“Illogic” is my number one pet peeve as a reader.
Well, one of my number one pet peeves: it’s definitely one of the experiences that throws me right out of a story, like hitting a speed bump at 40.
So what do I mean by “illogic”? Well, the most common form of illogic that I see is:
a character behaving in a way that no normal or ordinary person would behave, not for some logic that the writer has deliberately and strategically built into the character, but because the writer needs the character to behave this way to further the plot.
Perhaps other readers don’t share my sensitivity to these bones of a writer’s process, but for me, they can be quite visible, and usually painfully so.
Now let me stop for a minute to assure you: as a writer, I’m not innocent of these glitches myself. Fortunately, my writing group pays attention. More than once, they’ve pulled me out of the path of my own rush to get to the next scene (thank you all yet again!).
One common form illogic seems to take: the information dump.
A writer needs to convey certain information to his readers. So the story slams to a halt and characters are plunked down in illogical situations that give them a chance to tell readers what the writer needs them to know.
Scenario I (details have been obfuscated):
A character has just undergone major, major surgery and has just been wheeled into the ICU. A second character manages to wheedle his way in for just a few minutes to—one would suppose—convey his well-wishes to the surely woozy patient.
But no. Because the next plot point requires the well-wisher to perform a particular action that needs some justification:
a) the recently anesthesized patient is able to carry on an extended (three-page) coherent conversation, using formal, complex syntax, without even an expression of discomfort;
b) the well-wisher lingers for these three pages exchanging complex information with the patient even after having been ordered from the room by a nurse;
c) the nurse conveniently twiddles her thumbs, giving the conversation exactly the time it needs to wind to the necessary close.
Sorry, I don’t buy it.
This scene could have been made more palatable by a simple recognition and acknowledgment of the limits of the situation. And a strategic use of them! A patient who must gasp out garbled instructions, a well-wisher who must struggle to make sense of the incoherent drug-slurred communications in the seconds (not minutes) before the nurse storms back in—now the well-wisher has more mental work to do, and the reader’s sense of mystery is deepened, not thrown off track.
A second common form of illogic is the coincidence, the accident that somehow sets up a vital scene—just a little too helpfully for my taste.
Scenario II (this is from a best-seller; you may even recognize this scene, or one like it):
The protagonist and her ally face a violent confrontation with the evil, evil and physically powerful villain. The ally pulls out his cell phone to call for help—and he’s forgotten to charge it. It’s dead.
Speaking of convenience.
Folks, cell phones have presented a whole new raft of challenges to mystery/suspense/thriller writers. Those of you who have grown up with cell phones will not recall the days when you could manipulate events by the simple act of preventing your character from finding a handy pay phone. And there were times when few people had answering machines and no one had caller ID. It was waaay easy to make sure someone missed out on an urgent message.
No more. And it’s not fair to exploit the plot devices of the old days by disabling the realities of the present.
Now, if a villain snatches a cell phone and smashes it, that’s one thing. If you must get rid of that phone (and I can certainly imagine, and have needed, scenes where that darn phone creates a real problem), have it happen that way. Or find some clever way to make the phone play a role in the deception.
Here’s my own biggest illogic temptation: in my mystery/suspense novels, it’s often really tough to keep the characters from simply going to the police. But if they go to the police and tell all, the story’s over! I admit to not always being completely convinced I’ve explained away a character’s decision to keep things to him- or herself so the plot will keep to its prescribed route. I’ve tried to build the decision into the characters’ ambivalences, their failures to be completely honest with themselves about their motives, and to make that ambivalence a driving force in the story. I think I’ve had mixed success.
What kinds of illogic throw you out of a story? What are your own most insidious temptations? How have you solved the need to pass along information or keep the suspense logical in your own work?