By David Flin
Believe it or not, sometimes a writer can get things wrong, be it in plotting or character development or something in the setting. For example, Season 8 of Game of Thrones came in for some criticism for being less than perfectly thought-through. There are many other examples, often when nearing the end of a book or series.
Sometimes it is because the author is relaxing because the end is in sight, and pays a bit less attention to detail than they had been. Sometimes it is because the author is up against deadline pressure or space pressure. Sometimes it is because the author has lost interest in the project, having finished it in their own mind, and is mentally working on their next project.
It doesn’t matter how it arises, the important question is how one can recover from such a mistake.
If it is a finished product, presented to the public, then there is no going back. The creature has been released into the wild, to prosper or not on its own merits. That’s why it is a good idea to have someone else read the piece before it is released into the wild. It’s best if that someone is prepared to be critical, and not simply give unconsidered praise.
You may decide that the criticism has a point, or that it doesn’t, but you need to consider it.
The more interesting situation is the serial. Here, the author can get feedback on a piece as it is in progress. I have to declare an interest here. I write a lot of my stories as chapters on the SLP forum (or elsewhere), and take account of the feedback. This can take the form of pointing out where I haven’t convinced; where a description is too brief, too sketchy, or too long; where there are contradictions with what has gone before.
Sometimes correcting is easy, just a matter of making a name consistent, or checking up on when a technological development took place. Sometimes it is harder, because what is seen as a flaw by the readers is an integral part of the story. This is when you need to consider very carefully whether there is a need for a major rethink.
Perhaps an example is in order. In a story I wrote on the forum, I had some of the characters go off on a side-journey. It was intended as a minor diversion to introduce a new character, develop one set of tensions, and start to resolve a plot point. It didn’t work. It grew to something that was more than a minor diversion, some of the characters on the diversion slipped out of character, the new character didn’t gel, and the story drifted away from the logic of the theme. I recognised this at about the same point that the readers started to give me the appropriate feedback.
Adapting to get things back on track wasn’t going to be easy, and if this instance, I took the option of scrubbing the diversion.
That’s all very well when that option is available. When you’re publishing a serial, and you’ve made a misstep, and you’ve got the option of changing course, that’s when ingenuity comes into play. Anyone who has told continuing bed-time stories to young children will have a pretty good idea how to do this. You can’t unsay what has been said, but you can make it seem like it was all part of a bigger plan.
Take the example I quoted, of the mistaken side-trip. Once it becomes apparent that it is an error, then there are two options available. To mix metaphors, you either fold, or double-down. Folding involves getting the story back on the original path as quickly as possible, and minimising the damage of the mistake. Here, I would have brought them back as quickly as possible. Most of the characterisation shifts could be brought back into line, and explained as being a “holiday effect”; people often behave differently when they are away on holiday than they do normally, and a similar thing could apply here. The different tone can be used to advantage by having the abrupt withdrawal be an indication of setting up a spin-off series. New characters from the location have been introduced, with possible problems to deal with, and what you’ve done is set up a spin-off.
Basically, you minimise the harm, and isolate the issue as best you can.
Doubling-down is where you set out to shift the tone of the story entirely. In the case I’ve described, that would involve extending the diversion, and making it pretty much the centre-piece of the story. The previous events are treated as the build-up to this.
It doesn’t need to be said that this is a dangerous strategy. The readers have indicated that they have doubts about what you’re doing, and you’re risking alienating them. Nonetheless, if you can make it work, it can work spectacularly well. You need to link in the previous developments, and make it look like you had this great shift planned all along. It’s a dangerous tactic; the development was one that hadn’t been working. Continuing with it may very well lead to the situation getting worse. But then, doubling-down is a high-risk strategy in Blackjack.
It’s easier to double-down when the problem is only with a part of the story. For example, if you start writing a character in a way that the readers don’t like, then the first thing you need to do is see whether or not they have a point. It’s possible that you’re actually achieving exactly the effect that you set out to do. Sometimes you start with a character, and present a fairly superficial view of them. As you reveal extra layers, some readers might be disturbed at the direction the character takes. I’ve used that to unsettle readers, and get them emotionally invested in the story. It works best with a character set up to be the antagonist. You start with an apparently straight-forward character, set in a certain context. Then you put the character into opposition against the central character, or possibly alongside them. Then you slowly reveal negative elements about the character, and the readers start to get strong feelings. An example of this is the character Lieutenant Furley-Smith, in Bring Me My Bow.
A generally successful way of dealing with a comment about an apparent inconsistency in characterisation is the enigmatic smile. “That’s an interesting observation. I wonder why that change has happened?” Of course, once you’ve done that, you’ve got to come up with a brilliant explanation, but that can lead into all sorts of interesting possibilities for the story.
Of course, it’s important not to let the readers know that’s what you’re doing. Like Henry V at Harfleur, you need to imitate the action of the swan, and be all calm serenity on the surface, while paddling furiously under the water. Keep the rethinking and the panic and the anxious redrafting of future episodes hidden, and no-one will know any different. Just keep it to yourself, and no-one will know any different.
Obviously, I never do that. Yes, I think that will fool them.
Of course, all of these only apply to a situation where you are getting feedback on a story while it is in progress. There are several such stories in the Writers’ Forum here, where authors are developing stories. It’s interesting seeing stories develop in the telling, and very instructive for those wishing to learn.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow