The Perfect Story: Flow

In considering the virtues of a perfect tale, some things come to mind that ought to be mentioned but that are rather easy to discuss.

A Perfect Tale Flows Logically

You don’t have to tell the reader everything in a perfect story.  You can withhold information in order to create mysteries.  You can mislead the reader so that an ending comes as a surprise.  So don’t imagine that I’m saying here that you have to be completely up-front with your reader.  Not only shouldn’t you do that, you really can’t do that.

You don’t want to burden the reader with too much information about your characters’ past lives, for example.  I’ve often seen authors write tales about a character beginning with the birth of a great, great grandfather who somehow influenced the family.  I almost always wonder if the author has gone overboard in those cases.

Much of your information can just be hinted at.  After all, the reader really is taking clues from the writer in creating his or her own internal version of the tale, so at some point you have to draw the line and say, “For my audience, this is all that is needed for this to be a complete story.”

Yet you as an author must understand many things that the reader’s don’t.  You need to know how each character is motivated and what each is thinking—to the point where you actually stop and consider writing scenes from their P.O.V.  If you do this, you’re likely to find the story suddenly spinning off in interesting directions that you hadn’t anticipated.

You also need to do your research when discussing problems.  If you tell us that characters are getting “the black plague,” you had better understand the symptoms of the plague, how it affects your characters, and so on.  If you think people’s skin turns black from the black plague, only the most naïve of readers will fail to recognize your blunder.

Then you need to make sure that your character’s responses are logical—at least to the characters.  If my character discovers a black lump under his armpit and has a high fever, what is he going to do?  By today’s standards, he might rush to the hospital, where he’ll learn that he’s caught the black plague. Five hundred years ago, he might have called a doctor who would wear a duck suit in order to frighten off the evil spirits while he attached a few leeches onto the patient’s neck.  In other words, the logical response changes according to the time and culture.  So you may need to let the audience know why your characters imagine that their responses are logical, even if they aren’t.

Every story should proceed with an inciting incident that gets the story rolling.  The characters then have to respond to that incident, setting off a chain reaction of responses.  Any time that you as an author make a logical error—any time the chain of reason is broken—your reader is likely to notice.

Once I was watching a movie that had a logical flaw.  In it, Antonio Banderas plays a thief who steals a shipment of diamonds from a couple of couriers.  A policeman who gets on the trail suggests to a partner that the diamonds had come from a major diamond dealer and therefore Morgan Freeman (who happened to be on the same train with Banderas) might plan a hit on the diamond dealer’s super-secure vaults.  Now, if you think about it for even an instant, that suggestion is absurd.  By this logic, if someone stole a tank of gas, we might deduce that the thief plans to hit the headquarters of Exxon next.  In fact, if Morgan Freeman had been planning a heist, isn’t it more likely that he’d avoid attracting attention?  Of course he would.  Instead, in one of the very next scenes, Morgan Freeman and Antonio Banderas went to a ball being thrown at the super-secure facility where they dress up as policemen in order to infiltrate the place.  They’re spotted by the real police, who don’t take any steps to capture them.  So logical flaw was added to logical flaw.  At that point, the writer lost me as an audience member.  I couldn’t get back into the movie.  Too bad.  The movie had some of my favorite stars.

Please, people, try to tell a story that makes sense!

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