I’m Not an Effing Mind Reader
“Well, I explain why the character does this on Page 820, so the fact that you’re completely lost in chapter one is irrelevant.”
If you have ever, EVER said something like this to an editor or beta reader, please send me your email address so I can personally berate you until your inbox implodes.
Recently, I was beta reading for a newbie author as a favor (stupid me, I know) and found a crapton of logic errors and plot holes in the first chapter alone. When I pointed them out to the author, I received a response much like the quote above.
Newsflash, braintrust: That Won’t Fly......
I’m not talking about infodumping every secret of the characters’ lives—because that’s a whole different kind of writing!fail. What I mean is—if your character is motivated to do something, not explaining *why* is both frustrating and counterproductive to creating a story I’ll want to read. Case in point: in the beta read from hell, the main character suddenly decides to go travelling. Okay, fine. But WHY? What motivations are behind this sudden move? Why now and not last week or next month? What does the MC hope to accomplish by this action?
Responding to these questions with a, “The MC feels pulled to go there. But I don’t explain that until chapter five,” is a cop out and a sign of a lazy writer.
Editors and, more importantly, readers are not fucking mind readers. If I spy a big, honking plot hole in the early chapters, odds are I’m Not Going to get to chapter five because I’ll be so damn frustrated with your train wreck of a manuscript that my sole suggestion will be to line your cat’s litterbox with it and put us all out of its misery.
I enjoy books where the author makes me disentangle and tease out nuances. And part of that is holding onto juicy secrets until the perfect moment to unleash them to add tension. But not at the expense of a solid POV. As a writer, it’s your JOB to guide the reader through the story. Holding back character motivations just for the sake of tension is weak writing, and any reader with a 5th grade comprehension level will be able to see right through it.
Conversely, it’s fine if a character doesn’t understand what’s happening to them or why they feel a certain way. But at least have your character cognizant of that. Show their perceptions don’t jive with the world around them, but don’t have your characters dropping motives when they’re no longer convenient for them—or you—to deal with. They have to be more than just mouthpieces for plot devices, more than handy observers used only to narrate the story.
Readers will only know what you show and tell them in the novel itself—footnotes only work in scientific papers, not in fiction. You don’t get to explain to the reader why they think your characters are flatter than an eight-year-old’s chest. You don’t get the chance to justify lazy writing to a reader. The fact that you, the author, know more about these characters than anyone cannot be allowed to control the story. If you don’t make it clear why your characters behave or react in a certain way, then you’ll have your answer for why no one is reading.
By all means, keep your characters’ motives obscure for a while. But at some point, they have to come clean. And for fuck’s sake, be consistent with their motivations and the characterizations or you’re going to have a hell of a time working out a way to reconcile all those disparate threads to into a cohesive whole where I don’t have to pull out a tarot deck to figure out what the hell is going on.