Wednesday, September 07, 2005


You're in the middle of writing chapter whatever and suddenly you realize that while you've been working out this or that you have also dumbed down your character to the point that a screenwriter could easily retitle your novel Honey I Shrunk The Protagonist's Brain.

Outlining, as Zornhau mentioned yesterday, is an excellent early diagnostic, and can keep you from having to perform an imbecilectomy. But not all writers are comfortable with outlining or planning out a novel, so this won't work for everyone.

By-the-seat-of-the-pants writers have to make it up as they go along, and while I understand the appeal of spontaneous creative freedom, it can contribute heavily to this kind of problem. Not knowing where you're going makes it hard to figure out what the novel road is going to be like. You're more prone to take speedy detours that seem perfectly logical while you're right there, trying to move the story along. Only when you look back do you realize that there might have been a better way to handle that -- and then you rewrite.

Rewriting is going to depend on how extensively you've used the deliberate idiot detour. Sometimes you can go back, edit like a fiend and salvage the novel. Sometimes you have to scrap whole plot threads and/or characters, and weave in replacements. If it's totaled the book, though, all you can really do is scrap it or start over from scratch.

One way I think the spontaneous writers out there might swing imbecilectomies is to avoid quick solutions to a character reacting to a plot point. When you hit that spot, don't make the character do something for the story's convenience. Example:

The power goes out suddenly. Jane, who is alone in the house and has been receiving threatening phone calls for weeks, hears the sound of breaking glass coming from the basement. She grabs a flashlight and heads for the basement stairs. Killer grabs her off the stairs.

Right. Did Jane stop and think here? Did she check the phone? Did she grab her car keys and run to the garage where her car is? Did she arm herself with one of the knives from the kitchen? Nope. Because the author wants to confront the killer in the basement, Jane has gone totally brain-dead.

Now, try this:

The power goes out suddenly. Jane picks up the phone and discovers the line is dead. She hears the sound of breaking glass coming from the basement. She slams the door to the basement stairs shut, locks it, grabs her car keys and runs to the garage. Her car tires have been slashed and her engine sabotaged. The garage door is wedged shut. She hears the locked basement door in the house being kicked open. She arms herself with a pair of hedgetrimmers and screams for help as she tries to break out a window. Killer hauls her back away from the window.

How else can Jane confront the killer without acting like a moron?


  1. Anonymous2:17 AM

    Once she finds herself trying to sew a charity quilt in the dark, my Jane would probably cuss because it's a big inconvenience PITA to deal with the stupid fuse box (Again! Can't the landlord fix anything right?) and she'd be on the way to the basement with the cordless (to chew his ass) when she hears the tinkling glass from the basement and realizes the phone's not working either.

    Bad words.

    Jane also realizes that her pekinese, Brutus, is silent when he should be going ballistic in the back yard. Or right there in the kitchen. Or somewhere. Because that's what Brutus does at odd noises. Even not so odd noises.

    More bad words.

    Jane, in the dark and in the kitchen, will quickly close, latch and lock the basement door, shove a kitchen chair under the knob, and back away, perhaps making a pit stop at the knife block, right there by the coffee maker.

    Purse is on the table by the couch and Jane will dig through for her cell phone - please God, let there be minutes left - all the while keeping her ears open and her eyes on the kitchen.

    911 operator, yeah, someone's breaking into my basement. I've had threats. Aw, (bad word) they're kicking the door!

    Jane hitails it to the sewing room then quietly shuts the door. She repeats her address, thinks, yeah, sure, you dipdingle, I'm staying calm, and drops the knife on the ironing board. Phone perched on her shoulder, she snatches the iron plug out of the wall and wraps the cord around her arm so it won't trip her and she won't drop it.

    Crash from the kitchen and Jane informs the 911 operator someone better light a fire. Iron in hand (Rowenta, T-fal plate, about 5 lbs and a gazillion degrees because it's always on the cotton setting), she waits by the door, in the dark. With a hot iron.

    Do not mess with quilters. We kick butt.

  2. Jane whacks him with the hedgetrimmer. A thrill runs through her as she hears his cry.

    No, she thinks. I will not be a victim anymore. Images of those who had abused her--her uncles, her brother, that cousin, two ex-husbands, that fling in Singapore that left her in the hospital and infertile--washed through her mind, leaving gleaming, steel. Sharp and precise.

    The killer still groaned on the floor. She kicked out like her sensai had taught her, all the power in her heel at what appeared in the dark to be where the killer's shoulder would be. Unfortunately, he moved away just fast enough it was a glancing blow.

    But he fell on his back. Jane kicked him in the groin.

    Squeal like a pig, she thought as she watched him curl in a ball.

    The first item she threw--a stone vase--had him curl tighter. So did the hardback books, the ceramic bookends, and the lamp that followed. Jane barel heard his pleas to stop; oh, no, the abuse stopped here. And she had to stop it: the police failed, God had not heard. Finally, she paused, breathing heavily, weight beginning to her limbs as the adrenaline's effects cut its strings.

    The would-be killer stopped moaning. Slowly, he uncurled and she saw his pain-filled eyes begin to change. To that uncle, that ex.

    Jane screamed and grabbed the hedge trimmer patiently waiting for its turn.

    It was well reward with new eyes....

  3. Anonymous5:28 AM

    Need new keyboard! orange drink everywhere!

  4. She sends her rottweiler gleefully down the stairs to greet the bad guy *grin*

    No rotti? Damn. Okay then. Realizing that the bad guy will get her while she's on the phone to 911, and seeing that her car tires are slashed and the garage door is wedged shut, she grabs her heavy cast iron fry pan and stands by the door.

    When the door opens, she smashed the bad guy in the head and boots him in the stomach, sending him flying backward down the stairs. It's just a bad guy. His bones break just as easily as anyones.

  5. Anonymous9:01 AM

    It is anoying in both books and movies. They never do anything intelligent in movies.

    Jane hears glass shatter in the basement. She looks up from the TV, on which the movie, "The imbecile and very sympathetic but still a killer, you know, don't forget that, Hippie-Ghost slashes again", fades out. Then somebody jumps onto the basement floor and smashes the glass shards. Jane throws her popcorn away and runs to the stairs. She closes the basement door and locks it, then dashes upstairs. She passes a bowling ball on the way. Bowling ball, killer, bowling ball, killer... That only works in movies. She runs into her bedroom and goes through her paranoia cupboard. Garlic and crosses, mercury bullets... Why didn't she get a gun instead of that "The Hip Housewife" subscription?
    This won't work. She opens the chest beside her bed and looks for the present her grandma gave her for graduation.
    Downstairs the killer kicks open the basement door that knocks over a vase.
    Jane finally finds her present and turns it on, a shiny new chainsaw in pink that matches her nail polish. Jane heads for the stairs and jumps onto the handrail, sliding down with the roaring chainsaw in her hands. The killer appears in the living room, right below the end of the handrail. Jane swings the chainsaw and---

    What's that? A giant car rolls onto the screen, covering everything.


    Oh. THAT's what it is. I hate how they start some commercials this days.

    As for imbecile characters... Well, it happened to me in my current WIP. The protagonist and a friend of his, two guys that were meant to be pretty cool, turned into ten-year old boys. The group of antagonists, especially their leader became really old, almost blind and... Imbecile. As stupid as anyone can imagine.
    It helps writing some scenes in their viewpoint, which makes the whole book more interesting and solves my "not enough scenes" problem. (I only wrote short stories before, so: first book.)
    And bad-guy scenes are fun to write. :)
    My protagonists will be more work, but I'm outlining backwards, making scene notes and such for everything I wrote already. That helps to keep track of stupidity and childish behavior.

  6. I wouldn't let him make a sound as he snuck in, and Jane would go down into the basement, muttering her annoyance, to check the fuse box. That way we also get rid of the killer's idiot move of cluing Jane in so thoroughly to his intrusion. Dumb antags are just as aggravating as dumb protags. :)

  7. I don't know how seat-of-the-pants authors do it. Even with an outline, I still ended up with a protag who acted without proper motivation halfway through. Yeesh. (Makes editing easier, though; all I need to do is put a slash mark through the whole scene and scrawl 'rewrite' across the top of the page.)

  8. So, the killer drags her out of the window, when another man appears and starts a boxing match with said killer. Jane realises that it is John, the Reliable Friend Who Loves Her Though She Never Realised it, and she suddenly is aware that he's dang HOT, and why has she never seen it before. And he's there to help her as always, contrary to her rich betrothed from a pompous top notch family who's off on a business trip in HongKong and never took those sneaky phone calls seriously in the first place. Well, John knocks Evil Guy out, and Jane pounces on him, kisses his bleeding nose better, sobbing, "I love you, I've always loved you but I was too stupid to see it."

    Opps, wrong genre. :)

    My Jane would be a historian, archaeoloigst or something and have a collection of swords. Mwuahaha.

    I'm an outliner and it saves me from the big stupid mistakes. Small ones creep in despite, though. Like having a character hold a sword in paragraph one which is gone in the second never to appear again. Gah.

  9. Jane hears the guy breaking into her basement. She not only locks the basement door, she tilts the hall chair under the knob. Realizing that a guy who cut her phone line and broke into her house might have disabled her car, she slips out her own back door gets on her bike and pedals like mad out of sight. Jane has an extremely well-developed fight-or-flight instinct and she's nobody's idiot. Killer in house? Get the hell out of the house and far, far away.

  10. Anonymous6:42 PM

    I'm with Gabriele. I've always wanted to write a two swords vs. way out of his league bad guy scene. Can you say human CuisinArt with attitude? :-)

    The problem is that it's darn difficult to swing one sword around in the average basement, much less two. I suspect Jane would discover this at exactly the wrong moment, like when her katana sticks in the floor joist. Oops!

    Fortunately, the short sword is still free, as the would-be killer soon learns.

  11. A Roman gladius would work.

  12. If all else fails, I'd have Jane wake up the SEAL in her bed and let him take care of everything.

  13. Anonymous12:11 AM

    Does the chair under the doorknob thingy actually work?

    I'm now inclined to try it when I get home, except, I don't know that I've seen a favorable chair height/doorknob height that would actually achieve the effect it should.

    (and why do I get the most difficult of word verifiers?)

  14. Anonymous12:17 AM

    Actually, you can even reduce the imbecile quotient substantially if you just explain that the flashlight in question is one of these:

    6D cells. Anodized aluminum. Weighs in at just over 3 lbs. 30,000+ candlepower. And it's shock resistant so it will still work after she blinds, then brains the bad guy with it. :-)

  15. Blinding him is a good idea. That would work with my flashlight, too (it isn't heavy enough, but it has a very bright halogene lamp). Then stab that gladius into his belly and draw it out again with a sideward slash - the intestines should slither out at that point. It's such a wonderfully messy and painful way to die.

  16. Anonymous12:39 AM

    Some great ideas here, folks.

    If you do need to arm Jane or a character like her (and she's not a quilter and all her clothes are permanent press), check out Steve Zorn's article Defensive Use of Improvised Weapons.

  17. By-the-seat-of-the-pants writers have to make it up as they go along, and while I understand the appeal of spontaneous creative freedom, it can contribute heavily to this kind of problem. Not knowing where you're going makes it hard to figure out what the novel road is going to be like. You're more prone to take speedy detours that seem perfectly logical while you're right there, trying to move the story along. Only when you look back do you realize that there might have been a better way to handle that -- and then you rewrite.

    Heh. I have two novels (the first two I ever finished) in need of complete overhaul because of doing "what seemed like a good idea at the time." :P


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