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Friday, May 9, 2014

How Not to Drive Away Readers: Creating Internal Story Logic

For the next few Fridays, we’ll take a look at the things that can drive readers away from a story and how to avoid them. Readers, in this case, can be anyone from beta readers to potential agents and editors to potential buyers. The last thing any author wants is to drive away readers. Not only does it impact immediate sales, but offended or bored readers tend to discourage others from buying a story they found distasteful, which impacts long-term sales as well.

Today, we’ll begin with internal story logic. This one might not be as obvious as some, but it provides a crucial element to the structure of fiction. If violated or broken, the whole skeleton of the story can crumple and leave readers scowling in dismay.

So what is internal story logic? Simply put, it means that everything within the story makes sense. But let’s get more specific. Internal story logic applies to all elements of a story after all.

Characters: For internal story logic, characters must act in ways that make sense or are “logical” to readers. No, this doesn’t mean that a character cannot respond with irrational emotion, nor does it mean that a character can’t act outside the expected. These sorts of things happen and are normal in stories. In fact, they help signal character growth. However, if a protagonist seems unfazed by the death of his wife, if the bank teller goes ballistic over a difficult to read check, or any other behavior or reaction that is atypical of people, this violates logic. When that happens, it shatters the essential spell fiction must create, the suspension of disbelief. As readers, we expect characters to behave and react in ways similar to how we see most humans respond to the world and life. It must make sense to us.

In this way, how does an author avoid violating internal story logic? After all, sometimes a character needs to react in an unusual way.

The most important step an author can take in this arena is to ensure that all unusual actions and reactions are signaled to the reader in advance. This means that the author needs to take the time to ensure that a character has plenty of reason to respond the way he does. Did the bank teller perhaps see a horrific accident on the way to work after finding out her husband was leaving her? Is she trying to intentionally get fired for a specific reason? In this first example, her emotional and mental state have been rocked. We all know that, when such happens to most people, their tempers shorten and they’re more prone to extreme reactions. This makes logical sense to readers, and because the author sets it up in the story, it has internal story logic as well. By revealing these events, the horrific accident and the husband leaving her, the author forecasts an unusual reaction.

Another pitfall that can lead to a break in internal story logic as it relates to characters is when an author forgets to take into account the character’s actual reactions. For example, the author may need the protagonist to meet another important character, and so, for expediency’s sake or because the author’s focus is on the meeting, the author might let the fact that the protagonist’s wife died that morning slip away temporarily. The resulting scene often is devoid of emotion or includes emotions that don’t make sense. This leaves the reader squinting at the page in confusion and asking bad questions for author’s like, “What’s wrong with this author? Doesn’t this guy care that his wife just died?” or worse, “Why am I wasting my time with this book?”

In the event that this happens, fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Tap back into the character’s emotions and layer them into the scene. Yes, this might mean some big rewrites, since the character’s reactions will differ, but the resulting product will be much better. Besides, it could be as simple as inserting a few subtle clues that the character is holding onto calm by the barest tips of his fingernails.

Plot: A lack of internal story logic in plot generally means that the author has violated basic story structure. This is generally a death knell for a story. Humans have an innate sense of how stories are supposed to be structured. It typically isn’t conscious, but if a story diverges from standard, it runs a big risk of falling flat or leaving readers unsatisfied. Whether this story structure is something culture and literature have taught us or something integral to the human mind, it is inescapable.

If you suspect you’re losing readers because of the plot, first take a good hard look at your story structure. If it doesn’t include all the essential elements: inciting incident, key turning points, a midpoint, rising tension, a climax, etc., this needs to be addressed first. Better yet, ensure your story has a solid structure before you give it to others to read.

However, breaks in internal story logic can come about from small violations of plot. Consider the deus ex machina, for example. A deus ex machina is when something from the outside fixes a problem for the characters or takes over the story in some fashion. The term originated from classical plays when the Greek and Roman deities often descended upon the scene without warning and “rescued” or set to rights all the mortal characters’ blunders. Perhaps this device was satisfying to classical peoples based on their cultural mindset, but it tends to frustrate or disappoint modern readers. Modern readers want the events/plot of a story to play out in a way that makes sense, each element building on the next to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Using deus ex machina to mend something, save a character, endanger a character, or generally force a story in the direction the author imagines suggests a lack of skill and robs readers of the satisfaction of seeing protagonists struggle and triumph on their own merits. No one comes and rescues us from our hardships in life, readers tend to think, so how can this be believable in fiction? Once again, the suspense of disbelief is shattered.

Finally, when setting up a plot, an author must cautiously ensure that all the elements required to produce internal story logic are set in place. Small holes in backstory or setup widen into gaping chasm when the actual story is spun onto the page. In setting up the events that bring about the story itself, if an author neglects to establish all the logical steps--for example, not establishing why the villain despises the hero or why the plague is released in New York--the story becomes both difficult to write and prone to breaches in internal story logic. A reader can accept bizarre premises as long as they make sense within the story. Without logical setup, even in the author’s own mind, this becomes an impossibility.

Setting: This is less of an issue with stories set in the real world, though it can still pop up. However, authors who write in genres that readily include non-modern or otherworldly settings have a greater challenge. Writers of historical and speculative fiction stories must be most wary. Does the world created make sense? Is there a cause and effect relationship between everything? For example, if a science fiction author sets his story on an icy planet, but the most popular fashion in footwear is sandals, his readers will not have the patience to get far in the book. Life and the world, both real and imaginary, is composed of interrelated elements, each impacting the others. If an author fails to incorporate this into creating a riveting setting, he will lose reader interest fast with yet another break of internal story logic.

Prose: This one is rarely mentioned, but there is internal story logic within prose. Perhaps, though, you might better call this internal story consistency. A story told in a lyrical, expansive style will rip readers out of that essential suspension of disbelief if it suddenly switches to a stark, abrupt style. Dialogue must remain consistent. An erudite character shouldn’t suddenly start speaking in one word grunts. Even something as small as rarely using articles, then dropping them in constantly can disrupt story logic. The prose should be so consistent that it flows evenly and smoothly and readers don’t even notice.

Granted, part of writing good prose is playing with it and breaking the established mold for intentional effect. Points of view from different characters may be written quite differently. A horrific incident may have shocked that erudite character and reverted him to one word grunts, which would make sense to a reader. The author may intentionally alter his style on occasion to highlight a scene, character, mood, or theme. The key factor here, though, is to remember that these alternations in style still occur within the internal logic of the story. A tense scene may briefly require a starker style, but as readers, we can accept that. Tension creates starker language, especially if things are happening quickly. It fits within the context of the story.

You’ll notice, however, that these are interrelated. Violating internal story logic in a character can lead to violations in plot and even prose. Illogical shifts in prose can impact how a character is received or dampen the impact of an important plot point. Illogical leaps in setting establishment can distract from solid characters, plot, and prose. Internal story logic is essential on all levels. When strong, it goes a long way to helping readers enjoy a story. When broken, it can send readers fleeing in disgust.

The best thing an author can do to prevent violations of internal story logic, however, is to remain vigilant and make the extra effort to ensure everything makes sense.

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