As I’ve mentioned in other posts, there are a number of reasons why I may toss a book aside and never pick it up again. Clichéd characters, dragging first chapters, too much going on…the list, sadly, is long. (For my own personal list of what NOT to do in the opening pages of your story, check out the What Killed It For Me series.)
One of the things that most certainly WOULD kill it for me is when there are problems with the logic. If the author contradicts himself or something happens that totally doesn’t make sense…I don’t have much patience for that, and I don’t think most other readers do, either. Luckily, you don’t see much of this in published books because editors catch those mistakes. But it’s an issue I see quite a bit in manuscripts, and these little problems can slide your baby right out of an editor or agent’s inbox and directly into the circular file. None of us want that.
So I’m excited to welcome Harrison Demchick today to talk about something we’ve never discussed before at Writers Helping Writers: logic problems in manuscripts and how to avoid them.
Have you ever read a scene in a novel, or seen one in a film, that flat-out did not make sense?
I’m not talking about flying humans or talking animals or time machines. In their own contexts, there’s nothing illogical about any of these things, or for that matter anything else you can imagine. What I’m talking about are those moments where the protagonist says something he would never say or does something he would never do. Or those revelations that directly contradict already established fact. Or Halloween taking place two weeks after the Fourth of July.
These are logic issues, and if you remember how they made you feel when you spotted them, you know how your readers feel when such problems emerge in your own work. Logic problems remove readers from the world you’ve created. They take from you your narrative authority. They undercut conflict and tension. And if not identified and fixed, they will ruin your manuscript.
So let’s take a look at four different kinds of logic issues, where they come from, why they’re a problem, and how they can be resolved.
Type #1: Rule Violation
What it is: An apparent contradiction or inconsistency relative to the established rules of your world.
Some might suggest that there are no rules in fiction, but that, of course, isn’t true at all. When it comes to establishing the world of your novel, there are two sets of rules: the rules readers bring to the story and the rules you bring to the story.
What readers bring to the story is common sense. That’s why you don’t have to explain concepts like restaurants, Sundays, and love and hate, and also why you don’t need to tell readers that someone who falls into the Grand Canyon is probably going to die. You, on the other hand, provide basic context—the particular rules and concepts that differentiate (or don’t) your world from the real one. If, in fact, it is not lethal in your world to fall into the Grand Canyon, or if the bottom of the Grand Canyon is an enormous trampoline, then you need to establish this.
Common sense and basic context comprise the rules of your novel, and when those rules are ignored or changed without explanation—for example, a human having an intellectual debate on Tolstoy with a box turtle in a world previously depicted as ordinary Victorian-era England—then we have problems.
Why it’s a problem: In a world without rules, nothing has meaning. Imagine your protagonist dangling off the edge of the aforementioned Grand Canyon. The tension in such a scene emerges from readers’ understanding that an ordinary man who falls into the Grand Canyon will die. But if there are no rules—if rules are added or changed or removed on a whim—there can be no tension. Maybe the character will die, or maybe he’ll bounce, or maybe he’ll fly away. Readers don’t know. And most problematically, very soon, they won’t care.
How to resolve it: Establish the rules early in your manuscript, ideally before the inciting incident. This is more difficult in some genres than others—it’s hardest for fantasy and science-fiction, which require a lot of basic context—but generally speaking, you want to establish the status quo before you change it. And ideally, this is done through showing rather than telling. Convey from the beginning a world in which turtles can talk with humans and that Tolstoy debate will read just fine.
Type #2: Continuity Violation
What it is: A contradiction or inconsistency relative to anything that has happened in your manuscript up to any given point.
This one is pretty simple. Everything that happens in your manuscript—not just every event, but every detail established in every sentence—is part of your continuity, and when you contradict that, you violate continuity. A character established as twenty-two can’t be twenty-five the next day. She can’t live in a trailer park on page 12 and a studio apartment in Greenwich Village on page 60. She can’t be lactose intolerant, then eat a giant bowl of ice cream without consequence.
Why it’s a problem: When readers invest their time and energy in your manuscript, you essentially promise them that you’re the world’s leading authority on the story you’re telling. Continuity violations break that promise. For readers, this is intensely frustrating, because if you seem not to know what you’re talking about, their time becomes a wasted investment. When you lose your authority, you lose your readers.
How to resolve it: First of all, be vigilant. Most continuity errors are simply mistakes. You forget what you wrote before, and thus accidentally contradict it. We all do it, and it’s not a big deal—just read carefully, and have someone else do the same if you know continuity to be a problem.
But you might also consider foregrounding. Foregrounding is addressing the continuity violation head-on, in the process making it part of the story. If something doesn’t make sense, but you or your characters acknowledge that it doesn’t make sense, readers will stick with you and accept it as either an intentional detail or something that will be explained later.
Type #3: Inconsistent Chronology
What it is: Inconsistency in the established passage of time in your manuscript, or lack of clarity and logic in when events occur relative to other events.
We know, as part of common sense, that night follows day and that there are five days in a typical school week, but this doesn’t mean that time passes automatically and logically in your manuscript. I’ve edited three different young adult novels in which school weeks lasted seven days or more, all because the authors referred to “the next day” and “the next day” without keeping track of how many next days had passed. I edited another novel in which, due to overuse of “several months later,” winter lasted for more than a year.
Why it’s a problem: Continuity will frustrate you, but chronology will kill you. You can’t make your climax the Thanksgiving Social if only two weeks have passed from the start of the school year. You can’t have two characters start and end a journey at the same place and same time when one’s adventure lasted three days and the other’s a week. Inconsistent chronology can result in impossible plot points, and these issues are very difficult to unravel.
How to resolve it: If chronology is a concern, timelines can make a huge difference. Create a separate document keeping track of the passage of time in your manuscript. Know for yourself exactly when anything happens relative to anything else. If you write it down and make it a point of focus, you should be able to keep such problems under control.
Type #4: Rationalization
What it is: Pushing your characters or plot in the direction you want them to go even when other logic issues make this unlikely or impossible.
The killer strikes in broad daylight even though she’s previously only worked at night, and the only reason is that we’re nearing the end of the novel and the author wants her to be caught. A caring uncle abandons his niece and her friends because the author wants the protagonists to face the villain alone. These important moments are guided not by the needs of the story, but rather the needs of the author, who will spend paragraph after paragraph trying to rationalize her decision.
Why it’s a problem: I sometimes call this 2 + 2 = 5. It doesn’t matter how much explanation an author provides: two plus two will always come out to four, not five. Readers know that, and at heart, authors know that too—that’s why they’re working so hard to convince readers otherwise. Problems with rationalization make fundamental plot points impossible to believe.
How to resolve it: You can’t fix this one with foregrounding, because the explanation is often the problem. Instead, remember that you control both sides of the equation. If you can’t get two and two to equal five, change one of the twos to a three. Find another way to get where you want to go. Instead of forcing something that will never make sense, create something that will.
While logic alone will never create a great manuscript, you can’t create a great manuscript without it. Don’t give your readers a reason to put your book away. Mind your logic.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at Ambitious Enterprises.
Angela is over at Writers In The Storm, talking about Gifts That Matter: The Most Important Thing A Writer Can Give Themselves This Christmas, so please stop in and say hello!