Write It Sideways

Why Your Story Shouldn’t Be Too Tidy

Today’s post is written by Dr John Yeoman.

Why do silly things happen? Why hiccups? Why, when you find a discarded shoe by the roadside, is it only ever one shoe?

Savants lust to describe these phenomena. (Mathematics always come into it.) But they cannot explain them. The ‘what’ is easy. The ‘why’ of anything whatever—the ultimate reason—eludes us.

How can this insight help us to write better stories? A story that endures is one that holds a central mystery. Not everything is explained. Every loose end is not tidied up.

Nor can it be. That’s life.

To be sure, the essential logic in a story must be made clear. However did the hero, on an impulse trip to the Amazon, stumble on his ex-fiancee in a swamp—just in time to save her from a deadly spider, snake or Hollywood producer? Better tell us at once or we’ll cry: ‘Cheat!’

But the essential why-ness—why those people, in that place, at that time?—should remain a riddle. A touch of divine providence makes a tale plausible. Mysteries are at the heart of life.

And that’s where so many novels go wrong.

Mistake #1: Tying up every loose end.

In his early crime novel Service of All the Dead, Colin Dexter appended no fewer than three superfluous chapters to explain the trivial twists that had gone before. Every one. Wrong!

The tale is done. Let any residual mysteries in a tale be resolved by the reader’s imagination.

Mistake #2: Telling us everything about a character.

What does Emma Bovary look like? We don’t now. Nor, it seems, did Flaubert. Sometimes her eyes are black, sometimes blue, otherwise brown. What about Huck Finn or the vicar of Bray? What size does Mrs Grundy take in corsets?

A modern author might tell us. Wrong!

Every reader creates these characters in their own mind, not the author’s. Then they see a film dramatisation and their illusions are dashed. That’s why a ‘film of the book’ so often destroys the book.

A major character is a place holder to be filled by the reader’s creativity. Give us space.

Mistake #3: Making characters too easy to understand.

When we pick up a novel by Michael Connolly, Ian Rankin, James Patterson or many other top-selling authors, the protagonists may have different names but they’re always the same character. We know exactly how they will behave in every situation.

To be sure, some commercial novels sell well precisely because the characters and plots are predictable. No surprises, please, in our latest Tom Clancy! Yet we engage more deeply with a story where the characters surprise us. Because those characters are ‘real’.

Give your major characters some unpredictable fallibility or quirk.

We all have one, maybe several. Even a cartoon hero or heroine becomes ‘real’ when granted a surprise dimension.

Mistake #4. Adding significance to every little thing.

Everything in a story must support the plot, we’re told. To be sure, a short story under 5000 words has no space for digression. But in a novel it can be a mistake to make every little thing significant.

Suppose we have two characters bicker in a restaurant. As their words grow heated, a waiter drops a plate. Obviously, the man had been eavesdropping!

No, he just dropped a plate. Real life is full of pointless accidents. Weave a few of them into your story, judiciously, and your story will sound ‘real’.

Life is full of silly things. We’ll never find the ultimate ‘why’ of them. Leave some of that mystery, those loose ends, in your tale and it will have a compelling plausibility. Leave the reader space to complete your story for themselves.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course.