I'm presently reading an espionage thriller by a bestselling author I've never read before and I've really been enjoying it. Or at least, I had been up until page 184.
Prior to page 184, I had been thrilled --- no pun intended --- to discover that the writer in question is quite good at just about everything I think is important. He knows his subject --- international terrorism and the associated U.S. political backbiting --- backwards and forwards, yet he never burdens the reader with more detailed info than is necessary. His book's general premise is intriguing and relatively plausible. And his dialogue, for the most part, rings with just the right balance of drama and authenticity.
Don't get me wrong --- this guy's no le Carre. (Not that anybody other than John le Carre himself really is.) His requisite villain --- a professional assassin with a code name plucked from the animal kingdom --- is as standard issue as they come: brilliant, unfeeling, feared by all who know him, capable of killing a man with nothing more than the feather pulled from a down pillow, blah blah blah. When his generally fine dialogue does take an occasional dip for the worse --- usually during a lover's quarrel unrelated to matters of national security --- it tends to hit bottom with a real thud. And his protagonist --- a CIA desk jockey with limited field experience --- couldn't be a more obvious stand-in for Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan were he to enter every scene whistling the end title music from Patriot Games.
(I know what you must be thinking right about now: This was a book you were enjoying, Gar?)
Still, for all the annoyances noted above, the author's overall writing was solid enough, and the story he was telling sufficiently compelling, that I was happy to go right on riding the train he was piloting.
Until I hit the dreaded WTF moment at page 184.
For those unable to guess what I mean when I refer to a "WTF moment," I'm talking about the specific place in some books where the wheels come flying off. Not just one or two wheels but all four, bringing what had been a perfectly enjoyable journey of the mind to a rude and unexpected halt. Because the author has just done something too dumb, or lazy, or transparently manipulative, for you, the reader, to forgive. The trust you had in him to tell his tale with skill and precision has been broken, and there's no getting it back.
That's the WTF moment.
On occasion, this insult comes with the added injury of malice aforethought. Not only has the book's author abruptly yanked you out of his story, he's done so by way of underestimating your intelligence. He's tried to get an elephant-sized plot device out of the room right under your very nose, preferring sleight-of-hand to fixing something he knows damn good and well is broken, and he's counting on you to be too dim-witted to notice. Or, if you do notice, that you'll be too mesmerized by his genius in general to give a damn.
Most WTF moments aren't quite as sinister as all that, however. They're just innocent mistakes. Giant, momentum killing errors in judgment that a good editor should have caught but didn't. WTF moments of this kind aren't infuriating, they're simply deflating, because they're indicative of either a breakdown in the system or a writer who's not quite as good as you were hoping he'd turn out to be.
Let's take pages 184 thru 187 of the spy novel I've been reading as a prime example. Here's the set-up:
A female newspaper Reporter in Washington, D.C., as headstrong as she is beautiful, is about to turn a story in to her editor that will blow the lid off a huge conspiracy involving members of White House staff. Naturally, said members want all copies of her story destroyed before her editor or anyone else can read it, so a Thug For Hire (TFH) is ordered to break into her apartment and steal/erase all her computer files while she's out on her nightly run with her trusted dog Bruno.
Unfortunately for her, the Reporter twists an ankle badly at the start of her run and returns to her apartment sooner than expected, while the Thug For Hire is still up in the study on the second floor.
Okay, people, let's pause for a moment to think this through. Assuming killing the Reporter is not part of the TFH's assignment --- and it isn't ---what's the most logical sequence of events at this point? I'll give you a few seconds to consider the question . . .
Ready? All right, the following is how things actually go down in the book:
The Reporter closes the apartment's front door behind her, sits down on the living room couch to remove her shoes and inspect her tender ankle. She hobbles into the kitchen, fills a freezer bag with ice, and grabs a beer from the fridge. Now she limps upstairs to the bathroom, removes some pain reliever from the medicine cabinet, washes a couple pills down with the beer, and closes the cabinet's mirrored door --- revealing the reflection of the Thug For Hire, suddenly standing in the bathroom's open doorway behind her!
She starts to scream but the TFH grabs her, clamps a hand over her mouth and uses very impolite language to tell her to keep quiet or she's dead.
The Reporter (as headstrong as she is beautiful, remember) heel strikes the TFH's shin, then whirls to drive an elbow into his cheek, forcing him to release her. She flees into the hallway, then the study, noticing as she enters the latter that the intruder has been screwing around with her MacBook. She grabs the phone, picks up the receiver, starts to dial
9-1-1 . . .
. . . but the Thug For Hire reappears in the doorway to point a gun directly at her face. He drops some more impolite language to demand she put down the phone.
"Who are you?" the Reporter wants to know.
The TFH tells her again to hang up the phone and promises not to hurt her if she complies.
Bruno --- who hasn't been mentioned once since he and the Reporter returned home --- barrels up the stairs to the rescue, barking like the house is on fire. But barking is all the big guy's up for, apparently, because upon reaching the staircase landing, he stops to flash his teeth and bark some more at the man in the hallway threatening his master with a gun. The TFH promptly shoots the animal dead.
"You asshole!" the Reporter screams, then just for good measure, issues the insult again with some impolite language of her own tacked onto the end. Still holding the phone, she goes on to ask the TFH twice if (Name of Evil White House Staff Person) sent him. (He did.) "Answer me, goddamnit!" she cries. (He doesn't.)
Instead, the TFH orders her one more time to put down the phone. "Now!"
Headstrong as ever, the Reporter presses on with her call to 911. The Thug For Hire shoots her in the head. He moves in to finish her off. She begs him not to shoot her in the face. "Please, God, anywhere but in the face!" His angry scowl softens and he grants her wish, firing two silenced rounds into her chest before leaving her apartment for good.
Riiiiiight . . .
If nothing about what you've just read had you thinking "What The F?", nothing ever will, and you may feel free to exit this blog post, stage left, to spare yourself another minute of my ridiculous nitpicking. On the other hand, if you, like me, hardly know where to begin to list all the jaw-dropping missteps our bestselling thriller writer made in the scene above, let's just give it a try anyway, shall we?
- Why the hell didn't the Thug For Hire slip out of the apartment while the Reporter was a) massaging her ankle in the living room; b) refrigerator-diving for ice and beer in the kitchen; or c) downing some aspirin with her back turned to the bathroom door? Or better yet, why didn't he just knock her unconscious so as to finish his work in her home undisturbed? As he wasn't wearing a mask, choosing to reveal himself to her instead all but guaranteed he would have to kill her, which wasn't part of his employer's instructions.
- When the Reporter breaks free from the TFH in the bathroom, she can't make it downstairs to the front door on that bad ankle, but shouldn't she at least start screaming her head off? Or try locking the study door behind her to buy some time while she calls for help?
- Looking down the barrel of a silenced handgun, why does the Reporter choose to subject the TFH aiming it at her to a Q & A, rather than put down the phone as instructed? What makes her think this guy won't pull the trigger if she doesn't do what he says?
- Exactly what kind of golden retriever is Bruno, anyway? The olfactory-challenged kind that abhors violence? It takes him what feels like forty minutes to realize an intruder is in the Reporter's home, and when he finally does, he roars up the stairs only to stop in the hallway to bark at his master's assailant from a distance, as if he hates to bury his teeth in a man pointing a gun at his owner until such nastiness becomes absolutely, positively necessary.
- Does the Reporter have a death wish we haven't been told about? The TFH has just killed her dog in cold blood, proving he is indeed capable of using the weapon he's threatening her with. And not only is she still not ready to put down the phone as directed, she wants to call the guy an asshole to his face and continue grilling him: Who are you, who sent you, answer me, goddamnit!
- If the thought of getting shot in the face was so terrifying to the Reporter, why didn't she put the friggin' phone down when a man aiming a gun at her face ordered her to --- THREE TIMES???
- Do Thugs For Hire generally grant a victim's final request to be shot in the body part of his or her choice? Or is this particular TFH, beneath all the foul language and propensity for violence, just a really nice guy?
Needless to say, all these WTF moments rolled into one has seriously dampened my enthusiasm for this book. Which is a real shame because I'd been thinking it was a great read up to this point.
But was it really?
One of the things that happens when I hit the wall of a WTF moment is that I begin to wonder what other, similarly egregious flaws in a book I might have missed earlier. So I go back to look, scanning the pages with a more critical eye this time, and lo and behold, more often than not, I find even more things amiss. Suddenly, a fine but imperfect read has just become an ordinary one, and a writer I was beginning to think could be a new favorite of mine has instead been reduced to just another piker.
As an author myself, I understand how and why most WTF moments happen. The writer has a plan for his characters and he needs things to go down for them according to that plan. The reason Bruno didn't fly up the stairs immediately upon the Reporter's return to her apartment to attack the intruder within, like almost any dog with a working nose would have, is that, had he done so, none of what followed could have reasonably occurred. So Bruno had to stay downstairs, silent and invisible, until his owner could discover the intruder herself and engage in a little suspenseful hand-to-hand combat with him. The TFH remained in her apartment, rather than slink out unnoticed while he had the chance, for the very same reason, logic be damned.
Whether the thriller writer in question resorted to such a series of cheats consciously or not, he lost me as a reader for good at page 184, and that's really all that counts. So let this be a lesson to you, my friends. To hell with typos and misspellings --- scour every line of your next novel, first and foremost, for WTF moments --- those scenes in which you've written something that defies all common sense --- and eliminate them. Because your editor might not notice them, "editing" being what it is today, but a discerning reader most likely will.
And it's your reputation that will take the hit.
Questions for the class: Am I being overly critical here, or do you suffer WTF moments as unkindly as I do? What's the biggest WTF moment you've ever encountered as a reader, and what's the biggest one you've ever caught in your own writing prior to its publication?