, since I’d be the Chosen One and therefore the one likely to DIE.

    Thinking of Raihor’s comment, in one of my favourite comics a woman gets unwanted superpowers and is informed by a kind of destiny ghost guy that she needs to help him save the world, but by then she’s so sick of her life as a super heroine that she just refuses. Of course, since it’s destiny and all she actually does help save the world, but completely by accident. It’s pretty neat.

  7. @ CJ: I don’t know for sure if there’s a Kindle release as I don’t know the publishing process involved, but I’d assume there will be at some point as I thought pretty much all books ended up there? I probably won’t get told about it when it happens, though 😉

    I wasn’t actually referencing Harry Potter above (though I can see why everyone thinks so – just an accident!). I only read the first book of HP and I watched the films after that. I seem to remember a fair bit of ‘We should have told you about your parents/Voldemort/the Secret Of Whatever earlier’ from the oldies, implying that there was a fair bit of wilful obfuscation going on, but I can’t comment on the books. It is faintly frustrating in the movies that Harry spends most of his time discovering what his supposedly benevolent mentors Dumbledore and Hagrid could have told him from the start, but at least Harry finds out for himself instead of doing what he’s told.

    @ Joseph: I can’t bring too many to mind either, to be honest, as they’ve all blended into one homogenous wodge. A lot of low-grade fantasy books I read when I was younger had this problem. I wasn’t trying to pick at individual books, just to point out a common plot device that people often use because it’s easy, but which I think they should avoid like the plague.

  8. David Scott says:

    I always like to assume the hero once insulted the mentor’s beard and/or female equivilent (Not sure what this would be, exactly…. maybe some form of hat?) and out of a petty grudge the mentor simply withholds information, putting the hero through the ringer whilst they tend to their magnificent beard/hat.

    After all, if the hero is destined to defeat the Dark Lord and save all of Generica, then warning him/her about all the monsters and daemons they will face, not to mention the slight issue of his/her magic use slowly draining their life force, will not change things too much, save for the odd death of a secondary character but that will teach the hero a rather important lesson. It is a pretty sweet beard/hat, after all

    Otherwise, I have to accept that it is, as you said, lazy plotting and that would just make me sad.

    Oh, I would argue Gandalf never really tells Frodo the most important issue, the whole “You will probably die horribly if you do this” deal. Although I haven’t read the books in so many a year and you may infact beat me to a pulp with LOTR knowledge.

  9. Well, if they’re destined then that’s a whole other (and even smellier) kettle of fish, since it implies that no matter what happens, they’re going to win, so why bother reading the book at all? Any mention of destiny in a book usually has it destined for my fireplace…

    I haven’t read LOTR for a long while myself, but I’m pretty sure he does say right up front how hard and dangerous and what a burden it will be. Also, Frodo’s not destined to do anything; it’s more that he’s saddled with a moral obligation. And it’s lucky happenstance that it came to him, since hobbits have a level of immunity to the One Ring’s corrupting power through being so dumb and placid and having no ambition except to give themselves arterial blockages and lung cancer 😉

  10. David Scott says:

    I immediately withdraw my comment =P

    I have to admit, I’ve never considered that. Then again, I’ve rarely read a book where I have not expected the protagonist to succeed in the first place (Granted, with heavy losses) so I suppose it hasn’t phased me much.

    Your fireplace must be very well stocked!

  11. It’s a metaphorical fireplace, so its capacity is infinite 🙂

  12. Hope says:

    I can’t stand it when the character stumbles into an absolutely avoidable conflict, and their excuse for it is, ‘No one told me I shouldn’t.’ It’s just infuriating. Are you honestly so stupid that you can’t take the time out to think, ‘Gee, I wonder if lying to everyone I know and then trying to tackle the dragon on the other side of this quarry filled with lava and bridged by a stone toothpick with cracks in it all on my own, without first exploring my power, is a bad idea? I would THINK so, but no one’s said anything…’? No. You aren’t. No one who has lived past the age of eight could possibly be that stupid. (As to all of the characters who fall victim to this: did they have these sort of problems before they had a mentor and a power? No, they didn’t. So why do they have them now?)

    Then the mentor comes along and gives the hero a tap on the wrist and an indulgent smile. ‘Oh, Jane dear, you know that you could’ve told your friends the truth, and then of course they would’ve helped you. And there’s never been any reason for you to be afraid of dragons or lava, because your magical powers make you immune to such nasty things as being burned to death. Your Achilles’ heel, however, is bridges; that probably gave you a problem earlier. Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Now let’s go try that vanguishing-the-enemy bit again, hm?’

    Ridiculous.

  13. Joseph Evans says:

    Hope, do you have any particular titles to name in which this kind of thing happens? Every novel I can think of has at least some kind of decent motive that causes the protagonist to go through their destined hardships.

    The closest thing I can think of may be Skulduggery Pleasant, in which Stephanie chooses to stay involved in Skulduggery’s otherworldy conflict purely for the excitement and adventure of it, even though Skulduggery protests.

  14. Wow, that has to be the most entertaining and funny writing tip I’ve read in some time. Of course I have a fondness for scathing critiques of Lost – they’re actually the biggest source of pleasure and satisfaction that the last two seasons have afforded. 🙂

    You’re so right about how annoying easily distracted protagonists are when they just don’t bother to ask enough questions. It’s bad enough when it happens in fantasy (although I frankly think any real person would start demanding to know exactly what was going on the second any old sage showed up and started alluding to some mystical destiny) but what really bugs me is when you have characters in paranormal mystery books who are supposed to be detectives and they go along with this whole ‘you’re not yet ready to know the whole truth’ bollocks. They’re supposed to be professional investigators for crying out loud.

    Is there going to be another writing tip coming soon perchance?

  15. Hope says:

    Joseph, I can’t think of a single one, so I guess that effectively negates my comment. If making an ass out of myself were a sport, I’d excell, yes? Yes.

  16. Joseph Evans says:

    Well, Hope, even though I can’t think of any either, I agree that characters stumbling into avoidable conflicts seems ridiculous. It’s interesting that we can’t think of any specific titles though. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe after reading such badly constructed writing we subconsciously erase them from our memories, leaving a bitter taste but no specific details. Or maybe we’re all assuming we’ve been angered by this kind of thing in novels when we’re actually all just furious at Lost . . .

  17. You’ve got a good point, Hope. Most times you have to wonder how these heroes lived long enough to gain their amazing powers.

    I find that the situations you’re talking about (I also can’t think of any examples, natch) tend to be justified with reasons that sound good but are actually dumb. The old ‘I don’t want to get my friends in danger so I’ll go it alone’ is a classic. It inevitably results in at least one friend getting killed during the subsequent rescue attempt. You know, you can be noble AND sensible…

  18. klanzdev says:

    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  19. Sure, quote away. I don’t do Twitter though, I’m afraid.

  20. JL says:

    It’s just like when something major happens in a book, and a character says: “Oh, ya, I kinda had some premonition thingy, so I knew this was gunna happen.” And then when asked why they didn’t tell anyone, they reply: “Oh, well, nobody asked!” THAT IS SO ANNOYING!!!!!

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