logic flaws

by Toni McGee Causey

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)


7 thoughts on “logic flaws

  1. Allison Brennan

    Logic! I’ve stopped writing because it doesn’t make sense to me. If I can’t logically buy into a motivation or a storyline, I get stuck.

    I had this problem with the killer’s motivation in PD. In fact, all through the first draft until near the end of the book, I had NO IDEA why he was the killer. It wasn’t until he and the heroine confronted each other that WHAM! it hit me. I went back and added a scene near the beginning so the reader wasn’t surprised.

    One of the hardest things to do when you go back and forth between the protagonist and antagonist is to make sure that the reader doesn’t know more than the protagonist, or that the reader doesn’t learn things passively through the killer’s POV and that the protagonist doesn’t know. (There are exceptions, of course, like in a lot of horror films were we know there’s a killer and the teenagers are all stupid. Or, a better example, when there’s a specific reason to up the tension. In TE I couldn’t realistically hide the killer’s identity, but there was no reason the heroine would know who he is. So I used that tension to build the suspense–the hero knew the heroine was in danger, but the hero was trapped on the other side of an avalanche.)

    In SUDDEN DEATH I had a HUGE logic problem. There was no way I could be in my killer’s POV and not have her think about why she was doing the evil deeds she was doing. But i did it anyway because I was actually scared to go into her killer partner’s POV because he was a true psycho. My editor called me on it, so in revisions I went back and rewrote those scenes from the psycho’s POV. Now that was a scary head to be in! But he wasn’t logical in his thoughts and actions, and I wanted to show how the other killer manipulated him, but through his POV. It was one of those exercises that really stretched me, so I ‘m glad I did it. And when I DID get into the other killer’s POV, it was always specifically to deal with the psycho, so more crisis control.

    Anyway, great blog as usual! I’m having this logic problem right now to make sure my hero and heroine have a logical reason to be working the same case (two different agencies) and not know the other is working on it.

  2. Fran

    I read three novels recently. One was a new author, it’s her first, and she has some logic problems but it IS her first and with time and good editing, I think she’ll be fine.

    Then I moved on to another author, and while the writing is smooth and effortless, at the end, the solution to the mystery was kind of a puzzled “huh?” and it left me feeling cheated. To blame the deaths on a supernatural somebody-else is a whole new level of cheating, and if the supernatural somebody-else didn’t do it, then there’s no resolution. The story just kinda peters out. Bah.

    So I turned to an author who is established, whose work I really adore, figuring it was time to come back to an old friend. Like comfort food.

    Only to discover she’s making a Point in this one that deals wtih hazards to society, and once the Point was made, the book was over. Except she’d started all these threads, and at the end they were resolved with a throw-away line or two. I was wildly disappointed. I expect better from my tried-and-trusty authors, somehow.

    But I think she succumbed to exactly what you’re talking about here, Toni, and while the Point she was making is important, the story was equally important to me, and for her to seemingly “phone in” the ending felt almost like betrayal.

    Silly, isn’t it? I know from her past work that that’s not at all the case. But in this one instance, that’s how I feel.

    So your post is timely and wonderful. Thank you!

  3. j.t. ellison

    I try not to worry about logic too much. I have to have faith that my subconscious is doing things for a reason and go with it. I’ve yet to write a book that I’ve known every A-B-C step. If figure if I don’t know, the reader won’t figure it out.

    But I also write thrillers, and the whole point is that the reader DOES get to know what’s happening. It’s a delicate balance finding the route without blowing the whole story while still giving insights that make sense.

  4. Catherine

    Oh I’m abandoning logic. I hover closer to the dumb things topic. I was just sitting here thinking, I’m sure I can pull out any number of dumb situations I’ve been in, or created in my wake. Funny thing is they’re often transformed into opportunities that take me into directions I would not plan, or just a shift in thinking indicates a newly discovered freedom.

    Latest potential dumb thing was hopping on the train to the city the other day, (1 hour and 20 minutes later[so it’s not quite a stroll home]) wandering around buying books, and lotions, potions and CD’s, lunch et al. Messaged my daughters, found they needed chocolate stat, went over watched old movies for a bit…caught up for a bit too. Then my eldest daughter looked at me and went ‘Hey what train are you taking back’…I said ‘um I think the 7.30pm one.’ She looked at me and rolled her eyes and went ‘I think you may want to check that train actually exists…’

    Not such a silly suggestion, as it happens I’d remembered the time the train arrives at my destination, not the departure. While this could land squarely in the dumb things I’ve done column…

    I instead thought how it’s good that I had a chance for an unplanned dinner in Chinatown taking a later train…that although it was nice that said eldest daughter came along, it would of been fine to do this by myself too. I found out that the late train wasn’t packed full of backpackers(therefore significantly more comfortable)and that now I’ve done a dry run of dining in the city and am still able to get home at a reasonable hour….I may just do it all again in a couple of weeks.

    So on one hand my having no real clue of what was going on, indicated to me that I’ve got a lot more flex in my life right now, and on the other, that within the glitches lies the fun.

  5. Catherine

    Ok just read that back and can see logic, or the lack thereof rearing up…someone outside of my head would not necessarily see the direct link between my not having a real clue in what I’m doing and flexibility…but for me I’ve in the past paradoxically planned holidays with an afternoon set aside for spontaneous things.

    For a lot of years (because of my level of responsibilities), I’ve had to know precisely what was going on…to now just go ‘heh,it will work out,’ is like wandering along a familar hallway and finding a new door tucked in behind the shadows…

  6. toni mcgee causey

    Allison, that’s it–exactly how I work as well. I’ll have epiphanies about the characters and the stories as I go, or at the end, and will realize what I’ll need to do with regard to better set ups or weaving in specific details. Very interesting that your editor called you on that–and I have no doubt you rose to the challenge.

    J.T., maybe your internal logic is just part of your subconscious. Impressive, and I envy that. I discover my subconscious has set up things for me to use all over the place, and that’s a great feeling, to find that surprise that is also logical. I just have to make sure that I’m getting it clear on the page and it’s not just connecting somewhere in my head.

    Fran! thank you, and I’m so glad this was timely for you. It’s funny how we can all get bogged down in the story we think we’re telling vs. the real story we ought to be telling. I keep thinking about how sculptors simply see something in the stone and carve away what’s not supposed to be there. I’m trying to apply that perspective to what I’m writing, keeping the focus on the final goal.

    Catherine, that is so me, we are of a mind. I like to know what’s going on, even when I’ve planned down time. I am currently writing this from a cabin in the middle of the Oklahoma/Arkansas border, and I’m supposed to be having some down time while I edit, and I keep saying, “what are we doing? Are we *doing* something?” to which my husband will say, “relaxing.” “Oh, okay…” then, “how long are we relaxing?” I may get this hang of this spontaneous stuff one day. Maybe.

  7. jenifer

    Great post! I’m one who loves logic (please don’t hate me). I totally will yell at any TV show or movie (not in the theater – just at home, and not if people I don’t know all that well are watching with me) when it just doesn’t make sense. I aced the logic section on the GREs. I don’t say this to brag, but rather to agree with Toni that the abstract knowledge of how logic works doesn’t make it easy to make it work in a story.

    It’s the thing that most gets me stuck. I write, and then think, “Yeah, but so what? Why? And how does that fit with the stuff you wrote last week?” It usually doesn’t, so I pull my hair out, at least figuratively.

    I don’t think it matters what you’re good at (or not) plotting well and consistently is never easy!


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