Mood Killers: Four Book-Throwing Offenses (and How to Avoid Them)
You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there. You’re immersed, in the zone, and totally engaged. You can feel the damp stone, taste the stale air, hear the “drums, drums in the deep” . . . When suddenly, something banana yellow and comically out of place rips you out of the story and ruins it. You grimace, and try to start again, squinting to ignore that one part, struggling to not even think about it. But once there, the insidious mood killer gets under your skin. You keep waiting for it to reappear. It’s like a stain on the whole book.
One of the main mistakes writers make here is assuming a captive audience. But readers aren’t captive—they’re captivated. And that is a state much easier lost than gained. Of course, it’s your book—you can do whatever you want. But think of the characters. And the readers. And the sound your book will make as it smashes against a wall and slides slowly to the floor, never to be picked up again . . .
It is a horrible sound. Trust me, you don’t want to hear it. So, what are these mood killers, and how do you avoid them? Glad you asked! I’ve collected four of my . . . erm, favorites here, along with ways to avoid them. Enjoy! And may your writing ever avoid the walls.
Your Darlings: You Know What to Do
Imagine this: you’re really digging the intensely romantic smolder your date has going on, when you suddenly realize they’re not actually looking at you: they’re checking themselves out in your glasses. Just as you realize this, they start flirting… with themselves. Take it from me: it doesn’t matter how smoking hot their smolder is, once it’s clear the only thing they’re into is themselves, it’s over.
Your darlings? Are the same thing. Allowing your darlings the luxury of life is giving into the temptations of self-infatuation. Sure, when you write for yourself, anything goes. Have at it. Indulge yourself. But when you write for an audience, don’t expose your darlings. Overworked turns of phrase, anachronistic or ill-timed witticisms, and out-of-character indulgences are the most common darlings. But the greatest offender by far is when a writer--having spent countless hours creating a believable world brimming with life--feels the need to describe every leaf of every plant the hero passes, as well as what that leaf’s history is, what it can be used for, and what it symbolizes in the various cultures of the world.
What to Do: Darlings are insidious because, while it’s dead easy to see other people’s darlings, it’s ridiculously hard to see your own. So get yourself some feedback! And don’t forget to ask specifically if there’s anything that dragged or felt out of place. Readers are far more willing to tell you these things than telling you what they simply “didn’t like,” and inviting this commentary specifically makes it more likely that you’ll get useful feedback. And if you hear something didn’t work for them and your immediate reaction is defensive? Then congratulations, you’ve found one of your darlings! You know what to do.*
*Of course, you don’t have to kill it—you can also work with the reader to find a way to make it work for you both. But don’t take killing it off the table until you’re sure you’ve accomplished that.
The Stupid Gas: Don’t Use It
We’ve all had that moment—we’re digging the plot, the atmosphere is right on, and the villain is deliciously threatening—when the characters, for some godforsaken reason, decide it’s a good idea to split up and “cover more ground” despite it being the downfall of every hero in every horror movie ever. Not to mention cliché. For the longest time, I just couldn’t figure it out! And then, a recent (brilliant) movie explained it: it’s the Stupid Gas.
Authors: don’t use the Stupid Gas. It kills the mood every time. If you need your characters to do something against all the good sense you gave them, don’t just make them do it: give them a good reason. Otherwise they’re not characters, they’re puppets.
What to Do: I feel for you. I really do. Your plot hinges on characters doing this one thing—and you’ve already reworked the plot a hundred times, and at this point, you just want it to work, characters be damned. But giving your characters hell in the name of motivation is a crucial part of a good book—and can even be a great deal of fun, in a maniacal villain kind of way. One of the easiest ways is to make it personal. Perhaps they even know what they’re doing is a bad idea, but they have to do it, because otherwise Fluffy will be made into pancakes. Or perhaps they have a hidden agenda that they think they can advance. Or maybe it preys on the character’s weakness: he knows it’s questionable, but he genuinely thinks it’s the lesser of two evils.
Soap Boxes: Better for Holding Soap
Oh, man. You know what would really dial this scene up to 11? Picture this: a lecture! Now that we’ve put the characters in an emotionally taut situation with the world hanging in the balance, let’s stop everything, put the apocalypse on hold, and have the hero tell everyone the moral of the story and how the reader should apply it to their own life. Oh, also, repercussions for not doing so. That would be killer. Am I right? Totally sexified.
It’s great to be passionate and idealistic, but no matter how you tart them up, soap boxes aren’t sexy. And, with the possible exception of Ayn Rand’s 60-page essay in Atlas Shrugged (which gets quite a few people hot under the collar) lectures aren’t sexy either. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your work to champion stories that embrace your ideals: you totally can! Margaret Atwood does so beautifully in The Handmaid’s Tale. But primary goal of your story should still be to tell a damn good story—not to browbeat your reader.
What to Do: Show don’t tell. And of course by “show” I mean “show with finesse.” Killing the woman who has premarital sex first is still a trifle heavy-handed.
Cardboard: It’s Not For Kissing
There you are, in a vivid world as gritty or as lush as you might desire. The hero is the engaging kind you really want to meet, and secretly hope would like you. Things are getting tense, and you’re really getting into it, when suddenly, into the picture tumbles: a Slave Leia cardboard cutout. That in itself is kind of a mood killer. But then, to make matters worse, your otherwise logical hero sweeps this cardboard cutout into his arms, rescues it from the destructive powers of villains and the rain, and gazes longingly into its flat, emotionless eyes. You don’t even want to know what happens next.
And I mean, I get it: stereotypes are comfortable. Easy. As characters, they fit into plots in predictable ways. But not only do stereotypes alienate large portions of your audience, they also add a stiff unrealistic element to an otherwise groovy story. Suddenly, instead of a love story between two realistic characters with dreams and scars and stories of their own, you have one character getting it on with some cardboard. Not sexy.
What to Do: Making every character is multidimensional is hard. Realistically, some characters really are there only for a plot purpose, and have very little word count to their name--if they even get a name. Still, even if you don’t have time to give them depth, resist the temptation to give in wholly to the stereotype, and give them some color. It will do wonders for the believability and richness of your world.
So there you have it! Four things to avoid amongst the millions of possibilities that will help keep your book from being thrown unceremoniously against a wall. May gravity be ever in your favor.