Playing Fair

Your part of the contract with the reader obligates you to play fair with the reader. What this means is if, say, you're writing a mystery, you will give the reader a fair chance to outguess the detective; it means that all the facts, clues, and so on will be offered to the reader.

If you're writing a romance—and as we all know, it's part of the fun to keep the lovers apart—you will not keep the lovers apart except through very well motivated circumstances. If they have a misunderstanding, it should be a rational one.

You will keep your contract only by creating a story with absolute verisimilitude. You will do your homework, and you will not, as was done in this book, relate a story of a farmer without doing the research necessary to create a farm scenario.

You will not cheat on suspense by using cheap devices such as the "idiot in the attic" motif (named for the stupid heroines in fifties horror movies who insisted against all common sense on investigating those strange noises in the attics of spooky old mansions). If you're going to write a damn good novel, you'll have to keep your characters at maximum capacity at all times—which means they will not act stupidly or capriciously unless they're drugged, drunk, brain injured, or it is part of their character and is being played for comedy.

The same goes for coincidences and contrivances. You can have a coincidence if it's played for comedy or if it's the trigger that gets the story started, but after that, it's a violation of your contract. A contrivance is when you have a character who is, say, broke, finding the $100 his aunt sent him for Christmas six years ago in an old shoe. A contrivance is the author solving the characters' problems for them. Avoid contrivances at all cost.

One of the major clauses of the contract states that you will give your characters challenges and they will meet them with their own resources and will develop as a result. You are playing both sides of the game. It isn't enough that you create interesting characters—you have to create interesting obstacles for them to overcome in interesting ways.

Which brings us to one of the biggest violations of the contract: clichés. When a reader buys a novel, it is with the understanding that the material included is new. Not recycled. No cliché stories, no cliché characters, no cliché language. Of course, no writer can keep this part of the contract completely, but as part of your contract you must swear a blood oath to try your damnedest to jettison the clichés before your damn good novel gets published.

You will also swear an oath to avoid bad melodrama.

Bad melodrama is not the same thing as good melodrama. In good melodrama, the characters are well motivated and the situations are reasonably true to life. In bad melodrama, characters act at the behest of the author rather than out of their own, believable, inner needs. There's no good reason, as an example, for Snidely Whiplash to tie poor Pauline to railroad tracks. He does it simply because the author wants him to.

In any good story you're building through a series of minor climaxes to a grand climax and resolution, the ending, where readers are cheated the most often by lazy writers who don't bother to exploit their material dramatically.

Beginning writers have a habit of doing this. They promise a showdown between the protagonist and antagonist, but it never comes off and the story just evaporates in the end. This is the most common and serious violation of the author/reader contract. You've promised a good climax and resolution to the story and you damn well better deliver it. That's your end of the contract.

Okay, you can make the reader dream the fictive dream, you can make your novel suspenseful and people it with interesting characters, and you know how to construct a story with a strong premise and keep your contract with your reader. You're ready to write your damn good novel, so you might as well get started. But wait!

Before you begin, you've got to be careful not to commit one of the seven deadly mistakes. And what might they be? you ask. They're the subject of the next chapter, of course.

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