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May 29, 2013


Working in the Word Mines – The Goosebump Factor

by Michael Langlois

Trust me.  Throw this thing at somebody hard enough and they’ll never notice that the color is wrong.

I just saw Star Trek:Into Darkness.  Star Trek movies have traditionally been a pretty risky ticket, but I’m the kind of nerd that would watch C-SPAN if it took place on a spaceship, so I went.  And despite a plot that alternated between being predictable and creating logic-twisting  brain cramps, I loved it.  (Be careful with that link, it’s one long hilarious spoiler of the movie.  Click it after you see the movie or vow never to do so.)

The plot holes in it are pretty bad.  Maybe not follow you home and pee in your bed bad, but still bad enough to make you wonder how they survived the final draft.  Now, you may recall that I have a fair amount of tolerance for goofy stuff in books and movies, but this is pushing it.  So the question for the class is … why did I love it?  And not just me, but also the audience I saw it with: a mix of fans and people for whom Star Trek began with the 2009 reboot.  They cheered and laughed and clapped when the credits went up.  If you hang out online and read about all the bits that don’t quite fit together, you’d assume that every showing of the movie across the country ended in booing and thrown popcorn.  So why didn’t it?

It’s called the Goosebump Factor.  This melding of poor plotting and great experiences seems like some crazy paradox, but it’s actually quite common.  Doctor Who is a prime example of pure awesome on top, creaky plot underneath.  Pulp novels and soap operas are also prime goosebump territory.  The only difference between a work being called a guilty pleasure versus a literary paragon is whether or not you have to defend explosive amnesia the plot holes to your friends over beer.  In fact, the more wildly popular something is, the less likely its popularity is tied to an airtight plot with seamless logic.  When the wedding party is tragically devoured by space beavers and the audience is in tears, you look like a real schmuck when you point out that space beavers are vegan.  Everyone will tell you that you’re missing the point, and they’ll be right.

Fiction’s purpose, and I’ll go so far as to say its only purpose, is to create emotion in its audience.  When you get that right, very little else matters.  Would it be better to have your plot not suck while your fans cheer and dab their eyes with a hanky?  Absolutely.  No question.  But as writers, we often fall into the trap of valuing the mechanics of the plot over the effect the story is supposed to be creating.  Your priority must always be the emotional payoff.  You have to pick your battles in this life and, if you’re forced to choose, this is the hill you want to die on.

Don’t get me wrong, plot holes do have an impact on the reader’s experience, but it’s far less than the emotional content of the scene.  Often, after the experience has faded into something easier to analyze, then people can and will pick some nits.  And they should.  But the truth is that how they fundamentally feel about the work is forged during the experience of it.  If the emotional logic works, then your reader will be inclined to either let the plot hole go, or attempt to justify it.  We tend to love or hate things with our guts, and use our brains to rationalize that decision after the fact.  Of course, if the scene is lifeless to begin with, then every flaw is going be painfully, embarrassingly obvious.

I’m not saying that its okay to throw logic out the door.  This is not me giving you permission to be sloppy and blow off that whole logical consistency thing just because you know this particular scene is going to be a real gut buster.  But I am saying to know where your priorities are.  Don’t toss out a scene that works on an emotional level just because you can’t figure out how to get the pasta bowl into the coat room.  Emotional payoffs are pure gold, logical satisfaction is silver at best.

Obviously you can’t get into eye-rolling territory here, but don’t be too quick to put a flawlessly logical plot on a pedestal over everything else.  It’s very common for writers to pass through their first draft edit looking for inconsistencies as the number one issue.  So when it comes time to fix them, the emotional content of that scene may well take a back seat.  Here are a few tips on how to keep your priorities in check, while at the same time keeping your detail oriented OCD satisfied:

The Fast Pass – Read fast and focus on the story.  This is the low detail pass, where you’re just trying to ‘see the movie’.  For each scene make a quick note about the key emotional payload.  It should be clear and evocative.  If any logical issues pop up at this stage, make a note, as these will be the most noticeable to the reader.

The List – This is a slow pass, where you make a note of key logical declarations in your story.  You assert that Brad only has one eye?  Make a note of it.  Put a gun in the kitchen drawer?  Note.  Ignore setting and atmospheric detail, just list things that impact the logic of your story.  Every time you hit one of these items, check your quickly growing list to see if it has ever come up before, and if it has, verify that it’s consistent.  Anything that hits this list needs to be labeled as key to the scene’s emotional payoff or not.

Fit and Finish – Now you have a list of stuff that doesn’t line up.  By the end of the book Brad has three eyes and the gun is taped to his forehead.  Oops.  Go through the list BACKWARDS to select items to fix, then go to the first mention of that information on the list as close to the start of the book as possible.  It’s much easier to mention all of Brad’s eyes the first time we meet him than to add in some eyeball multiplication surgery in the middle.  This will fix most logical errors, which are typically created through imperfect author memory and assumptions.  Anything not tied into your readers adrenal glands/tear ducts will be easy fixes with few consequences associated with the change.

The Leftovers – This is the weird and scary part.  It’s possible that you have an amazing emotional payoff early in the book that hinges on Brad’s one good eye.  Then at the end, it’s critical that all three eyes are glistening with remorse as he dumps his heist partner’s body into the ocean.  And of course, there’s no such thing as eye multiplication surgery.  You need to be very careful here.  Your first instinct is going to be to put all the emphasis on the logical issue and just fix it in the first scene, dumping the emotional payoff as a sad but needed casualty of war.  Take a deep breath instead and flip your priorities.  Preserve the emotion first, its pure reader candy, even if you have to fix the eye problem in a less elegant way.  A kludgy, rickety logical bridge later involving discount glass eyes and superglue is still a hell of a lot better than losing even a smidgen of reader manipulation.  Fix it as best you can, but keep your priorities straight.

There is no higher purpose than to move your reader in some way.  Don’t lose sight of that fact when you edit, or you risk doing far more damage to your book than you fix.

Read more from Blog Posts, Writing
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 5 2013

    Great post, Mike. I definitely agree. Readers who get caught up in the moment won’t mind a couple minor misses. Well said.

    • Michael Langlois
      Jun 5 2013

      Thanks, Mike! I guess I could have just posted, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” 🙂

      • Jun 6 2013

        Heh, yeah, true enough…but then you would have been ignoring your own advice and throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

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