The Writing Life

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Writing 101: Logic

OBSTACLES

Every story should have conflict. Conflict is an obstacle that must be overcome. Whether the obstacles are found in another character, in nature, or internally, the fight to overcome these rocks in the path of the primary character's growth is what makes storytelling so exciting.

This is why logic must play a key role in any piece of fiction. Overcoming obstacles is only interesting if the obstacles are real, and the efforts to get past them are logical.

For example, if you have Jane come across a boulder blocking her path, there are several ways she can try to get past it. She can walk around it (if there is a way to do so), she can climb it, she might even be able to vault over it. But unless you're writing paranormal with established physics-breaking super powers, she can't walk through it. Nor can she sprout wings and fly over it. Pretty obvious stuff, right?

Yet it's surprising how many writers will place less obvious obstacles in front of their characters and break all the rules to get them past. Why? Because the writer wants the tension and suspense of an obstacle, but not the hard work of finding a solution. Sometimes it's too difficult a puzzle; sometimes the author doesn't think things through far enough; and sometimes, the writer is simply lazy.

I'm going to refer to "lazy writing" often. This is a term I use to describe a variety of 'sins'. Because regardless of what the initial problem is, in the end, it's a writer's decision whether she'll do the work or not. What if the obstacle is too great? Rewrite the obstacle, so that it can be overcome. If you don't rewrite, and leave in the insurmountable obstacle along with a magic solution (something illogical) then you are giving in to lazy writing.

What if the writer simply doesn't see all the problems? After all, everyone makes mistakes; we all have the occasional logic problem slip into our work. Very true. This is an excellent reason for having good beta readers or critique partners (the kind who'll tell you when you've made a logic goof). It's also a good reason to read your work over several times before anyone sees it, so that you might spot the problems before others have to tell you. But if something gets past you and your readers, then your solution might have contained enough logic not to be a problem.

LOGIC IS EVERYWHERE

The world is a logical place. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things may seem senseless on a emotional or spiritual plane ("Why did that earthquake have to kill my nice neighbor? She was so kind, it doesn't make sense for her to die and that nasty neighbor to live!" Well, it happened because pressure built up in the fault until the tectonic plate moved, shaking the earth. The good neighbor was in harm's way, the bad neighbor wasn't, the result was logical. It may not be fair, or how we like it, but the logic can't be assailed). Even people behave logically (I'll get to that in a bit).

Because of this, your fictional world must be logical. What about fantasy or science fiction? The same applies. You may have some new rules that require suspension of disbelief. For example, Superman can fly, even though he has no apparent means of propulsion. He can lift a mountain, even though no mountain would be cohesive enough to stay mountain-shaped when he picked it up, etc..

When you start a story that requires suspension of disbelief, you must establish the rules (the logic) then stick to them. Superman can't suddenly make himself invisible because that's not one of his powers. Some outside force could make him invisible, but he can't suddenly have that power when he's never had it before.

If you're on our planet, you need to obey the laws of physics. If you're writing about people, you must make them act like real people. If you put an obstacle in front of a character, the character must solve it in a logical way.

NATURE

Let's use an example to show how logic and physics must be obeyed. Pretend you set your story in a northern winter. It's imperative for you to be consistent with the rules that govern cold winter environments. You can't have ice a foot thick on the lake, but have leaves on the trees and flowers on the ground. Ice does not grow a foot thick without a lot of extremely cold weather. And that means the flowers are dead or dormant, and the leaves have fallen.

The ice had better act like ice, as well. You could land the Space Shuttle on a foot of ice, so we'd better not see anyone falling through it. Ice is cold, it's slick, it's hard. It can be transparent, but more likely it will be opaque at a foot thick. The surface can be smooth, or it can be rippled (if there was a strong wind when the top layer was frozen, you get tiny ridges in the ice. Not 'waves' like on a lake, just a slightly choppy surface. Makes skating tough, but walking is fine). Ice can melt, so be careful putting campfires on it. You can chop a hole in ice to fish, but this is hard work.

Winter doesn't mean you have to have several feet of snow on the ground. Some winters are dry, some are wet. There can be a lot of snow, or a little. In fact, the extreme cold tends to keep snow from falling too heavily. Snow tends to build up much faster in a more moderate winter, where temperatures don't stay in the high negatives for long periods of time. This is how things are and they can't be changed. You have leeway on snowfall, but not on leafy trees and ice-bound lakes.

This is nature -- it's immutable. You can't change its rules to suit your story. Even if the climax depends on there being both a foot of ice on the lake, and yet someone falls through -- tough. Rethink it. Whenever you write yourself into a corner and need to break the laws of logic to get yourself out of it, you have to do the work and retrace your steps until the outcome can happen logically. Otherwise, you'll be indulging in lazy writing.

PEOPLE

How do you write logically about people? After all, we're bundles of contradictions, have free will, and can react differently with changing circumstances, moods, etc.

All true. But let's be honest. How many times have you read a book or watched a TV show or movie and thought, "She'd never do that!" while watching a character do something outrageous. It's because the writer stretched the boundaries of what we know of that character. The writer went too far. The reason? The writer needed the character to do something in order to overcome an obstacle, or set one up -- and he didn't care that it broke the character's logic. That's lazy writing.

Despite the contradictory nature of human beings, we all follow our own logic. Only the insane act illogically -- and even they are working on a twisted sense of logic only they understand. We do things for reasons. It can be the wrong reason, a dumb reason, a mistake and so forth, but initially, there is a logical thought.

Your characters must behave accordingly.

An example: You need tough, CIA agent Jane to be captured by a villain. How many readers would accept it if you had a villain put up his fists, say, "You're coming with me, girlie" and have Jane react in craven fear, begging him not to hurt her? It might be okay if being captured and thought cowardly was part of her plan. But what if there was no plan, and you presented this as her actual reaction after spending half the book talking about how tough she was? No one would buy it. That's not the Jane you created. It goes against everything we know of the character. You may need her to be captured, but you'd better do it in such a way that every reader would believe in it. She'd have to be captured due to overwhelming forces, or a trick, or to save someone's life, etc. Make it logical and it becomes a true obstacle, full of suspense. Make it illogical and your story has lost all credibility.

This remains true of subtler things, as well. Yes, there is leeway in interpretation. But only on things that aren't fully established. If you've made Jane a dismal cook, don't suddenly have her make a gourmet feast. Keep to the traits you've established.

PROBLEM SOLVING

One of the most exciting areas of fiction is problem solving. I know, that sounds really silly. "So... your ideal story is to have two people solving math puzzles?" No, not that kind of problem solving. I'm talking about how characters solve the problems of the obstacles in their path. Yes, again with the obstacles. They are one of the primary, most important parts of fiction, so they're going to get mentioned a lot.

When an obstacle is established -- keeping with the example above, Jane has been captured and now it's up to her partner to save her -- the fun is in seeing how this obstacle is overcome. We want to see the partner think through the problem, battle with each trap and difficulty, and finally come out triumphant. That's cool stuff.

It's the same kind of thing you find in love stories -- Jane and Mike are both filled with need and wanting and pain, and they must overcome their inner demons in order to take that important first step. You'll find it in nearly every romance -- Jane and Tom meet, there is often something keeping them from being totally honest with each other, and eventually they come to terms with their differences, or their secrets and find love. You find it in hurt/comfort -- one of them is injured, the other has to save his or her life with tender care, it's touch and go for awhile, until finally the ministrations have their desired effect. In short, it's in every story told. There is an obstacle (secrets, health, villains -- you name it) and then we watch as they overcome the problems, defeat whatever demons/obstacles are keeping them from fulfilling their mission in the story (from an evil empire to having sex) and at last, we get satisfaction. Or, if it's a tragedy, the obstacle is too great, and they lose.

Because of this, your problem solving has to be the best you can make it. Airtight, baby. No holes. If you have Jane and Mike drowning in a lake then suddenly they're safely in Chicago, you'd better have a darn good explanation of how they escaped the lake. You can't just say "They got out and went to Chicago." The obstacle -- drowning -- was too big for a pat explanation. If you want the tension of a life or death situation, you are required to pay for that tension by problem-solving your way out of it. No short cuts.

BALANCE

That's one of the keys to problem solving -- balance. The bigger the obstacle, the greater the tension, the more your readers need to see genuine, logical, solid problem solving. It's like the difference between buying a scooter and a Porsche. The scooter is a whole lot cheaper, so your wallet can be a lot lighter. You can get by with a quicker explanation for a small problem. But if you want that Porsche, that life or death situation, then you have to pay with lots of logical storytelling. Tip the scales too much in either direction, and the equation is out of balance, throwing a red flag to the reader. "Why did you spend four pages explaining why Jane brushed her hair in the morning? You told us it was because it got tangled while she slept. Why not leave it at that?" Too much problem solving for too small of an obstacle. It leaves that unsettling feeling, like the non-explanation for the lake drowning. The reader feels they missed something, or didn't understand. They're searching for logic and you're giving them an unbalanced obstacle/problem-solving ratio.

COMMON SENSE

Your best friend is common sense. Use yours to the utmost in storytelling. I'm sure you've all heard the advice given to most new writers, "Write what you know." This doesn't mean you can only write about your home town, your activities, your friends and family. It means write about the world as you know it. Use your common sense, your experience, the things you've learned. If you've never known a northern winter, don't trust yourself to understand every aspect of it. If you don't know how ice behaves on a frozen lake, research. Look it up on the web, ask a mailing list, write to the Wisconsin chamber of commerce, anything. Find the answers. Then you'll "know" and can write about it.

Do you have to research every little thing? Not if you already know about it. But if you're making something a big point in your story, and there are readers out there who will know a lot more about it than you, then it's a darn good idea. I could read a story about basket weaving and be fooled by almost anything the writer says. I don't know anything about it. But if you write about basket weaving on a foot of ice, I'm going to be very knowledgeable about that cold stuff under the characters' butts. A few people may know about the basket weaving, so you might just hope none of them read it, and make it all up (that's taking a chance, though. Don't be lazy -- look it up). However, I guarantee that a huge percentage will know about the ice, so that's not something you'd ever want to leave to chance.

Again, it's a question of balance. And common sense.

SUMMARY

Obstacles, problem solving, balance, common sense -- all are served by logic. A well told story makes sense. Making sense means something is logical. It's a simple equation, but it requires you, as the writer, to put in the work. No lazy writing. No trying to get away with something because you need it to happen, or because you hope no one notices, or think no one cares. Readers care. You should, too.

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