All According to Plan

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of SCBWI the other day, and we workshopped a number of pieces different people had brought. One was a chapter from the middle of a longer work, ending with the protagonist forming a plan of action. I mentioned that, for the next chapter, the author would want to remember: only explain the plan to the reader if it isn’t going to work. The other members were all like, “Oh yeah! That’s true, but I hadn’t thought of it as an actual rule before!” So I thought it might be worth sharing with you lovely peoples.

(Note: I can’t take credit for coming up with this “rule.” I’ve seen it before, though I can’t think where, or I would credit the source. Possibly on TV Tropes somewhere?)

The inverse relationship between how successful a plan will be and how much readers should know about it beforehand makes a lot of sense. If the plan is going to fail, you want it explained first so that readers will see it failing. They’ll understand what’s going on, and they’ll want to read on as they anticipate the trouble this will mean for the architects of this failed strategy. If, on the other hand, the plan is going to work – well, in a movie, you might have the team leader say, “Listen, here’s what we’re going to do . . .” and then CUT AWAY, straight to the plan’s implementation. Either that, or the person who comes up with the scheme doesn’t share it with anyone in the first place. The reasoning here, as I see it, is twofold: you want to avoid repetition, and you don’t want to steal the thunder from the actual events when the strategy is put into action.

Basically, you want to avoid either of the following situations:

  • Someone explains, either to other characters or to the reader via the description of her thought process, that she is going to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion. She then borrows her sister’s car, robs a bank, drives to Vegas, bribes a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnaps a white lion.
  • Someone is planning to borrow her sister’s car, rob a bank, drive to Vegas, bribe a bunch of Elvis impersonators to create a distraction, and kidnap a white lion, but never informs the reader, so the reader doesn’t see the significance of the situation when her sister’s car won’t start.

(Of course, this all assumes that the strategizing party is either the POV character or someone who would communicate her scheme to the POV character. We don’t get to be privy to everyone’s plans all the time.)

This can, of course, lead to a funny meta situation when you’re reading or watching a movie and someone starts laying out a detailed plan. You can assume with some confidence that things are not going to shake out that way.

Exceptions? Thoughts? Diabolical schemes?

Oh, But Before That . . .

I just read a book that was billed as a companion to another book I’d read, but which turned out to be sort of a prequel. That is, it includes the origin of the villain who’s villainizing around in Book I’d Already Read.

(Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s go ahead and call the first book I read “Graceling by Kristin Cashore” and the prequel “Fire“. Purely random. But, you know, through pure random chance, there may be some major spoilers of those two books ahead. You know, it’s possible.)

So, in Graceling, we have Leck, an adult villain of misty origins. I was very interested to see that Fire included, as one of several antagonists, a character who became more and more clearly the child Leck. I was curious about his background, and also about how the book would handle the fact that Leck, despite being a terrible, murdery-type person, could not be killed off or otherwise permanently dealt with as one generally expects villains to be.

This made me think a lot about the potential and the limitations of prequels. I haven’t read a lot of them. My impression is that direct prequels, sharing many characters or important characters and plotlines, are fairly uncommon. That makes a lot of sense, given that the author would have written the original book with the intention of having its setup stand alone. Besides, as I mentioned above, a prequel means the challenge of writing a book with a satisfying conclusion that still leaves things open for the events of the following story.

Since I was thinking about this while reading this book we’re calling Fire, I thought I’d lay out a few things I noticed that seemed to make the whole prequel situation work pretty well in this instance.

  1. Graceling included a villain whose background was unexplained. This left a clear and significant way for the stories to be tied together. Bonus points for the fact that Leck in Graceling is missing an eye – a useful trait in a world where dangerous Gracelings like himself are identified by their mismatched eye colors – and that makes the reader of Fire keen to discover the story behind the injury.
  2. The books take place in different countries. The author didn’t have to worry about what a lot of the other characters in Graceling should be up to in Fire, because they didn’t appear.
  3. Leck is just one of several antagonists in Fire. Indeed, I think that the real villain of the story might be war. Because of this, it seems more important that Leck be rendered no longer a threat than that we get the satisfaction of a really personal, permanent comeuppance for him. It also might help that, creepy and horrible as he is, Leck is a kid in Fire, and many readers likely do not expect a child to be explicitly killed off, even if he is a villain.

Fire does a great job establishing how awful Leck is. He murders Fire’s best childhood friend – a major character whose death I didn’t see coming – and, oh yeah, also his own doting father. At the same time, as I said, Leck isn’t the Big Bad of Fire. His defeat is the almost-slightly-groanworthy classic non-death of falling into a chasm, which is basically the same as toppling over a cliff, and everyone knows that the cliffs of fictional landscapes are bizarrely non-deadly. Vis-a-vis cliff death, and maybe death in general, the informed reader’s mantra is, “Body, or it didn’t happen.” But in Fire, this is acceptable, because the defeat of Leck isn’t the point. In Graceling, killing Leck means they’ve won. (Though there’s a lot more plot to wrap up, what with romance and such.) In Fire, getting rid of Leck just means Fire is free to rejoin her friends and help bolster their forces against the coming war for their kingdom.

The takeaway here is, the less evil or the less important a villain is, the less is expected – required – to happen to him. (Remember Voldemort being completely destroyed while Draco doesn’t even get locked up?)

Reaching a satisfying conclusion in a prequel does involve special challenges when that prequel includes the same villain as the next (previous?) book. To look at some possible routes authors can take, we return to Listland, because I love it there.

  • Show the villain just starting out in the prequel, and don’t make her bad enough or central enough to require that she get comeuppance in that book in order for readers to be satisfied. You could do this by not making her villainous at all – picture Harvey Dent appearing in Batman Begins, if that were a prequel to The Dark Knight rather than being made first. Or you can be hardcore like Fire and make the villain really bad, but not the Big Bad.
  • End with the villain locked up, exiled, etc. This is a great way out if your baddie is not yet bad enough to clearly merit being offed by a hero. Prisons can always be escaped, and incarceration can be an interesting element in your baddie’s backstory.
  • Do the fake death, like Fire does. I would not recommend this if your villain actually is the Big Bad of the prequel. You should know up front that many readers are not going to believe in the death unless they see it. Even if they do believe it, they may resent that the story’s villain didn’t get a worthy, dramatic death scene – which is going to be hard to pull off if the character isn’t really dead.

There are plenty of other options. If your original book allows it, I think it would be very cool to end a prequel with a minor villain who seems reformed but who, as is seen in the following book, was actually just biding her time and scheming, waiting to become a major villain.

What prequels have you read, and how do they tie into the stories they precede?

And, in unrelated linksys, I like Pixar’s rules of storytelling, especially number nine, which I hadn’t thought of before.

“Wow, You Too?”

I’m on a book discussion listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. Recently, we had a thread going about how common heterochromia is in works of fiction – and man, it’s all over the place. This got me thinking about unusual conditions and how they’re often more common in fiction than in real life. (Considering that a major character in The Dogwatchers has albinism, my own work is no exception.)

Since most fictional worlds are independent of one another, one tends to assume that, unless otherwise stated, each world has roughly the same incidence of such conditions as the real world. Still, it’s kind of funny to think, say, how many more characters with albinism I’ve read about than I’ve met. Or probably even seen. There’s an even bigger gap for heterochromia – I’ve only ever met one person that I can think of who had it (and it wasn’t obvious, e.g. one blue eye and one brown, but more of a one green/one hazel thing).

In some stories, these things are the result of magic or other supernatural forces. This can change their significance in the story – a person’s natural heterochromia might be used as a symbol for some kind of internal conflict, whereas maaagical heterochromia might have more practical implications (“The blue eye sees your thoughts!”), or be otherwise telling (“She’s been like that ever since the spell backfired. We don’t know what else might have changed”).

The way I see it, there are four big reasons why certain rare conditions appear commonly in characters in fiction. And – here it comes – KA-LIST!

  1. Because it’s symbolic. This came up in the YALSA listserv’s discussion of heterochromia, which could probably win an award among rare physical characteristics for Most Potential for Symbolism.
  2. Because it’s the point. It may not be the point of the whole character, or of the whole story, but the author genuinely wants to explore some aspect of the lives of people with this condition, or the condition is otherwise responsible for the character’s being in the story.
  3. Because it happens. Some argue that, in the same way that you should never have to justify a character being a certain gender, orientation, race, etc., you shouldn’t have to have a reason that the character has a more unusual descriptor. Others argue that this is an excuse to use rare characteristics as gimmicks. I think that, like many things in writing, it’s all in how it’s handled. (Vague enough for you?)
  4. Because it’s cool. This may be a secondary motive for an author who would more readily cite one of the other reasons.

(This is assuming that the state in question is still rare in the world of the book. If it’s, say, a futuristic novel in which people readily alter their eye colors or the whole world has for some reason become albinistic, all bets are off.)

I know there are conditions besides albinism and heterochromia that pop up way more frequently in fiction than real life, but I’m blanking on them. Anyone?

The Truth About Lying

You know what bothersome thing I’ve frequently seen in fiction? Characters who apparently have unnoted psychic lie-detecting abilities.

Looking into his eyes, she knew he spoke the truth.


“She’s lying,” I said with certainty.


He clearly believed what he was saying.

Righty-ho. Maybe our hero saw the suspect leaving the scene, so he knows for a fact that she’s lying when she says she was never there. Perhaps our hero is the suspect’s lifelong bestest best friend, and feels able based on that to judge whether she’s telling the truth. Possibly our hero is actually psychic. In these cases, the reader is usually made aware of the relevant facts.

Or, ooh! Maybe the author wants to stop that line of questioning and proceed in another direction, so we need to believe this loose end is tied up, which doesn’t work if the person in question might be lying. Or perhaps our heroine is about to rough the suspect up, and would seem like a jerk for doing that if she wasn’t sure he was lying.

This is especially common with characters who are trained as psychologists, or are cops, or grew up on the streets and had to learn to read people, or are just “very intuitive.” There are any number of qualifications that render a character able to act as a lie detector. Only, you know, reliable. Unlike actual lie detectors.

I personally can’t claim any degree of this ability. It sometimes takes me a moment to realize people are even being sarcastic. If someone were actually trying to deceive me, I fear the chances of my recognizing that fact would be perilously slim.

But I’m not alone! I recently read the excellent – if eerie – article “On the Psychology of Confessions: Does Innocence Put Innocents at Risk?” by Saul Kassin. This paper, which spans many experiments and case studies, explores the question of how good people actually are at telling whether or not other people are lying. Not good, as it turns out. Furthermore, training – such as that given to police interrogators – did not statistically increase their accuracy, but did increase their confidence in their accuracy. (How’s that for scary?)

While the whole article is a fascinating read, the fact that grabbed me most comes from a footnote. “After testing more than 13,000 people from all walks of life, O’Sullivan and Ekman (2004) have thus far identified only 15 ‘wizards’ of lie detection who can consistently achieve at least an 80% level of accuracy in their judgments” (Kassin 2005). (I would cite the original work, The Wizards of Deception Detection by O’Sullivan and Ekman, rather than citing a citation, but the original is a book rather than an article I can just read online and link to.)

That’s about 0.001% of people who are consistently correct in distinguishing between truth and lies . . . at least four times out of five.

So even the 0.001% of humans who are the absolute best at telling truth from lies might still be wrong as much as 20% of the time.

I’m sure there are rogue super-wizards who are correct so consistently that they are, for all practical purposes, accurate lie detectors. Still, it would be nice for writers to keep in mind that this is extremely, extremely rare. Just being a cop or psychologist or a streetwise con artist does not qualify a person to sniff out falsehoods.

Naturally, this doesn’t preempt a character’s believing that s/he is super-accurate, or that someone else is. But if a character actually is reliably accurate, the writer should perhaps be aware that that character has been endowed with an incredibly rare ability. (Or possibly absurdly good luck.)

Besides all of this hard-facts stuff, I typically find characters more relatable when they’re unsure about who to believe in these situations. It also gives a scene more depth and tension when the character and the reader aren’t sure what’s true and who to trust.

It Just So Happens . . .

I recently came across an explanation of an interesting writing technique. One ubiquitous but practically invisible until you’re thinking about it, at which point you see it everywhere. Especially in mystery-type stories/movies/TV shows.

The fact is that there are many things people simply aren’t likely to remember. If I asked you right now what you were doing the evening of Wednesday, January 5, would you remember that offhand?

Ah, but what if January 5 was your kid’s birthday? Would you remember then?

Coincidences like this come up frequently when someone is being investigated. Shortly after learning about the technique, I came across an example in Alan Bradley’s excellent book The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Not a significant spoiler: an innkeeper being questioned on a guest says he’s sure the fellow never stayed there before because the guest’s surname is the same as the innkeeper’s wife’s maiden name, and he’d have remembered seeing it.

Naturally, coincidences are to be handled with care. What makes them work well for this purpose is that they’re quick, passing references that basically mean the person being questioned doesn’t have to go through her day planner for the last month or whatever. You might think of them as harmless coincidences. The plot does not hinge on them. They just keep things moving.

You could, of course, create a seeming coincidence that’s actually meaningful. Say a baker remembers a particular customer because she ordered a birthday cake on the baker’s own birthday. The cake may not actually be connected to the baker’s birthday, but it could have meaning in the story beyond being a plot-provided memory aid for the baker. Maybe it’s a clue. Maybe it’s the murder weapon. (Okay, maybe not. Can you drown in cake? Hmm . . .)

A Curious Case

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that people are annoyed when protagonists, despite having the same information, fail to understand things that are obvious to readers. However, there’s a seeming exception to this that I’ve encountered frequently.

Protagonist: Gosh, Doc, I feel like I’m going crazy here. There’s this nice, attractive person with whom I’ve spent a lot of time lately, and now everybody is giving us knowing looks and making veiled comments and stuff. What could possibly cause them to do this?

Fictional Psychologist: Do you think they assume you and that nice, attractive person are romantically –


Fictional Psychologist: Do you see the two of you as –

Protagonist: Absolutely not. There is no way that could possibly be the case. Maybe you should see a Fictional Psychologist, you crazy person.

Fictional Psychologist: Is there a reason you feel so –


Fictional Psychologist: You don’t think that’s a little –

Protagonist: I’M LEAVING NOW.

I feel like I see this all the time, sometimes in awesome books, sometimes . . . less awesome.

Done carelessly, it can be ridiculous, but there are actual reasons to make your protagonist a little dense about these things. Many people can identify (up to a point) with someone who feels lost and confused when it comes to love, especially if the character is inexperienced with romance. You can also risk making your protagonist seem big-headed if s/he guesses too easily that s/he might be the object of someone’s affections. Then, there’s the fact that many stories require the protagonist and her/his romantic interest to hold off on their *gasp* WE ARE IN LOVE moment until the end.

When this doesn’t work, it’s often because the author seems not to have considered the protagonist’s personality when inserting this little blind spot. If a person has no serious self-esteem issues, and particularly if s/he has been in a romantic relationship before, the idea that another person finds her/him attractive should not be a huge shocker. Indeed, it may be that s/he should really catch on earlier rather than later, and that if you want to avert this, you’ll have to find another way to do it.

Be especially careful with excess modesty in more general areas. If a character believes s/he is not good-looking/smart/talented/capable, but actually distinctly is good-looking/smart/talented/capable/ESPECIALLY GOOD-LOOKING, proceed with caution. Yes, lots of people are modest. On some level, though, if they don’t have self-esteem problems, smart people know they are smart, and pretty people know they are pretty. There are exceptions, but think about it: if you’re truly beautiful, life tells you that. Same with intelligence. Refusing to believe it without good reason makes a character sound less modest and more like that skinny friend who whines about being so fat, or that straight-As top-of-the-class friend who is always sure that this test will come back with an F. You probably don’t want your protagonist to seem to be fishing for compliments.

It all comes down to that oh-so-common dilemna of how to do the things that you need for the plot in a way that works for the story.

And now, for something completely different: stop words!