Bluffing Your Way Through a Story–It Doesn’t Work (Day 23)

I always know where a student is bluffing on an exam when the wording is vague and presumptuous; I might find something like this: “and then, of course, as everyone knows, the king was beheaded because they were not happy with the things he had done.” It is a wordy response that says little to nothing. It would be at this point that, despite my greatest efforts to restrain it, my red pen goes off on a joy ride, crossing off the arrogant space-wasters (“as everyone knows” / “of course”) and adding questions marks everywhere (“which king?”/  “who is ‘they’?” / “what had the king done?”).

Students who do not know their history write in this fashion: they jot down vague half-truths in an effort to convey the illusion that they know a thing or two about the topic. Essentially, they are hoping that the teacher will simply take it for granted that they, the students, would know the details if questioned further. They expect the teacher to fill in the blanks.

Just as teachers see past this cheap trick, so too can readers; they can smell a lazy writer from a mile away. Lazy writers are never quite sure of their characters or the plot, for lazy writers never really take the time to get to know their characters and their unique motivations in the first place. Rather, they prefer to write their stories in a hodgepodge manner, crossing their fingers that their readers will not call them out.

When you write a story, you are leading the reader by the hand through a long and dark corridor, and as the pages unfold, you are slowly illumining small sections of the passage, until eventually the reader understands where he is and what is going on. It is with the final illumination that the readers snaps his fingers and sighs “ah-ha!”

As the writer, however, you must have this knowledge yourself from the very beginning. You cannot set up red herrings simply because you were not sure until the very end of the story whether or not the “gun” was the real murder weapon.

Readers are intelligent and they hate to be deceived, which is why the deus ex machina is such a weak plot device. This does not mean that you can’t be a pantster and allow for your characters to dictate their own actions, but it does mean that you have to have a firm grasp on the overall moral code, mood, and rationale of the story. In other words, the story has to be clear in your head before you can start telling it to someone else.