A Lovely Way to Ruin a Book

Nothing is as mortal as a man.

Oh sure, men may look tough, durable, and even invincible. If you’d never seen one before, you would easily fall under its spell, thinking it to be an insurmountable obstacle, just because of its uncanny resemblance to the God Who fashioned it.

But after hanging around them a while, you come to appreciate how highly killable men actually are. Did you know that the length of time a man has spent living does not correspond with the amount of time it takes to kill him? For example, if you encounter a man who has fifty years of life in him, it does not take fifty years to kill him.

Isn’t that insane?

In fact, the time commitment necessary to end a man’s life varies quite little with age, thus falsifying the law of conservation of energy. It may have taken fifty years of energy to create this thermodynamically unique man, but guess how much time it takes to kill him?

Did you guess ten years? Because that’s wrong.

Did you guess five years? Because that’s optimistic.

Did you guess one year? Surely, it requires at least one. The world contains buildings which cannot be demolished in such little time. And a man is far more complicated (and arguably more alive) than any building.

Yet even with such airtight reasoning, you would be wrong. In reality, it only takes minutes. And that’s without using tools! Advanced projectile weaponry can shave the lifespan of a man to mere seconds. It’s utterly unreal. And far too ridiculous to be investigated by a serious person. That is why serious people do not spend their days studying corruptible, killable men.

Serious people study ideas.

You Can’t Kill an Idea

Ah yes—the immortal, untouchable, incorruptible idea. Heart of the Platonic ideal, fire of the intellect, pure tone of the cosmos and the fat lady who sings it. No one could ever kill that, no matter how much it deserves to die.

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a Batman, there’s just no ignoring me. I mean, can you imagine the headlines in the tabloids alone? Think of the merchandise. Think of the branding. Think of the toy sales! Believe me, Alfred, this is going to go down as the greatest publicity stunt in history.”

Ideas linger. Ideas keep getting resurrected. Even the bad ones! If the man who authored the idea dies, no matter. The idea will continue without him. If the society that first identified the idea goes extinct, no matter. Future societies will adopt the idea and come up with a million different ways to keep it relevant.

This, it turns out, is a pretty good deal for authors. A story, after all, is an idea too. And if your job involves creating things that can’t be killed, then you have landed yourself a pretty awesome gig.

Of course, there is one tiny problem with this.

You Actually Can Kill an Idea

Surprise! Batman lied to you. It turns out there is exactly one way to kill an idea.

And this way should be particularly troubling to authors, as it’s the kind of thing they can do completely by accident. It involves a certain organic substance—one which an author likely produces on a regular basis, several times each day. This substance is repulsive enough on its own, but extra care should be taken to keep it from touching the author’s work, against which this substance is particularly lethal.

What is this amazing poison that can kill a living idea? It has many names, some of which cannot be mentioned here. But for the sake of explaining, let me summarize it like this:

The only way to kill an idea is by taking a dump on it.

Death by Dump

It’s usually self inflicted. The inexperienced author takes a dump on his own story, thinking that nothing will come of it, yet once he is finished refastening his belt he looks down and sees the ruin of what was once a beautiful story.

“How did this happen?” he proclaims, throwing fists to the sky. “I thought my story was invincible.”

Yes, a lot of authors think that…right before they ruin everything with their excrement.

And it’s easy to see why: producing excellent stories is like excavating gold from some deep recess within the author. The process is energy intensive and requires a lot of deep digging. A lot of prospective authors can’t even manage to do it once. And the ones that have done it often find that they cannot do it on command. It was only a happy accident that they found any gold to begin with.

But excrement also comes from a place deep within the author, while being much easier and more reliable to produce. Yet the moment it strikes the page, it kills the story.

Don’t believe me? Let’s consider some examples.

The Legendary Ozmodiar

Until now, I have been speaking metaphorically. Allow me to be more direct: when I talk about a writer “taking a dump” on their work, I specifically mean the bastardizing of their story through nonsensical additions. These additions aren’t necessarily the work of the original writer (official successors can just as easily take a dump on a story they’ve inherited), but the final result is the same: a story that has lost the alchemy that once made it magical.

Here are some ways that writers wipe their bottoms with a story:

  • Having a well established character violate their core motivations as a way of moving the plot forward.
  • Killing off a beloved protagonist in favor of focusing on other characters or introducing new ones.
  • Ditto, but with the primary love interest.
  • Have the characters abandon whatever quest they’re pursuing in favor of a much lamer side-quest.
  • Having a character or plot thread just disappear without explanation.
  • Giving a redemption arc to a villain who has no redeeming qualities.
  • Extreme and sudden genre changes (genre evolution can be done well, but botching it is lethal).
  • Deus ex Machina.
  • Severe retcons that the established story cannot support.

Basically, any time that the story’s chain of causality becomes incredulous, you can safely say that a dump has been taken on the pages. In an organic story, change is gradual and happens in response to circumstances developing around the characters. Surprises are certainly possible, and even welcome, but those surprises need to fill a void that has been deliberately kept vacant from the beginning.

If that space is not specifically carved out beforehand, then you end up with “surprises” like Scrappy Doo, Cousin Oliver, or the Great Gazoo. Or you end up with the lukewarm last three seasons of Community. Or you end up with a version of Han Solo who is a complete loser and gets killed in the stupidest imaginable way.

The result is a story that merely cosplays as something beloved and iconic. It imitates the form of greatness, but lacks the soul of it.

How to Fight It

The easiest way to prevent a dump being taken on a story is to have a solid outline of the entire thing before the first line is ever written. Plotter-style writers are aware of nearly everything that is going to happen in a story after the present moment. As such, they take care to shape the present in a way that makes room for the future—no matter how strange or different that future may be. This allows the writer to prepare the story, and the reader, for any creative chaos that may be in the cards.

But not every writer is a plotter. Some don’t even know what will happen in the next chapter, much less the last book/episode of the series. What hope does a discovery writer have when the gold mine runs dry?

The “Stone Soup” Method

When a writer has written himself into a corner, and believes he cannot proceed without wildly changing the story, he would do well to remember a famous fable concerning knights who made a delicious soup out of a handful of stones.

(For those who don’t know the story: the knights are unable to convince the villagers to share their food out of charity. Instead, the villagers are coaxed into supplying ingredients for the impossible-sounding stone soup once their curiosity gets the best of them. When the soup is finished, the stones are removed, and everyone enjoys a hearty meal.)

So what do you do when your writing hits a stone? You make stone soup!

Remember, a stone is something intractable. If you hit a stone in your chain of causality, then you are stuck. And your characters are stuck, too, just like the poor hungry knights who were unable to convince any villagers to share their food.

But, much like in the story of the knights, there are resources all around you. They are merely concealed by circumstance. If your characters are thinking, realistic people, then there is likely a way for them to get through any situation without having to redefine the parameters of the story.

If a character is stuck in a pit, and you have previously made clear that he can’t jump or fly or climb his way out, then the solution is not to suddenly give him the skill to jump or fly or climb. Instead, have him look at the problem from a different angle. Can he, perhaps, fill the pit with water until he floats to the top? Or partially collapse the walls until the pit fills with dirt he can walk on? Or talk his way out of the pit by smoothly manipulating his captors?

Perhaps, instead, he will find a tunnel in the pit that will lead him somewhere. Or maybe he needs to wait for someone else to be thrown into the pit so they can escape together.

Most intractable situations can be resolved just by being resourceful. Your authorial clumsiness made the stone, now turn that stone into soup.

Your Story Deserves Respect

An author is certainly allowed to do anything with his story. He is, after all, the creator god of whatever tale he is inventing.

Put even more simply, he is free to make his story crap. And if filling his resume with crap pleases him, then he has succeeded. And no third party has any right to tell him otherwise.

But, though I may find myself courting controversy, I believe gold to be of better quality than crap. And if the author wants his story to do him honor, then he needs to treat it with respect. That may involve taking chances in service of the avant garde. Risk is natural part of creating something original and beautiful. But anything that insults or degrades the story is not the kind of risk that gets rewarded.

Too many writers have been destroyed by half-efforting their endings. Building a cohesive whole is not only more profitable but also more artistic and powerful.

An author cannot live forever, but, if executed with skill, his ideas can.

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