Don't Pull a Fast One

Sat Sep 09 2017

There's this thing that happens in stories sometimes—I'm sure you've seen it yourself—where a character will suddenly use or reveal something you had no idea the character had access to, but which the narrative presents as though it has been there all along even though you know it was never mentioned beforehand.

Maybe it's a tool the character desperately needs just at that moment. Maybe it's some sentimental object summoned up from the depths of the character's past. Maybe it's a special skill or ability. But whatever the particular thing is, you the reader are left feeling like it's unfair that you didn't know about it beforehand.

I'm not talking about times when you feel that the character shouldn't or logically couldn't have the thing they seem to have; that happens too, but that's just a plot hole. I'm talking about the times when you feel the story is pulling a fast one.

Anticipating the possibilities

Those feelings are entirely justified, and they come from the story doing something that makes it impossible for you, as a reader, to do the one thing you're supposed to do: anticipate what might happen.

If readers have any job to do while reading a story, that's it: you read, you absorb, and you process, all so you can anticipate what might happen next. You build up a range of possibilities in your mind, then wait to see which one actually happens. Or best of all, when the writer is really good, which unanticipated but perfectly sensible possibility comes true.

That cat-and-mouse game between author and reader is where a great share of the fun of reading comes from, so naturally you resent it when the story cheats at the game.

The range of possibilities you're able to foresee is the product of everything you know about the character. This includes all their age, height, and other such personal details; their knowledge, skills, and abilities; any material assets at their disposal; all combined with the particular situations they're facing.

You have to know what they can do and what they can use in order to anticipate the possibilities.

So when the character suddenly reveals the new thing, you feel like the story—and the author—just pulled a rabbit out of their hat. You feel justifiably annoyed. How can you do your job if you don't accurately know what the character has access to?

Common offenders

These sudden rabbits come in three main types:

Note, there's nothing at all wrong with the objects, the provenance, or the abilities themselves.

If you need your character to have access to a fountain pen or something at a critical moment in the story, that's fine. If you need the pen to be something meaningful to the character, that's fine too. It's even fine if you need the character to be an award-winning calligraphic artist.

All of those are fine. Problems arise only when readers don't know about them.

If they don't know about those things, then how can they anticipate that the character might expertly forge an invitation to the high-society ball?

And if readers are only just now learning about the pen at all—that is, if you haven't used cliffhanger thinking to give the reader time to internalize the importance of the object—why should they suddenly feel any particular emotions about the fact that his grandfather gave it to him?

Or if you aspire to be one of those writers who is so good you can distract readers away from anticipating the forged invitation, how will you leave readers with that delicious moment of saying "augh, I should have seen that coming!"

You can't, if you never told them about the pen and the penmanship.

Set it up ahead of time

As a writer, your job is to walk that fine balance between giving readers all the clues they need while still leaving them open to being surprised by how those clues come together. You do this by setting the clues up well ahead of time, and in unrelated contexts.

Maybe the character uses the pen as a stress device, habitually pulling it out of a pocket and fiddling with it when trying to work out what to do. Let us see that happen a few times before the invitation-forging scene, so we get the idea that this guy always has a pen on him. Next time we see it, we'll feel that it's perfectly natural.

And maybe you give us a scene where the guy has a friend over at his apartment, and the friend notices all kinds of random wedding announcements, party invitations, and so forth lying about. "What are all these?" the friend asks, and oh, the character explains, "Those are just samples from old jobs. I do calligraphy work on the side to earn extra money."

And you make sure the pen is not used in that scene. Dissociate the clues from one another, so their joint use at a later plot point is not so obvious.

Do that and you support the reader's ability to anticipate. Pull all the rabbits out of the hat well before you actually need them and readers will praise you when you yet surprise them.

Don't make them curse you for last-minute rabbits instead.