Humble Thy Story

1. Propping up

Why writers shouldn’t put up an APPLAUSE sign in the middle of their story

Writers, have you ever wondered if your story was too self involved? Ask yourself, is the hero so funny that he laughs at his own jokes? Is every walk on role just as witty? Is your dialogue so clever that it defies belief?

Does your story take the literary equivalent of a selfie, reminding the audience how beautiful its lead is, going to great lengths to characterize her elegance even when it’s irrelevant? Does it do the same thing with the settings, waxing poetic about inactive aspects of the environment, getting lost in the woods by describing every plant in it?

Do your characters give veiled compliments to plot developments? Do they praise your evil schemes? Are they liberal with their use of the word ‘genius’?

If so, expect some blow back. It’s good to be proud of your work, but a story that’s too proud of itself gives audiences the impression that it doesn’t need their business.

Even brilliant authors need to keep their work humble. This doesn’t mean writing in a passive voice, it means keeping the invisible hand of the author buried by eliminating the things that give away its hiding places.

Stop Reminding Us Its Fake

If you write one scene where a character compliments another on their sparkling wordplay, the reader might not think, “Did the writer just compliment himself?” but they will if you make a habit of it.

If the supporting cast always admires your hero’s beauty, and you have no plans to disfigure her, or have her appearance be at odds with her inner nature, readers will grow to resent that photo on the back cover.

If minor players always refer to the hero as ‘the chosen one’ then why should the audience be surprised when he does something heroic? If you keep planting characters that pump their fists and shout, “Yes!” when the hero answers the call to action, the audience will think, “Why does this character need my admiration? Their story has its own praise built right in.”

Readers will be far more forgiving of characters who slam the hero’s intelligence, looks, and battle strategies, because they’re more likely to have experience with condemnation than congratulations. We have an elephant’s memory for criticism and a gold fish’s memory for compliments. In a given day, we’re more likely to see rolling eyes, ducking heads, and whispers hidden behind fingers than we are to see proud nods, lovelorn eyes, and prolonged thumbs up.

2. Really?

Mutual Dislike

In an article titled Interpersonal chemistry through negativity: Bonding by sharing negative attitudes about others, researchers found that couples on first dates are more likely to bond over the things they dislike than the things they like. The dislike of a mutual friend will bring the couple closer than shared music preferences.

A narrator with a slight negative edge is easier to bond with than a hyper positive one. Characters with bad attitudes can be endearing. This doesn’t mean you should make all characters harsh and sarcastic. It’s fun to watch those figures lay their snark into authority, but the moment they use the first person to wink at the audience and say, “Ain’t I a stinker?” the reader becomes aware of what they’re supposed to think of the character.

In the story I’m working on, I caught my narrator bragging “What can I say, I’m cocky when I’m conscious.” I cut the line as soon as I’d typed it. By acknowledging my hero’s rebellious streak I was setting the reader up to turn on him.

In real life, you don’t get to call yourself ‘cool’ and then carry the title. You have to be cool and shrug it off whenever anyone calls you that.

If you’re writing a character with a quick wit, show the consequences of them flaunting their intellect. Characters can have high opinions of themselves as long as their world brings them down to earth. That’s why it’s not too hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes crawling out of a pile of garbage.

The mysteries I enjoy are told in the first person past tense. This format allows detectives to be clever during investigations, but humbled in hindsight. It lets them criticize their past selves for being too cocky, foreshadowing how they learned their lesson.

3. Who turned that on?

Take Down the Applause Sign

Once the reader sees the APPLAUSE sign on the page, they’ll spot all the ways the writer is cheating to score an emotional response. They’ll hear the laugh track giving them permission to find something funny. They’ll hear the scare chord when they’re supposed to feel frightened.

Unsubtle manipulation breaks the suspension of disbelief, puts the audience on a different wavelength than the story.

I feel this way whenever I see a serial killer thriller. When Special Agents are supposed to be briefing investigators on the killer’s methods, they can’t help but compliment his brilliance. So often the killers motivations would only make sense if he knew he was being filmed.

By setting up these artisan killers, who out perform their real world counterparts, the writer tips the audience’s attention from the right brain to the left, from imagination to criticism. When a writer uses dated pop psychology to rationalize his killer’s actions, the audience questions the writer’s qualifications. The story stops feeling like something that happened and starts feeling like something that was designed.

I was very critical of Secret Window, because the film had built itself up to be such a head scratcher. When the twist came I found myself slapping my forehead. The movie seemed to be setting up the hero’s split personality as a red herring, but it turned out to be the culprit all along. The revelation was obvious from act one. The film’s best trick was convincing me it was too smart to do that.

Secret Window’s epilogue couldn’t help but compliment its own brilliance.

Johnny Depp’s character writes an account of the climactic finale where he calls the ending “Perfect.”

I shouted at the screen, “No, it wasn’t!”

It’s hard to see a story that is that self congratulating in a flattering light. If a story keeps patting itself on the back, my inner critic wants to stab it. Victory laps heighten my desire to see a story falter.

It’s important to recognize that certain emotional responses are harder to conjure up than others. Sometimes your characters have to tip toe around their revelry until the end of act three.

If the mayor of your character’s hometown declares it ‘Protagonist Day’ and gives them the key to the city, either something terrible needs to happen in the next scene, or the credits need to start rolling immediately.

If you have to tell your audience how to feel about your story they’ll never feel that way naturally. Cut the APPLAUSE cues and let the audience do the cheering on their own.

8 thoughts on “Humble Thy Story”

  1. So this would definitely fall under the category of showing rather than telling, yes? ^-^

    Personally I’m too insecure to call attention to my dialogue like that. Half the time it seems so cheesey, I almost want to have another character apologize. haha! And when it comes to my characters, I always try to be like that Mom who thinks her kids are awesome and brilliant, but is always saying things like, “I can see your underwear!” or, “We can wait a minute while you brush your teeth.”

  2. A compulsion I have sometimes is to shoot down stupid arguments using another character, so that the audience knows that I know that it’s a stupid argument. Doesn’t work every time, but can be appropriate in some cases.

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