Just because you don’t want your hero to have a peaceful walk through the woods every time doesn’t mean every single time he enters them he should end up up a tree, that’s on fire, with wolves surrounding the base of it.
For the less metaphorically minded, I’m saying give your characters a break every now and then. Raising the threat is not, contrary to what a lot of writing advice says right now, always the best thing to do. Doing so every single time your character is in danger is just as unrealistic as never putting him in danger.
You want the woods to not be safe, so every time he enters them something happens, to stick with my example? Cool. Sometimes keep it simple.
The book I’m currently reading has a serious problem with this sort of thing. The characters are never facing just one problem. Every time bad something happens, other unrelated problems come up.
Far from making me more compelled to turn the page by raising the tension, which I assume is what the author is going for, it’s making me roll my eyes and see how much book is left because I’m liking the plot and would like to find out how it resolves without all this unnecessary shit getting in the way. Yes, me, the person — as far as I can tell the only one in the whole world — who likes The Council of Elrond chapter of Fellowship of the Ring is complaining about unnecessary stuff in a book. You know how tedious and annoying you find all that fascinating history? That’s how I feel about every single conflict these characters encounter.
And it’s not just in this book. I see it in so goddamned much stuff that’s written in the past few years. It’s, I realized the other day, part of why I’m not reading much modern fiction.
Oh, this ties in nicely with something else I wanted to blog about, so I’ll switch gears and talk about it now. I love it when that happens.
The other day I was reading a series of posts where Ursula Le Guin was responding to questions about writing from authors and wannabe authors. The questions frequently were the current favorites of wannabe authors everywhere on the internet, stuff about whether or not outlines are essential, choosing a target audience, should setting or plot or characters be the first thing an author works on, all that sort of stuff. Her answers, without fail, stressed one simple thing: that what matters above all else is when writing is thinking of the story. Not the plot, not the tension, not the purpose of each scene . . . all of that, she said, is thinking more in line with critiquing a story than writing it.
I think, honestly, that that’s what’s wrong with so very much fiction these days. The authors aren’t thinking of the story when they write it. They’re thinking “Okay, the last scene raised the tension a little bit, but I need to raise it more”. They’re thinking “The best thing for this character’s arc is for him to face a threat to <whatever> here.” They’re thinking “The purpose of this scene is <whatever>.”
When I write, I’m thinking one thing “What happens next?” That’s it. Any other thoughts are for after the story is written and I’m revising it . . . and even then I don’t go too deep into the arcs and tension and shit like that sort of thinking. I’m writing a story. Far too many authors today aren’t. They’re building a plot.