Fictional Smarty-Pants Are Annoying, Too

If you’ve seen my GoodReads widget, you know I’m engaged on the long slog epic journey through the Wheel of Time mess series.

I poke fun, but actually I’m kind of enjoying it. Book-by-book, they’re addictive once you’ve settled in, and the story is the immersive, sink-your-teeth-into-it type that we fantasy readers love.

But Jordan uses a plot trick that really irks me.

Thirty or forty pages into every book, an exciting event occurs, and some smarty-pants character has to explain that this is one way the High Muckety-Muck’s Prophecy of Doom and Glory will be fulfilled. Smarty-Pants then tells Questing Character that he or she must go to Some Random Place, seek the Mystical Golden Eggbeater of Power, and then kill a lot of people.

A shrubbery!

It’s much akin to the Knights Who Say Ni sending King Arthur to fetch a shrubbery. Do it if you want to advance the plot!

There has to be a better way to do this. I realize that you can’t plant every plot device in the first book (Man, I wish you could!), and that subplots—or even the plots of individual books in a larger series—often revolve around a MacGuffin simply because an author needs characters to get a certain piece of the puzzle before they can carry on.

I can’t just blame Jordan for this. Loads of fantasy novels (especially epic fantasy) do it. You could even argue that the treasure-quest in The Hobbit is just a drawn-out way to get the One Ring to Bilbo and then to Frodo. I don’t completely object to this type of plotting: after all, we read stories as much for the journey as for the ending.

I can object, though, to authors making one particular character into the sole source of information. (Moiraine, Hermione, I’m looking at you.) It irks the characters in the book to be bossed around by a single person, and it irks me to read it.

Let characters learn information on their own! Let them seek and discover! That’s way more interesting than a lecture from Ms. Smarty-Pants. I think urban fantasy novels tend to do a better job with this, perhaps because they’re often formulated as mysteries, perhaps because they’re shorter. Think about how often Harry Dresden falls into one horrible situation after another, just because he doesn’t (always) have a character who can give him all the information he needs—and that’s a compelling read, because we get to put the pieces together with him. Plus, it’s fun to see how he’ll get out of his next scrape.

My tactic (and it’s a cheap ploy) is to scatter the info-dumps among many characters. This character moves in high society, so he would know about this. That character is a fairy, so she probably knows about that.

When providing information, how do you avoid writing smarty-pants characters?



The Boring Parts

Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. That no-man’s land midway between the first door of no return and that final door to the climax. You know where you’re headed, but you just don’t quite know how to get there.

We’ve been pretty airy-fairy around here lately, readers, so let’s get back to the nitty-gritty. I hit the Great Swampy Middle of Conspiracy in the late summer and autumn of 2009. I had the timeline of my novel, and midway between Big Event 2 and Huge Event 1, there was a big blank space, especially for one character.

So what did I do? I introduced a love interest. A needless character and subplot planted just to move the middle along. This new character was cute and fun, and I had a good time putting awkward Albert into cutesy situations, but I can tell you right now (without having gotten to this part of the book in my reread) that I’ll be cutting that character and her entire plot.

This was one of Kristin’s Bad Ideas ™.

Jim says,

Those of you who have written this much of a book already know exactly what I’m talking about. You hit that point where you’re not sure what to do next–when small details and points of logic start tripping you up. Where your story begins to veer off from your outline, and feel fairly confident that it’s never, EVER going to veer back. You aren’t sure where things went wrong, exactly. Characters and situations start popping out of your fingers as if of their own volition. They’re often fun, even intriguing, but they’re really a form of denial, you poor deluded, benighted sap. You’re lost. You just don’t want to admit it to anyone, least of all yourself.

Oh, boy. It’s so true. If you’re so bored with your plot that you’re wildly inventing things, your readers are probably bored, too. And they’ll know that sudden, random love interests were planted just to shake things up.

Jim also gives several ways out of the Great Swampy Middle. They are:

  • The Big Middle, in which you drop a plot bomb in the middle of the story. However… you need to plan this plot bomb, otherwise you run the risk of blowing your entire story to smithereens. Think strategically, or you’ll end up like those NaNoers who get bored and introduce ninjas midway through their book. If you want ninjas, you need to plan for ninjas and build up to them.
  • The Mini Arc and the Subplot. These are big and little versions of a mini-story in your story. The key here is to make this smaller story fit into your work as a whole: don’t just send your characters off-track for awhile and then bring them back if it doesn’t add anything to the story. (That would fall under the category of zany hijinks.)
  • The New Character, like I described above. The trouble here is that popup characters can be like popup ads: annoying, irrelevant, and distracting. Don’t add a character (like I did) who contributes nothing to your overall plot or some other character’s development.

Like Jim says, the key is to keep writing.

Are you noticing a theme on this blog?

Don’t give up.

Have you fallen into quicksand in the middle of a plot? How did you escape?