Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

Sherlock Holmes was, of course, talking about double-checking your deductions when he said that: is there another explanation besides your theory? But I think it’s another of those Holmesian lines that applies well to writing. Because the last thing we want is for our readers wishing we’d done something different.

It’s bad if they read our writing and start correcting it (“There’s a much smoother way to say that.”). It’s worse if they start questioning the plot logic: wouldn’t it make more sense if X had done Y instead of Z? And it’s really bad if they finish and think “That’s not how it should have ended!”

This is not a new problem. People have hated the ending of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for a couple of centuries (sticking with what was historically plausible, Scott has his hero marry the bland Rowena rather than the more interesting but Jewish Rebecca). Only in the 21st century, everyone can get together online to vent or Tweet their displeasure at you, which I imagine feels worse. In the Internet age, even a small group of dissatisfied fans can kick up what seems like a storm of negative criticism.

I doubt it’s possible to write a book so perfect nobody has problems. But I do think/hope it’s possible to write one good enough that the people looking for alternatives are only a minority. And that the majority is enough to make our work profitable.

At the words level, I like Kaye Gibbons’ advice: write and rewrite until the next word feels inevitable. I don’t always manage it, but I know what she means. At the plot level, it includes avoiding idiot plot: nobody should do something dumb just because that’s the only way to make the story work. They should have a very good reason for putting themselves at risk. The ending has to pay off on the story’s beginning; it has to be logical; and it has to be emotionally satisfying as well.

For an case study, let’s look at YEAR OF THE UNICORN, the fourth (others say third) book in Andre Norton’s Witch World series.

The protagonist, Gillan, is an orphan (one of her parents has Witch blood) in the Dales, across the ocean from Estcarp. The Dales have just emerged from a war with Alizon, which they won with the help of the shapeshifting Were-Riders; in return, they’ve agreed to provide the Riders with thirteen brides to take home. Frustrated with life in a monastic sisterhood, Gillan contrives to become one of the brides. She winds up paired with Herrel, as much an outsider among the Riders as she felt in the Dale. Unfortunately the unattached riders resent Herrel’s success and distrust the magic in Gillan’s blood. They replace Gillan with a magical clone and abandon the real woman to die. Can Gillan survive?

Norton made a number of surprising choices. She breaks with books one and two to give us a completely different part of the Witch World, one she wouldn’t return to for years. Year was her first story with a female protagonist. Rather than fantasy adventure, it’s a Gothic romance with a Beauty and the Beast element. As it’s first-person POV, the wording is archaic, almost stiff at times (but it does include the delicious line “He kept smiling. It was enough to make one dread all smiles.”). And in contrast to many romances, neither of the leads is stunningly good-looking — attractive, but not godlike.

These choices don’t work for everyone. The Gothic romance element when I first read the book turned me off. So did Gillan’s long quest to catch up with the Riders; it’s an interesting, eerie journey (That Which Runs the Ridges is a very ominous monster), but it’s a solo act, with no-one to talk to or interact with for chapter after chapter. And the point where Gillan recoils from Herrel’s shape-changing feels like she’s acting out of character to advance the plot. While I think most of Norton’s other choices were good, not everyone agrees.

But that’s the risk we all take when we write.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, mug by the Philosophers Guild. All rights to images remain with current holder.

2 Comments

Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Sherlock Holmes, Story Problems, Writing

2 responses to “Sherlock Holmes: “One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it.”

  1. Pingback: Is our writers learning? Magicians on two different worlds | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: SF, England and graphic novels: this week’s reading | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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