Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Happened Next Changed Everything

So, I'm a bit of a snob about good writing. When I pick up a book I want to be transported. Anything that distracts me from that—stiff dialogue, one-dimensional characters, contrived plot-line, my husband asking silly questions—is a bit annoying and does not bode well for my finishing the book. I can overlook these things and plunge in anyway, but it requires a sacrifice. It requires that I turn off part of my brain and turn the pages faster.

I do this sometimes with sci-fi and fantasy, Harry Potter, and other things I've been hoodwinked into reading and then can't put down. I genuinely enjoy these books—a great plot can go a long way—but I don't savor the words the way I want to. It's like the difference between eating french fries (and I do love my fries) and eating mashed potatoes topped with a nice french lentil, mushroom and red wine sauce (yum). I guess you can say they're both potatoes.

When I read, I don't want to see the writer behind the writing. I want to believe. When writers reach into their bag of cheap tricks, it's difficult for me to bypass my critical brain and enjoy the story. We all know these tricks—telling instead of showing, using lots of adjectives and the dreaded adverbs, hokey metaphors, etc. And here's one that I've always rather despised: “What happened next changed everything.”

I mean, c'mon, we might as well put a big red arrow on the page saying, “turning point here.” But then (yes, you knew there was a but) I started writing a what-happened-next-changed-everything moment and well, I'm tempted. It would be so easy. I mean, I'm building the tension, people are running, things are flying through the air, trees toppling, everything in chaos. And then comes the moment. What's so wrong about telling the reader, “Hey, look here: This is the moment. Pay attention”?

I've just started reading the Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman because someone said my middle grade fantasy novel sounds “a bit Golden Compassy.” Good to know. So, I'm reading along. I'm liking the book—rich detail, sympathetic character, intriguing concept. And then I come to it. The moment. Already on page 6?

“What she saw next, however, changed things completely.”

And it works here. The sentence doesn't feel like a gimmick or a cheap trick. It chills me; it levels me. It sweeps aside the tangle of complicated plot intro and lush detail surrounding it and clears a path for the really important bit. “What she saw next, changed things completely.”

What's a snob to do? I may be softening my view. Maybe it's okay and even (dare I say it?) good to let the reader know what to pay attention to, in case they forget to fawn over every word that we so deliberately agonized over. Maybe we need to occasionally (once per book would be enough) grab them by the ears and say, “Pay attention to this.”

So, what's the verdict? Cheap trick or useful writing tool?


Sarah said...


Certain Slushies who will remain nameless (though I will direct self-righteous thoughts their way) called me on something similar once.

Truthfully, though, I think it has to do with execution (which may be why said Slushies mentioned it). If the scene is set so well that the reader has an idea that everything might pivot on that moment, and if the character would look back over his history and say the same thing, then perhaps it's okay. Especially if it builds tension rather than serving as a tell-cause-I'm-too-lazy-to-show cop out.

Lisa said...

Yeah, I actually went back to Chapter 1 and found my what-happened-next-changed-everything sentence that a couple of Slushies axed right away. And well, you guys are right. I see now that it shouldn't be there. Hrmmm.

Maybe if I re-write the entire chapter around that sentence?