I once made a near-perfect score on the logic portion of my GRE exam when applying to grad school.
(I will now wait for those of you who know me well to wipe off your monitors from the spit-take you just had. Really sorry about that.) (And sadly, they did not count the logic part toward my actual GRE total. They counted the math part. For an English major. That is just mean.)
I am also the person who, at eight months pregnant, got incredibly fed up with a table which was in the way in the kitchen–I had more thigh-high bruises from banging into the corners than I could count–so I decided that, logically, the damned thing wouldn’t be in the way if I could just shove it under the counter where the cast-iron sink stood. Except it wouldn’t quite fit. It was slightly taller than the bottom of the sink basin I wanted to shove it underneath, so clearly, the legs just needed to be shortened a little bit. This was the point that logic should have dictated that I wait until my contractor husband came home, someone who actually knew how to measure things and, um, how math works, but no, no, I did not. I went outside and got the only saw I could find (my husband, being a brilliant man, had hidden all of the electric tools). It was a hand-saw, the kind you use to lop off old tree limbs and not the most accurate of blades. And then I decided that I could eyeball a mere inch, because how hard could that be? (Did I mention the eight months pregnant?) Whereupon, I started sawing an "inch" off the bottom of the legs… only to discover that they were lopsided and it didn’t quite fit underneath the sink… wherein I lopped off another "inch" and made the whole thing slant to the side, so everything rolled into the corners of the drawers… wherein I thought "one more inch will do the trick" and by this time, I had blisters on my hands from that damned saw, but did I stop? No, I did not. I sawed and sawed and sawed and spent twenty thousand years sawing on those damned table legs and then I realized it was still lopsided and then I was pretty pissed off and later, when my husband came home from work, he took one look at the legless table sitting on the floor underneath the kitchen sink and the pile of leg-bits and sawdust and broken saw in the middle of the kitchen floor and wisely decided to take me out for dinner.
I have incredible duh moments, probably like most anyone. I can get absorbed in what I’m doing and completely forget the overall picture of what ought to be done. But as a writer, I have to guard against poor logic creeping into my fiction. (Story logic cause/effect.) On the other hand, I love solving problems, which is probably why I’m so drawn to the mystery and thriller world.
Now, my writing method falls somewhere between being a plotter and a pantser. (A plantser?) I will start work with a general sort of idea–I know where the story starts and I know where it ends. There are specific concrete emotional beats I know are important to the story, and these beats–exploring those moments–are what generally make me want to write that particular story at that particular time.
Next, I’ll break the story down into major movements (first act turning point, mid-point, third act turning point, climax). These major movements are based on what the characters want–the protagonist and antagonist(s). Reversals, betrayals. I look at the pattern of escalation–is everything getting worse, is the tension increasing? If something incredibly bad happens after the act one turning point, can the choices the protagonist makes next lead to something worse? If not, the tension is off, muted, lessened, and that often leads to the desire to toss something in there while in the middle of writing that section, because instinctively, I’ll feel that it’s off and will want to fix it. Beware of the artificial fix, because they usually introduce logic problems.
This is the point where I’ll start the inner bullshitometer to watch for story fallacies and poor logic:
Have I cheated? If I am in the POV of the antagonist, am I being true to what he’d really be thinking in that moment, or have I obfuscated his thinking just to make him look innocent? Whenever I am reading and am in the POV of a character who later turns out to be the bad guy and there was nary a hint of it, I feel incredibly frustrated. And cheated–because that character’s not really thinking what they’d be thinking at that moment if they know they’re guilty. I can understand them not saying it out loud, but inside? They’d know. They might not be all "hee hee I am ze bad guy, woohoo" (that’s technical jargon I am dazzling with here today), but they’d be thinking something. Their point of view would be refracted through their choices, through their duplicity and intent to cover up. [The only exception to this is the unreliable narrator, who is telling the story. This is generally successful when we are not in that narrator’s interior point of view.]
Are there coincidences? Life has tons of coincidences. Fiction, not so much. I think, if you’re lucky, you can pull off one coincidence per book, but if that coincidence occurs just at the darkest moment when the protagonist happens to need that one piece of information in order to live and save the day, I’m going to be annoyed, as a reader.
Time frame? Am I telling the story in a logical sequence? Note: you don’t have to tell the story in the order that it occurred. But if you’re going to break the sequence of events and rearrange them, there needs to be a reason why, other than, "Oh, yeah, they need to know this that happened sixteen years ago so they’ll understand that part over here." The forward momentum of a story stops every time there is a flashback to fill in–the tension pauses. Successful flashbacks introduce another layer of conflict in the here and now as well as show a conflict in that moment. [I’m a fan of breaking time frames, by the way, but the reader has to be able to follow the fracture and not feel entirely lost. There has to be enough of a thread of story logic for them to hold onto what they need to keep that forward momentum going, to keep trusting the author to get them to the end and it all make sense.]
Could it have happened that way? By the end of the book, I’ll have layered in characters and motives and reversals and it is very easy to get lost in the details. If you’re one of those people who plot every single moment ahead of time, congratulations (I kinda hate you, though). You probably don’t have to worry about this step. But if you’re a plantser / pantser, then you probably need to go back to the central question of the mystery and make sure the solution could actually happen the way you’ve described it. One of my all time favorite thriller writers had a stand alone where the end could not have happened the way he described it. At all. Told from the protagonist POV, the murder situation was described very differently at the end of the book by the protagonist than he’d described it at the beginning, and he wasn’t being an unreliable narrator–it just couldn’t have happened the original way and the writer adjusted. I was so invested in his characters that I wanted to smack him with the book. He’s gone on to break records selling and I’ve kept buying his books, so clearly, he’s not hurting any from annoying me, but I didn’t trust him as much. And that, really, is the risk here: unless you have incredible sales momentum behind a bestselling name, if you introduce something completely illogical, the readers aren’t going to trust you as much next time. That can make the difference between selling… and selling well.
Did the protagonist solve his/her own problem? Personally, I think it’s okay if the protagonist builds a team around them and utilizes the team’s experience / knowledge / dynamics to help them solve the problem, but if the final answer really does come from someone else and the protagonist is just along for the ride, then it doesn’t feel as much like the protagonist’s story. It feels weak. If someone we don’t know very well, some minor character, swoops in to save the day, I’m gonna quit buying that writer’s books, especially if the character is supposed to be smart.
Is the problem big enough for a story? This one of those "execution" questions–it can work if written well. If the story can be solved simply by the protagonist and antagonist getting over petty differences or sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk, there might not be enough of a problem there to sustain a whole book. There has to be a fundamental reason why they won’t talk or can’t talk, (they are spies for opposing forces, for example). If they go through a tremendous amount of hell in the book and the solution is, "Oh, well, we’ll just sit down now and talk," then it’s going to feel like I’ve been mislead as to the logic of the problem. [This is one of those issues that could probably have a blog all by itself.]
Does the logic of the story follow the logic of the world the writer has created? This is one of those rules-of-the-world issues. The Bobbie Faye world is filled with bigger-than-life hyperbolic action. Insane stuff, and I set that up right at the top of book one when her trailer floods… and falls on its side like a dying elephant. The story action has promised the reader that in this world, it’s no-holds-barred, but that it makes sense within the world created. If the solution / climax of the story depends on that kind of action, then the logic for that action needs to be built in earlier. If the world is anything different at all from what we see and hear daily, then the writer needs to set up those rules early on and adhere to them at the end. Not only adhere to them, but they need to be important to the resolution.
It’s easy to miss these potential logic/story problems in one’s own writing. It’s very easy to get so absorbed in the details ("one more inch!") that one forgets the overall point (to use the damned table). It’s really easy to have a gun on page 232 when in fact the antagonist had tossed it in the river on page 134, and the writer forgets that in the rough draft. Tracing the route of the solution, though, can help catch these little things. Solving the bigger ones, though, is what makes writing a challenge–and fun.
So what logic errors or concerns have I missed on this list? I know there are more… (or, hey, tell me what dumb thing you’ve done lately)