Jan 05

Write Whatever You Want—But Be Trustworthy

The fundamental building block of story is change over time. This change is tracked through characters. We take care to craft characters who initially have flaws and strengths readers will connect with and then we create huge messes over the course of the story to generate change in these characters. But what kind of messes and how much change? We risk readers giving up on a story if they think characters are changing “too much” or in ways they don’t expect/understand (or worse, not at all). When this happens, readers can be pretty vocal about their displeasure. So this “how much and what kind” can be tricky.

This can make an author feel trapped—“Is that the deal? Change is necessary, but I’m not allowed to do too much or go in certain directions without risking losing my audience? How is that supposed to work?”

I first encountered this dilemma when I was working on a particular aspect of craft. I took my work live by writing a Harry Potter fanfic novella, which I posted chapter by chapter on two popular HP fanfic sites. In my story, in the first chapter, a young Lily and Sirius have sex. It wasn’t soft and gentle and we’ve-been-wanting-to-do-this-for-so-long lovemaking; no, it was we’re-being-hunted-down-and-I-don’t-know-if-people-I-love-are-dead-or-alive f…you get the picture. And there were many people who about lost their minds. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS?” was popular, as was “LILY WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS DO THIS EVER, NEVER, NEVER.” (Apparently, Sirius would.)

Oh come on!

Oh come on!

I was worried. I knew my storyline, knew where I was headed and why, but here, in the first chapter, I was losing the very audience I wanted to test my writing with!

But honestly, why was the reaction so vehement? Yes, I was messing with the HP world. Granted, these were beloved characters. But what had I actually done besides put two people together who shouldn’t have been together? I felt trapped, like I was going to have to write a different story than I wanted just to make sure people would read it, and that rubbed me all kinds of wrong.

It wasn’t until I was a beta reader for the sixth book in the NYT-bestselling Charley Davidson series, authored by Darynda Jones, that I got a way to navigate this dilemma. As we discussed Charley’s reactions to the rather horrific things she’s been through in the series,[1] I told Jones I loved how, in the fourth book, Charlie had to work through PTSD brought on by what she’d experienced in book three, and asked her why she’d stopped exploring that in book five. Jones said a LOT of people were upset with her for giving Charlie that reaction, because Charlie WOULD NEVER, EVER, EVER IN A MILLION YEARS react that way. This sounded very, very familiar.

Did you feel like you had to compromise your story because of those reactions? I asked. Why did you do what you did and how did you decide to do it?

What both those questions boil down to, she said, is trust. As in, Trust Me, the Author.

Trust is at the base of the author-reader relationship. It’s part of our unspoken agreement: “I’m going to take these characters and put them in messes that change them utterly and irrevocably, and then I promise I will bring those messes, and characters, to a satisfactory resolution.” When these things don’t happen, readers get really, really upset.

She listened to the readers based not necessarily on what they were saying but on why they were saying it. By objecting so strongly to Charley having PTSD, she realized they were really saying, “You didn’t bring this mess to a satisfactory conclusion. We can’t trust the changes you’re making in this character.”

But what was so unsatisfactory about the conclusion? What was it, specifically, that broke her readers’ trust?

Jones realized it wasn’t that Charley had gone through a harrowing experience and changed in the face of it, and she knew that she, as an author, wasn’t going to stop putting her character through harrowing experiences…and having her change in the face of them. (To do otherwise would be to make your readers think you’re stupid or make them wonder if you think they’re stupid. To deny that events affect us and change us would be to deny the reader the respect they deserve, and to disregard that essential building block of story—change over time.) It was that she couldn’t introduce permanent fear into her character, in the form of ongoing PTSD, as a change. It wasn’t a satisfactory resolution, and therefore trustworthy, given she had a character who was going to continue to get into intense situations. Her readers needed to trust they weren’t slowly going to watch a beloved character go under.

I realized all the books I haven’t enjoyed have, in some way, broken this Golden Rule. In some way the author had failed to give a satisfactory resolution. One book I vividly remember, even though I read it many years ago, had a main character who, with one childhood lie, violently derailed the lives of two adults she loved and allowed a third to get away with a horrible crime. The entire book implied this character’s growth arc was going to include getting over her fear of telling the truth and finally clearing the two characters’ names and bringing justice to the third. Instead, at the end, she didn’t—she just calmly told the reader she wasn’t ever going to do it! The author completely broke my trust. I’ve never read another of their books. I still, to this day, hate that book passionately.

Oo! The thumbs-down from Joaquin Phoenix! Kiss of death, my friend. KOD.

This raises an important question: does “satisfactory resolution” mean you have to have a happy ending? No. (Except here in our Romance world! J)  “Satisfactory” means it brings satisfying closure. There may still be a huge mess at the end of the story, but you absolutely have to provide closure to the messes you’ve created and the changes the characters have made.[2] This is what it means to be trustworthy.

I broke that rule right off in the first chapter of my Harry Potter story and they told me loud and clear they didn’t trust I would be able to pull off any kind of satisfactory resolution. I made the decision to stick with my original storyline, realizing they hadn’t yet read the whole story and hoping people would be curious (or furious, either works) enough to go along for the ride with me. To their credit, almost every of those initial readers stuck with the story, and loved the resolution I brought to it.

So whatever you write, you’ve got to pay the most attention to whether or not you’re a trustworthy author. You can go anywhere, do anything, but the rule is: bring satisfactory closure to the messes and changes you put your characters through. How will you know if you’ve achieved this? You won’t. You’ve got to test your story on other people. Have them read it and listen not just to what they’re saying, analyze why they’re saying it.

“They” is important—have at least three people read your story (and don’t just send your story around until you find the one person who agrees with your own opinion). It’s best if one of them can tell you technically why your resolutions aren’t working (if they aren’t), even if you have to pay a professional editor to get that information. If you’re not reaching the goal of trustworthiness, that’s when you’ve got to rework the changes in your story.[3]

Being a trustworthy author is this important. As with me and the author who’s book I hated, if you mess with this, you risk losing readers not just for that one book, but for life.


[1] Private email exchange

[2] The Husband’s Secret is an amazing example of satisfying resolution without a happy ending.

[3] Note: The feedback telling me my HP story wasn’t going to work was based solely on the first chapter. This is why I chose, to a certain extent, to ignore it. By the end of the novella the feedback had done a 180, so I made the right choice, but it was a risk.

Dec 04

Hey! It’s 1725! or Three Techniques to Add to Your Worldbuilding Toolkit

One of the first books I ever wrote takes place on a pirate ship in 1725. The 1725 part is important, because that was the end of the Golden Age of Piracy and several countries were combining their efforts to hunt down the last of the big-name pirates; specifically, one of the pirates in my story. As a first-time author, I struggled in my attempts to let my readers know this important worldbuilding information. Some of my early tries basically boiled down to:

The Captain reached the end of his letter: “We are not able to careen at Tortuga,” he wrote. “As you know, I’m being viciously hunted down. 1725 has certainly has had its challenges!”


“So, [name of character], here we are in 1725, and we certainly are being viciously hunted down, are we not? That is because I am a very important pirate.”

*delete with extreme prejudice*

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

The problem is I was dropping information in without any motivation for it—creating the notorious “info-dump,” where the author basically stops the story dead and tells the reader a bunch of information. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear your readers rolling their eyes while they put your book down.

So I spent a lot of time studying this aspect of the craft. To this day, I still look at how other authors handle the balancing act of letting the reader know the when, where, and why-it-matters of worldbuilding without “telling.” Three techniques I’ve noticed effective authors using over and over are:

a)    To avoid “telling,” write information in such a way that it sets up story questions the reader will ask and then reveal world information that answers them.

b)   When possible, use concrete, world-defining objects to answer story questions.

c)    To keep readers reading, keep raising immediate story questions and answering them, but only to raise more.

Eric Nylund’s book The Resisters is the first of a YA science fiction series, which is, in my mind, possibly the most difficult worldbuilding situation you can find yourself in. Here’s how he uses these three techniques to show me his world. These are the first three paragraphs of his book:

1) Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.

This seems straightforward, at least at first. We know battles mean some kind of war. So Ethan is involved in a war.

2) In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt…or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

In (2), Nylund presents a brief inner flashback. Although it might appear to be, Nylund’s flashback isn’t “telling.” It’s a response to the question raised in the first sentence: “What battle is Ethan preparing for?” But I have no way to contextualize the information the flashback gives me and so it raises more story questions—“in which someone didn’t get hurt” [wait, so the battle Ethan’s about to be in has no casualties? What kind of a battle is it where no one gets hurt?] and “his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk” [WHAT? The entire human race? And why isn’t his life at risk in this battle?].

3) At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.

(3) answers one question raised in (2)—why this “battle” isn’t a battle (it’s a game)—but it raises another immediate question: “What time period am I in?” Nylund doesn’t tell me, he shows me, in (3), by introducing a concrete, world-defining object—manned robotic exoskeletons used to play sports. He could have just told us about the exoskeleton: “Ethan put on his six hundred pound, nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit and charged out onto the field, ready to play.” “Oh really?” the reader says, “It’s six hundred pounds, is it? And it’s nuclear powered? Well, thanks for telling us that, Mr. Author! I see we are not in 2013.” EYE ROLL. We have this reaction because there is no story question driving the description. It’s just dumped in there.

But the appearance of that suit is motivated by the question “Why is this game, whatever ‘it’ is, considered a battle?” This gives us a totally different encounter with the world-defining exoskeleton: “Oh holy crap! Why are they wearing those? What is this ‘it’ they’re playing?”

Now let’s get back to (1), and its apparent straightforwardness. (2) and (3) make us we realize we no longer understand what “battle” means there. In fact, that battle now appears to be some kind of game! And that’s how we get to the story question: “What is this game, this ‘it,’ which is considered a battle and requires Ethan to strap on a six-hundred-pound metal suit?”

Nylund’s given me so much story information in such a short amount of time without me really even noticing. My attention has moved from story question to story question and so I am fully engaged as a reader—I want to know why Ethan’s life and the whole human race are in danger, and I want to know more about this mysterious game/battle and these suits. I also want to know what battle Ethan’s headed for, and whether or not I’m on earth, so I’m motivated to keep reading. But most importantly, not an eye-roll in sight because all the information was generated naturally from story questions Nylund led me, as the reader, to ask.

And now back to those pirates…