Tag Archives: Lessons from a Reader

Lessons From a Reader: Don’t Remind Me It’s a Book

I’ve read multiple books lately where a character compares their life to a movie or book.

“I felt like a character in a book…”

No, you are a character in a book!

Every time I just want to shout: But you are a character in a book!

How ridiculous for an author to have their characters compare their life to other stories, breaking down the imaginary world and flat out reminding me that I’m reading fiction? Being specific and comparing your drama to Hamlet or your overbearing parent to 1984 is one thing, but the generic, “felt like the twisting plot of an action movie” is just bad.

One book I was reading did it multiple times, using it as an excuse to explain plot lines.

Another book literally said, “as if I were a character in a sci-fi.” She was a character in a sci-fi!

Ug. I cringe every time as a reader.

But as a writer, I’ve done it myself. I was working on editing one of my novels recently (a task I always seem to take up again and never seem to finish) and came across several instances where I did it. Cringe. Marked for editing.

I can see how it might be a natural reaction. We’re so inundated with stories that it’s only normal to compare our lives to them. But it just kills the illusion and world building that happens in fiction. It’s lazy. Find another way to say it.

Lessons from a Reader: Make ’em Expendable

I love gripping stories. I love reading a book I can’t put down, where I have to know what happens. A good tense story is often better than most movies. That’s something I talk about in 137 Books in One Year—the value of knowing what you love and pursing it as a reader.

So as a writer, one of the things that heightens the tension in a story and makes it so gripping is when you’re willing to make characters expendable.

Yes, killing off characters makes for better stories.

As you can imagine, this post is going to be full of spoilers. So get used to it.

I experience this recently in the zombie thriller Feed by Mira Grant. She created a post-zombie uprising world that hasn’t descended into the post-apocalyptic. Instead, people find ways to live with zombies, which mostly involves fear, lots of blood tests and guns. More than a story about zombies, Feed is the story of a trio of bloggers following a presidential campaign and uncovering a massive conspiracy.

Sidebar: In the post-zombie world bloggers come in a few stripes: Newsies who are your typical factual reporters, Fictionals who create fictional stories, and Irwins who pursue first-hand encounters with zombies. The Steve-O award is bestowed on deserving Irwins. Took me three-fourths of the way through Feed before I realized what Irwins was referring to. Get it? Brilliant.

Feed Spoilers
As the tension rises in Feed, people start dying. That’s pretty typical for a zombie story. But when one of the three primary bloggers in the story is killed, you know the stakes are high. At this point in the story, killing Buffy was pretty intense. It shook up the world for our two remaining bloggers, siblings Georgia and Shaun. But we still had those two. The story really gets intense when one of them dies. Killing two of your three main characters? Whoa. That puts the tension through the roof.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that writer Mira Grant chose to kill of Georgia, who had served as the story’s narrator. Not only did she kill off a main character with 75-some pages to go, but she killed off the freakin’ narrator.

That might seem like taking things too far. In Feed, it worked. Grant also turned the story into a trilogy that continues without two of her three main characters, or the primary narrator for the first book. That’s bold. I’ll let you know if it works.

Other Spoiler-Filled Examples
This strategy of killing off characters is put to work beautifully by Joss Whedon. In his Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series he employed it to a minor degree [BUFFY SPOILER ALERT] by readily killing off supporting characters (Jenny Calendar, Joyce Summers, Tara, Anya) or moving characters off the show (Angel, Cordelia, Oz, Riley, Giles). While he never completely kills one of his three primary characters, Buffy does die twice, Willow becomes evil and Xander loses an eye.

Whedon takes it up a notch in Serenity, the theatrical finale to his canceled Firefly TV series [here come the SERENITY/FIREFLY SPOILERS]. As the movie approaches the climax he kills off Shepherd Book, one of the nine original crew. That’s big, but Book also wasn’t on the ship at the beginning of the movie. You know the stakes are high, but the core crew of the movie still seems safe, right? Wrong. When pilot Wash is killed moments after a successful crash landing, suddenly all bets are off. As the climax reaches its crescendo and our heroes are fighting for their lives, nobody is safe. Injuries pile up, characters are shot and we have no sense that anybody is going to make it.

Serenity is possibly the best example ever of killing your characters to heighten the tension.

Unlike the original Star Trek series where the main characters were never in any real danger (the “redshirt” phenomena, lampooned brilliantly by John Scalzi), this approach makes danger real and the outcome unknown. Tension heightened.

If you want your readers to be on edge, prove how high the stakes are.

Lessons from a Reader: What Now?

I just finished reading the sci-fi thriller Angels of Vengeance by John Birmingham, which is the conclusion of the Without Warning trilogy. The basic premise of the book is that an unexplainable phenomena, dubbed the “wave,” covers a huge swath of North America, instantly killing everyone inside.

How’s that for a premise? Everyone in the continental United States (except for a tiny triangle in Washington which includes Seattle) is instantly gone.

But Birmingham’s trilogy is not about this strange phenomena. In fact, he never explains how the wave came or why, at the end (uh, SPOILER ALERT) of the first book, it inexplicably disappears.

Instead Birmingham’s series is about what happens if you took away the entire population of the United States. Who would fill that vacuum?

It’s not a story about the event. It’s a story about what happens next.

And what happens next is a lot more interesting than whatever sci-fi hocus-pokus you can think up. That’s the lesson for interested writers. Thinking up some incredible event is not the trick. The trick is taking us on the roller-coaster that happens afterward.

I should have realized it, but the same thing happens in Birmingham’s other trilogy, The Axis of Time. An international military force is inexplicably transported to the middle of World War II and accidentally destroys the U.S. Navy (oops). In this case what happens is explained (experiment gone awry), but it doesn’t matter. The story is about what happens next. Not why it happened or how it happened. It’s what now?

That’s perhaps the single greatest question for a writer: What now?

Why the Ending of The Hunger Games Sucked

With The Hunger Games movie coming out this week it seems like a good time to talk about why I think the ending sucked. Such a topic is obviously going to be spoiler laden, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

I read The Hunger Games series last summer in an intense burst, much like everyone else. It’s a unique and engaging story and I liked that it was doing something different. It’s also interesting to see such a dark tale be so popular.

I loved the first installment of the series, but I think it should have ended there. Throughout the book Katniss and Peeta have this awkward relationship. He loves her but the rules of the game mean that they are opponents—to the death. But this gets upended when they change the rules mid-game and Katniss and Peeta can work together. They do and their relationship blossoms, if only for the watching cameras.

Then at the very climax of the ending the rules are changed once again on poor Katniss and Peeta and they’re forced to battle to the death. Katniss refuses to play by their rules and chooses suicide, an action that would be witnessed on live TV and threaten to overturn the brutal regime.

There’s a moment there where she’s going to follow through, she’s going to do it. And in that moment The Hunger Games had the potential to be brilliant. It was a decidedly Romeo & Juliet moment and it would have been the perfect ending.

But no.

The gamemakers step in, they realize what she’s about to do, what it will mean, and they stop her. They declare both her and Peeta winners and an uneasy peace is formed. Katniss and Peeta have survived, but now they’re political targets. They’ll live to see another day… and another installment in the series.

Call my cynical, but that’s what I see in this ending. Instead of ending with a perfect moment, a powerful statement and killing off the main characters and letting it be an ending, we get a lesser ending so the story can be turned into a series. I know that’s what sells in the industry right now. I know that’s the latest rage and it makes economic sense as well. But I think it sucks. I think The Hunger Games goes downhill with the two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. It turn into this whole political game and it’s not nearly as engaging. It sells more books certainly, but they’re not as good.

As a reader, I want a good ending. And The Hunger Games had the potential to have an amazing ending. I wish it would have ended in that moment. It’s nice to see more of your characters, but sometimes you need to let it end. Sometimes it’s better to let us imagine what happens instead of showing us (sounds like a lesson we should have learned about the Star Wars prequel).

It’s still a great series and a good book and I’m hoping to go see the movie. I just wish it could have been more. Sometimes less is so much more.

Lessons from a Reader: What Happens Next?

One of the most disappointing things as a reader is getting completely engrossed in a story and then it ends. You were completely into the story and following the characters and the plot finally resolves itself and it was amazing.

But then it’s over.

The elation of reading such a thrilling story is now countered by the disappointment that it’s over. So one of the greatest things an author can do is slowly pull you back out of the engrossing world of the story.

Sometimes it doesn’t require much. But the longer your story, the more it’s necessary. My all-time favorite example is the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings. After following Frodo for 900 pages of walking, ring whining and orc gutting, the story can’t just end. And Tolkien gives his readers one last adventure. You know the story is over, the tension that carried you through those 900 pages is over, but you still want more. And Tolkien delivers with one last hurrah.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin delivers a more common example. It took 400 pages to reunite Alex with his family after a volcano erupts in Yellowstone and the story could have ended there. But instead we get another 50 pages that wind the story down, giving us closure (and nicely leaving room for the sequel).

These closing scenes let us emotionally process the story. After the climax, you need things to wind down a bit, to know where these characters are going to go. It doesn’t have to be long, but one last glimpse of where they’re going is gold.

PS, an epilogue is a cheap and rushed way to do it. Especially if your epilogue leaps forward in time to conveniently tie off questions like who marries who (J.K. Rowling, I’m looking at you).

Lessons from a Reader: Show the Expertise

I’ve shared a few lessons from readers and it struck me that it would also be helpful to include some positive ideas. Complaining about every book I read makes me sound like quite the jackass.

One thing I love to see in books I read is expertise. When you can tell that somebody knows what they’re talking about, when they can describe something with such detail that they’ve clearly become an expert—that rocks. It doesn’t matter if they’re actually an expert or they’re just really good at faking it. However they do it, I love it.

One example is in Ashfall by Mike Mullin. And it happens several times throughout the book. I may not believe him about the weight of ash, but he shows his expertise in other areas. The main character, Alex, knows his taekwondo. He knows how to handle a bo staff and knows how to take down a much larger opponent. And it’s presented in a realistic, I-learned-in-a-safe-class type way. He’s horrified when he accidentally kills an opponent and compares striking someone in the face to hitting the punching bag. Not only does the writing describe these skills in a way only an expert could, but he works in those details in a realistic way that’s authentic to the character (Note: Don’t work in details just to show off your research).

Later Alex encounters Darla and she knows her way around the farm. When she skins a rabbit, jury rigs a toilet, or makes a homemade smoke house, it’s completely believable.

I remember another example from Open Heart by Frederick Buechner that I read an excerpt of in college. It so perfectly captured a high school classroom that years later I had to track down the book and read it. I first read that passage more than a decade ago and I still remember it. Expertise doesn’t necessarily have to be skills, it’s the experiences that make your writing completely believable.

I could read good expertise writing all day long. It doesn’t matter if the skill is accounting or unloading a truck, if you do it right it can be mesmerizing.

Lessons from a Reader: Faith is Tricky

Another lesson I learned from Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is that tackling faith is tricky. And this comes from someone who writes for religious audiences for a living and has read quite a lot of Christian fiction.

One of the secondary characters in Life As We Knew It is a Christian. She’s preachy, self-righteous and irritating. Now we can argue about whether or not that’s a stereotype. But I can live with it—Christians often come across that way. But you have to make it believable. It doesn’t help that you’re already going off on politics, now religion too?

What sunk this sub-plot for me was the stilted dialogue when the main character and this preachy Christian interacted. They were supposed to be long time friends, but every time they talked the dialogue suddenly became stiff and memorized and the Christian character preached to her friend and urged her to come to Jesus. Now maybe those conversations are stiff and memorized. But they’re also awkward and difficult and have a very realistic quality to them. Even a Lifetime special has more realistic conversations about serious, weighty topics. People get flustered. They don’t know what to say. They’re passionate, but never perfect. It should move in fits and starts. And if you’re going to use cliches (people use them when they talk, so that’s fine in dialogue), you have to poke holes in them (because that’s what people do in real life).

The worst mistake in handling faith came later in the story when [SPOILER ALERT] the Christian character had died and the main character was confronting the reverend who inspired the Christian character’s stiff faith. While everyone else is starving to death (including the now-dead Christian character), the reverend was plump and healthy. Here we go: The age old bad preacher bit. This is such a tired stereotype. Once again, I get it. It happens in real life. But give it a purpose in your story. In Life As We Know It it didn’t seem to have a greater purpose. It was just a swipe at religion.

As a writer, you should be better than that. If you don’t like religion, that’s fine. But write a real diatribe against it. Don’t set up straw men you can knock down.

Lessons from a Reader: Don’t Be Dumb

One of the most frustrating things as a reader is when I watch a character make dumb mistakes for no reason. Now maybe they’re a dumb character so they’re going to make dumb mistakes. That works if you know they’re dumb, like Joey on Friends. But for most characters if they make a dumb mistake, it’s because the writer is being dumb.

Case in point: Trapped by Michael Northrop. Seven teens are trapped in their high school when the mother of all snowstorms blows through, dumping more than a dozen feet of snow. After an appropriate amount of time the students realize they’re trapped, alone and rescue isn’t coming. They need supplies: Light, heat, food. They raid the cafeteria, so food is covered. They find blankets in the nurses office. A radio in the office. Eventually they’re forced to create a fire barrel using material scavenged from metal shop.

But that’s it. No flashlights. No candles. No extra batteries. The students never bother to scour the rest of the school for supplies. They can’t even get all the food out of the cafeteria because it’s too dark and the cell phones they’ve been using as flashlights are all dying. There should be a flashlight in every teacher’s desk. Somebody surely has candles. The home economics room should be a goldmine. The janitor’s closet and boiler room, normally off-limits to students should be tempting and well-stocked. And when it gets really bad, they could start breaking into all the lockers. Surely they’d find more winter gear, batteries, flashlights, lighters, snacks, medicine.

But no. Rather than thoroughly scavenge for supplies, they huddle around the second story windows desperate for light.

But they’re not dumb students. That’s dumb writing.

(I feel a little bad calling a professional writer’s work dumb. Northrop told an otherwise solid and gripping story. I give him props for that. But this oversight crippled the reality of the situation. And it’s an easy fix. I’m just calling it like I see it as an annoyed reader, in hopes that I don’t make the same mistakes.)

Lessons from a Reader: Resolve Relational Tension

What I’m going to call ‘relational tension’ is at the center of just about every story. It’s the conflict between two characters where you can’t tell if they’re going to be friends or enemies, lovers or acquaintances. It’s usually romantic tension, but not always.

If you’re using that kind of tension in a story, you need to resolve it by the end. You can’t just leave us hanging.

This isn’t a TV series where that tension is the heart of the show and you can let it stretch on forever. And in most cases, when that tension is resolved the show loses it’s heart and flounders for something new (see: Buffy and Angel, Lorelia and Luke, Jim and Pam, Castle and Beckett [they haven’t resolved it yet, but you can tell that’s their struggle], Mal and Inara, Angel and Cordelia [Joss Whedon is good at relational tension]).

If it’s a love story they get together at the end. If it’s a tragedy they split at the end. If it’s horror one of them gets killed. That’s simplistic, but the point is something happens by the end.

I was reading Enclave by Ann Aguirre and [SPOILER ALERT], they never resolved this tension. Now it wasn’t central to the story. But two characters were forced together. They were navigating a post-apocalyptic world and facing death side by side. Their relationship was developing, but it was undefined. Then a third character was introduced and suddenly this relational tension developed. The dreaded triangle.

But the story ended before it was resolved. The girl didn’t pick one guy over the other. She didn’t choose to be alone. She didn’t even decide not to choose. It just ended with her clearly attracted to both guys, having developed connections with both of them, but nothing happening.

It was a good story. Unique and compelling with interesting twists and turns. The writer was even brave enough to abandon one world and introduce a new one halfway through, which is no easy feat. But the unresolved tension left a bad taste in my mouth. The central question of survival for any post-apocalyptic story was answered, but the remaining tension didn’t make for a satisfying ending.

Give us a satisfying ending. I don’t care if we cry or cheer, but give us closure.

Lessons from a Reader: Make Science Believable

The greatest sin in science fiction is when your science isn’t believable. Yes, it’s science fiction, so it doesn’t have to be true, but you should at least make it believable. It doesn’t have to be possible, but your job is to make me think it’s possible.

My current example for this is Ashfall by Mike Mullen. A super volcano has erupted, covering Iowa in a foot or two of ash. It’s also been raining, turning the ash into a wet slurry. But suddenly that wet ash is causing buildings to collapse. Not one or two, but almost every building collapsing under the weight of a few feet of ash.

Huh? Is ash really that heavy? We easily had two feet of accumulated snow last year and roofs weren’t collapsing. I have a hard time believing that ash is that much heavier than snow.

Now I’m just a dumb reader, what do I know? I didn’t do the research: Apparently ash is heavier than snow. But you have to make it convincing. Give me reasons to believe the science (especially if your science is indeed fiction). In this case it could have been a simple comment comparing ash and snow. Or a little more variation on which buildings collapsed (my take on the research suggests that in an area with heavy snowfall like Iowa, more of the buildings would have survived).

In the end you want your reader thinking about your characters, in this case worrying how he’s going to make it and if he’ll be reunited with his family. You don’t want your reader focusing on something silly, like whether or not ash could collapse roofs.