Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to Question Your Story’s Logic, a guest post from Alyssa Hollingsworth

Jill here. Today's guest post comes from Alyssa Hollingsworth. This is such a great topic, and I really think you'll enjoy how it is presented. Please welcome, Alyssa!

Alyssa was born in small-town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and she’s always waiting for the wind to change. Stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her BA in English from Berry College and her MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She is represented by the fabulous Amber Caraveo at Skylark Literary. Follow her adventures on her blog, on twitter, or join in yourself at WriteOnCon--an online kidlit writing conference!

I started writing down my stories when I turned twelve, and throughout my teen years I became thoroughly obsessed.

But one tiny, slightly important point has always been a struggle to me: Logic.

It isn’t just in my stories, either. Famously, as a small child just learning to swim I decided to see if I could jump through my circular floatie… in the deep end. Yeah, that went well.

Logic is like acting: Easy to notice when someone else is doing it wrong, but hard to evaluate on your own.

So, how can you check the logic in your story and make sure it’s working well?

Explore

When your character comes to a crossroads or an important decision, take a second to really think about the options. How would you react in their shoes? How would a friend or family member react differently? Which reaction is most true to this character?

Some writers (like Marissa Meyer) will actually map out the different options before deciding on a route. While you don’t have to go that in-depth if you don’t want to, you should take a moment to really settle into the tension and think through what should come next.

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote when I was younger (with corrected grammar, etc):
“Mommy, may I take care of Thunder [colt]?” Tom asked.
“No, Christy [mom horse] can take care of Thunder just fine,” Mom said.
Quickly Tom told of Christy's death. “So can I take care of Thunder? Please!”
“I suppose.”

As you can see, this situation is resolved far too quickly and doesn’t quite feel right. It’s not logical. But I can explore this scene by asking my characters some questions, like:

Questions Tom’s mom might want to consider:
     Why doesn’t Mom already know about Christy’s death?
     Whose horses are these? Do they belong to Tom’s family or someone else?
     Can an eight-year-old boy take care of a newborn colt by himself?
     How is Tom going to get schoolwork done?
     Who is going to teach Tom how to take care of the colt?

Research

The best way to make sure your story’s logic makes sense is to spend time learning how people work.

     Read. A lot. And not just in one genre. Try to expound into non-fiction books about historical figures. (They aren’t all dull!)
     Journal. Keep a journal for your own thoughts and feelings. Use it to process what’s happening in your own life. Not only will this help you understand yourself better, you can also refer to your notes for ideas.
     Spend time with people. I know we writers tend to be introverts, but spending time with actual alive human beings is important.
     Eavesdrop and take notes. Carry a little journal with you and take notes on interesting interactions you overhear. Go people-watching frequently and make up stories for the people you see.

Here is another example from a story I wrote as a child in which I could have benefited from doing some research:
After he told [the policeman] he had no license and had killed the buck with a spear, the man clamped metal around his wrists and made him get into the car.
[A bit later, after Arthur challenges the policeman to a duel]
“Hey, okay, you’re free to go,” Josh said, edging around Arthur and making a dash for the car.

You would think that as a teen I would have known you can’t get out of an arrest by challenging a police officer to a duel. Apparently, common sense was not my strongest attribute. I should have done some research on hunting laws and what can happen to a person caught breaking them.




Share

No matter how much you study and teach yourself, you will always have blind spots when it comes to your writing. By reaching out to others, you can minimize problems and maximize awesomeness in your story.

     Find writing partners. These can be friends online or in person. Swap stories with them and ask them to look for logical problems. Bonus points if you get some partners who are different from you (younger, older, diverse, math-brained...).
     If appropriate, put (some of it) online. While publishing original fiction on Wattpad or Figment might not be the best plan for long term publication prospects, it can be a great way to get feedback from others around the web. Be open to critique (ask for it!), especially when a plot hole or logic error crops up.
     Write fanfiction. Fanfiction is great because it gives you all the practice for writing fabulous stories, but you don’t have to worry so much about being a Very Serious, Very Secretive Author. It can be a great option as you stretch your logic skills.
     Seek out literal thinkers. For me, it’s my military dad, Spock-like brother, and hypercritical sister. For you, it might be friends who don’t write but love to analyze stories.

Here is something I wrote when I was younger and shared with some readers:

“Another morning,” Cedrin said to himself as he pulled on his tunic. “Another day filled with reading and—oh joy—flower exploration.”

The Literal Thinkers I found to read this story were quick to point out that having my hero study flowers out of sheer boredom was:
     Boring
     Pointless
     Boring

Space

Finally, the best way to become aware of logical problems in your writing is to step away from the story. Take a month off (or six, or twelve) and work on another project. Do everything you can to not even think about that story, so you’ll forget the little details.

Return with fresh eyes and read the book like it isn’t your own. You’ll be surprised when what seemed to make perfect sense the first time around now seems entirely impractical, like in the following example.

Robert (teen): By—by the way, I sort of—crashed an airplane in your barn. My co-pilot got shot by the woman with us, then she shot herself. I'm not good at landing.
Benjamin (an adult): I hope it was not the barn where my animals are kept.

Now that I’ve had some time away from that story, I can clearly see these other responses that might have made more sense:
     WHAT THE HECK?
     ARE YOU KIDS OKAY?
     THAT IS TERRIBLE!


Have you ever caught a logical error in your story? How did you spot it, and how did you change it? Leave a comment below!

16 comments:

  1. This happened in stories when I was younger. Adults would agree to children's plans waaaay too fast, and when I was rewriting the story, my mother made note of that to me.

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  2. This is a great post, Alyssa! I definitely have this problem on occasion, and, for me, stepping away for several months is one of the best things I can do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Glad it was helpful! I agree that space is normally the best way to spot the problem areas... I just know I, for one, can sometimes be too impatient to wait!

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  3. Great post! I can relate to the solving problems to quickly. When I went back and read my book(after about 6 months of space), I saw how terrible the logic was, and it was way too rushed. Sometimes when I look back I can just laugh about it.

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    1. I like to look back and laugh, too! It was actually kind of fun to go digging for these examples. And even though it's obviously inconvenient to find a logic gap, it's also strangely rewarding to catch and fix that sort of problem.

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  4. The "Literal Thinkers" part made me laugh :-) Although, I supppose sometimes you have to ignore what they say if it's not an actual point of logic--if it's something more emotional, and they just aren't "getting it" because emotion is not really their thing . . .

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    1. Too true! Once I asked a Literal Thinker to help me stage a sword fight. He spent about 80% of the time talking about the kind of sword it was. Helpful, yes! The point of the scene, nope.

      You're completely right. Knowing when to take and leave parts of advice is definitely a skill that writers have to learn.

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  5. I catch most errors when I read my book aloud to someone. For some reason, everything sounds different then.

    Thanks for guest-posting, Alyssa!

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    1. That's another great method! When I'm editing, I actually will convert the text so that a robot reads it to me and I'll listen to it like an audiobook. Sometimes it doesn't help me for logic-specific problems because I get distracted by everything else going on (read: typos), but sometimes it can make all the difference.

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  6. First of all, Alyssa, you are positively hilarious. What a fun and valuable read! Because I started writing at a young age (I am fifteen and have been writing for as long as I can remember), I have definitely experienced flaws in story logic. Now that I am older and have studied different genres in different types of media (as you mentioned), logic isn't hard for me. That is probably also because of my personality and interest in understanding the mental processes and motivations that result in emotions and other reactions. Maybe I can help my writing friends recognize illogic in their stories. Thank you for sharing, Alyssa! And again, your approach to this topic was hilarious.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Definitely use your logic powers to help out writer friends--speaking as someone who's never quite reached Full Logic Mode, I know that sort of input is valuable. :D

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  7. This was a fabulous post, and I loved the examples!

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    1. *takes a bow* Glad you enjoyed my examples! I enjoyed finding them. ;)

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  8. Thanks so much for joining us, Alyssa! Great advice!

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  9. This was a great post! Fortunately for me, logic has never been an issue in my writing. At least, not since I was eleven and that was eight years ago. I think its because I myself am a literal thinker as you so eloquently put it. That's probably why I tend to falter with emotional moments in my stories. I'm not the "why me? poor me?" type, instead I'm the "it happened, now how can I solve it?" type.

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