COLUMN: Not letting your knowledge leak into your story

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COLUMN: Not letting your knowledge leak into your story

Postby c_nordlander » Sat Apr 07, 2012 8:22 pm

I've seen this many times in fiction, and caught myself doing it more than a few times: places where the writer's knowledge of future plot twists influences his or hers depiction of events and characters. I think learning how to combat this is important enough to warrant a column.

1) What causes it

Warning: slight spoilers for Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza: City of Masks, and my Venture Brothers fanfic "Seven Days to the Wolves".

If a character is going to die, the writer might distance themselves from the character, either by making them unsympathetic or by not focusing on them. In a way, this stands to reason: as a writer, you end up having a lot of feelings for your characters, and you don't want to feel heartbroken when you have to let them go.

If a character is going to do something that ends up making them a villain or an antagonist, likewise, the writer might end up distancing themselves from the character for the same reason. You know they're going to end up betraying the good guys, right? Why would you want to make a bastard like that sympathetic? And so you find yourself making them a jerk who insults his friends or does other nasty things long before the betrayal, even if there's nothing in their character to actually warrant that sort of behaviour.

The writer's knowledge of future event often seeps into character behaviour, making them act as if they know the future. Characters may act as if they know that they are going to die, resigning themselves at a point where it might be more realistic for them to keep fighting against the danger. Alternately, characters in a very threatening situation may act nonchalantly, reflecting the writer's knowledge that the characters are going to survive.

I have two examples of this effect and how it can affect a story negatively. In Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza: City of Masks, a minor viewpoint character, who is previously sympathetically depicted, turns into a loveless gold-digger shortly before her death. The change to her characterisation feels like it comes out of the left field, possibly because the author doesn't want to sympathise too much with her given that she's going to die (especially since one of the good guys is partly responsible for her death).

The second example is from my Venture Brothers fanfic Seven Days to the Wolves. At one point, one of the main characters is captured by the enemies and told that he's going to be killed. When I read through that scene, I realised that it was lacking in gravity: the character was cocky, very unlike someone who had every reason to believe that he'd just heard his death sentence. The reason: I knew when writing that the character would survive, and that knowledge influenced my characterisation of him. I subsequently rewrote it to make the character more shaken when faced with his apparently inevitable death.

2) What you can do

The good news: with some work, it's possible to avoid plot knowledge leaking into the story. Editing and catching it is obviously a way, but the main thing to do is to change the way you look at the work.

Give yourself, the writer, some uncertainty.

Obviously, you can't do this all the time: you're likely to be working according to a rough plotline where some events have to happen. But make room for the possibility that they won't. This way, when they do, they'll hit you with the same pathos as they will hit the reader (who, supposedly, comes at this story with very little idea of what the ending will be).

You're intending one of the protagonist's gang to die from her severe cancer? Give some room for it going into remission. You're intending for the hero's brother to defect to the evil overlord in return for his life-long dream? Consider the possibility that he'll reconsider.

It may seem simple, but take it from me, it works wonders. Leaving an opening for a different development will allow the story to develop more naturally. Perhaps the new, less likely path is actually the right way to go.* However, if it's not, the death will be more poignant, the betrayal will be more shocking. Or, in the case of a happy plot twist rather than a sad one, the rescue will be more exhilarating.

You're importing a bit of the uncertainty of real life into your story. Naturally, this will make the story feel more real.

*By which I obviously don't mean that you should choose it just because it makes for a happier ending. (Nor, for that matter, because it makes for an angstier one.) But if it's truer to the characters, or the rules of your world, or makes for a more fulfilling story, by all means go for it.
Last edited by c_nordlander on Sat Apr 07, 2012 11:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.
The noose draws tighter;
This is the end;
I'm a good fighter
But a bad friend;
I've played the traitor
Over and over;
I'm a good hater
But a bad lover.

Elinor Wylie, "Peregrine"
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Re: COLUMN: Not letting your knowledge leak into your story

Postby Gulliver63 » Sat Apr 07, 2012 11:34 pm

One rule of thumb that I always carry with me comes from Guy Hamilton, who directed most of the early Bond films. On a DVD he described the scene where Sean Connery's casket was put into a cremation chamber. He said that you really want you audience to ask, "Oh, is he going to get out of this one?" You get your good guys out of the mess that they're in, but you don't do it too want to suspend the belief for a bit. But you're right, this is a very good point. A film that I found excruciating was Robin Williams' "Bicentennial Man," because I could guess what was going to happen in every scene. On the other hand, I used to love Dawn French in "Murder Most Horrid," because I could never quite guess the endings.

I don't know if I've been guilty of this, but feel free to slap my hand if I have...:)
"We are today's creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature..."
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