Why catch the bus?

When writing fiction there are certain expectations your readers will have, even if they are not aware of them, and you need to keep these in mind when writing. This relates to my last post where I had my character say something, purely for the comic value, but my readers decided there was going to be a side story that never eventuated. If you focus too much on one character, or one thing, your reader expects that to be significant to the story.

After all, fiction is something the author makes up, so anything that happens in a story is only there because the author has put it there. This is even more the case in film…

** Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen ‘The 6th Sense’ in next paragraph**

In one scene the two main characters catch a bus to a funeral. The moment I saw them on the bus I knew Bruce Willis’ character was dead. At no point beforehand had we been told he didn’t have a car, or he was particularly environmentally friendly, and they were heading out to a suburb with plenty of parking. There was no reason to catch the bus UNLESS he couldn’t drive. In real life I wouldn’t have questioned it, in a movie I knew they had to get a bus, put actors on it, rig the cameras to be able to film smoothly, in other words it would have been much harder to organise than a scene in a car, so there had to be a reason to put them on a bus.

Your readers will constantly have this little radar operating, so if your character notices a dog every day they walk along a certain street, if that dog doesn’t attack them, die, turn into a robot, something, then the reader will feel cheated. You can notice the dog once, but don’t labour the point.

The only time this doesn’t apply is when you are trying to throw in a red herring. If you are suggesting someone is going to be attacked, and your character notices the dog, your reader expects the dog to be the villain. So when the tiger jumps out from behind the garbage bins the reader gets shocked by the turn of events.

The key is to not inadvertently throw in the red herrings just because you thought you could get a bit poetic about how to describe the hanky on the clothes line. Unless of course you are writing literature, then I guess anything goes.

TomTom readers

I recently did a fleeting trip to Melbourne and decided to take my car over so I could catch up with a bunch of friends (apologies if you are reading this and you were not one of the visited friends). I knew I was going to be covering a few kilometres (turned out to be nearly 1900) so I decided to borrow my parent’s TomTom GPS navigator.

Things were probably not helped by the over 40 degree temperatures and 7 years out of date maps, but TomTom and I had some major disagreements. I yelled some colourful words at him and questioned his skills as a navigator, while he tersely kept replying ‘take the next left’ no matter how many times I ignored him.

It was only on reflection that I realised driving with TomTom is like reading a novel. As you drive you only get shown a little piece of road at a time, never getting the big picture. You know where you have been, but what you are seeing at the moment may not make sense. Why would you turn down this road leading into an industrial estate?

As authors I think we sometimes forget that others are reading our books with a TomTom, not an A3 map. We know where the characters are travelling, we have seen the whole journey (even if only from a great distance and we don’t yet know the road names), so we know what is important to the story and what is not. Our readers do not have such insight.

I submitted a novel chapter to my writers group and they all picked up on a throwaway line I had my character saying, they said they were intrigued about how this would factor into the story later. Short answer; it wouldn’t. It had no double-meaning, I just put it in because it was funny. I knew this, I have the map, but they just have the TomTom and thought that green icon might actually mean something.

I wonder how often I do this? In an attempt to make my world building more vivid, do I plant red herrings? In banter between characters do I forget to show their ages, dress or gender because I’m seeing it all in my own mind, when these facts are key to understanding? I have the map, I see the terrain, the hazards, the roadblocks, do I make sure the TomTom drives within viewing distance of these things?

I guess this shows again the importance of beta readers. No matter how much of a seat-of-the-pants writer you are, you always have more information than the reader. The key is working out how much of this you can and must give them.

What brings us here?

I watched an interview with Matthew Reilly the other day on the ABC, and his story about why he started writing was my story about why I started to write. So far, however, we have had slightly different punch-lines for our personal tales, but there is still time left for me to address that.

He and I are of a similar vintage, so we were probably inspired by the same films growing up, and I distinctly remember as a kid thinking I wanted to make movies. Back then I thought to do that I had to be a director, without really understanding what the director did, all I knew was the director was the person who got their Oscar just before the lead actors so that’s what I said I wanted to be.

When I got a bit older I discovered that movies took lots of money and lots of people, and I had influence with neither. Back then most directors were in their 40’s (unbelievably old as far as I was concerned) and I couldn’t wait that long. I started to lose hope.

Then I discovered Lois Duncan.

She was writing books that were exactly like the movies I wanted to make. Her books were filled with special effects, young and exciting characters, and stories unlike everything else that was out there. That was when I discovered that writing books could give me the world that making movies promised.

Ironically now I love books so much more than films. I will always feel more for characters in a book than I will for those in a movie; the textures, tastes and aromas are so much more vivid in a book (directing my imagination) than a movie, so for me it feels like you are more there.

I would still love to see one of my stories turned into a movie, but I understand now that even that isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Your end gets changed, characters get tweaked beyond recognition and sometimes the main reason why you wrote it gets cut from the film.

But before I can even think about that I need to get my stories published. It would be wonderful if others could see my ‘movies’ with their million dollar special effects, exotic locations and amazing character actors, held in the pages of my books.

Use it or lose it

Sometimes when I haven’t written for a long time I get scared that I’ll forget how to write. Up until now it hasn’t been the case. My little absence, once over, had tended to make me a better writer, if anything. But this break feels different.

Even when I don’t write, I still usually think about my stories. I imagine what the characters are going to do next, I picture myself writing the story in the future, sometimes I even get new ideas that I try to remember for later (but never do).

This time I seem to have relished the break so much that I have completely cut myself off from my stories. There was only one time in all of January when I found myself thinking about a story; that was in the middle of the night when the temperature didn’t dip below 25’C and there was something outside the window making noises that sounded like they might have been coming from an alien. My mind wandered a lot that night.

Even now, as I sit at the computer with hours of free time stretching out before me for the first time in weeks, my brain is blank. I don’t even know which story I want to work on, let alone what I want to happen next.

This time I really am worried that I have taken too much of a break. This time I feel it is possible that I can’t go back. Even worse, it is not so much that I have forgotten how to write, but for the first time in longer than I can remember, I just don’t want to.