Thursday, August 19, 2010

Crutches Are not a Good Thing

In fourth grade I snapped my leg in half. It was about as pleasant as it sounds. (Also, loud.) As a result I had to use crutches for two months. All of the other kids were jealous because, come on, crutches? So cool!

Or not so much. Your arms get sore, and your ribs chafe. You inevitably trip on stairs, and just try carrying something from place to place. (On the bright side, they did get me out of cleaning the kitchen on the chores rotation--a fact my sisters were not pleased with.) The whole point of crutches is that they enable you to get from place to place, but they're utterly lacking in convenience, they hurt, and grace? Forget about it. You're going to be clunky.

Crutches in writing are just as bad. I've noticed in my genre particularly--but really in any high concept book--that the dependence on the hook can be so strong you lose other essential elements.

(You know what I mean by high concept, right? It's that BIG hook that shows up in a lot of books. A sixteen-year-old girl works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency. A teenage girl is forced to fight other teens to the death on national television. A girl falls into other people's dreams. A normal girl falls in love with a vampire/fallen angel/werewolf/faerie.)

I'll be the first to admit that having a big hook makes plotting easier. It adds instant drama, makes for engaging twists, etc. The story itself becomes larger than life. Which is why it is so important--absolutely vital--that you don't let the hook take over and use it as a crutch. Your hook should never, ever take the place of well-rounded and fully-developed characters. It should never take the place of tight plotting and engaging writing.

Take Hunger Games as an example. It's not an original hook--the idea of people hunting each other or even kids having to fight to the death has been done before--but where Collins knocks it out of the park is in execution. The world building is immaculate and the characterizations are fully realized. I don't want to be Katniss's best friend (since, uh, friends of hers have a tendency to die incredibly brutal deaths), but I feel like I know her. I don't agree with all of her choices, but I know why she makes them. She's a person, not just a vehicle for the Big Plot. Panem and the way it works isn't just a hastily-constructed background, it's an active and integral part of the story. The romance doesn't happen because the plot calls for it and so it must happen, it happens as a natural extension of who Katniss is and what she's put through.

That is why, I think, Hunger Games has done so well. Is it high concept? Absolutely! But the characterizations, the plotting, the setting, the writing--these are what stick with you. High concept novels are a dime a dozen, but it's only those that avoid using the hook as a crutch that make an impact.

The books that are the most disappointing to me are those that use their hook in place of character development. The main characters never become people--they're there just to serve the purposes of the hook, to act out their parts of the manufactured drama. I never connect, and no matter how cool or interesting the hook is, nothing stays with me after I close the pages.

So, let's remember: crutches are not cool. They're a pain, and they're awkward, and no one walks away from their time with crutches with any fond memories. I would say the higher the concept or the cooler the hook, the more imperative it becomes for all the other elements to be that much better. Don't expect to slide by on concept alone, or you may find yourself tripping on the stairs.

And I'll have absolutely no pity for your chafed ribs.

(Speaking of books with high concepts, the first seventy pages of Paranormalcy are available right now--for free! No pressure on me, after writing this post . . . heh . . . hmmm.)

29 comments:

Kristan said...

Great post, you're right on about both literal and metaphorical crutches. (My mom had them once and I tried them out b/c I thought it would be fun. Um, NOT!)

I read the first 70 pages of Para yesterday and can't wait to read the rest!! To be honest, I'm not a fan of Reth right now... but I'm curious to see how things with him play out. :)

Natalie Whipple said...

Um, yeah. I'm not scared at all after this post. *tosses crutches away* *hops on one foot, searching for a place to hide*

Maggie Desmond-O'Brien said...

AGREED about the crutches. Good concepts are important, but execution is definitely what makes the book - there are no original stories! =) And woot, Hunger Games REPRESENT! Who's excited for the 24th?

Penelope said...

Paranormalcy isn't the type of book I'd typically read, but I'm so impressed with what I've read so far! I'm excited to read the rest!

Kathryn said...

What was that? You broke your ankle? Sorry, I was busy reading something else.

Marsha Sigman said...

Ok, followed link. Read first 70 pages. Now I want to cry because it's so good. Why must you tease???? I have to wait 11 days to read the rest. That was just cruel.

I am a really harsh critic so believe me when I say it's good. Really good. I know you were just waiting for my opinion.lol

Lisa said...

Great post, Kiersten. This is so important and something I've struggled with myself. I admit it. I've made mistakes and I'm totally paying for it. I'm guilty. I'm all like, "I've got a cool idea! And sort of let characters -- particularly secondary characters -- fall to the wayside. This is such a great post. Can't wait for your book. I've got it on pre-order. =)

Jessie Oliveros said...

I agree with your analysis of Hunger Games. I read the Amazon reviews, and I hated the complaint that "Yawn, it's been done before." So what!! What she has done with it has NOT been done before. Great analogy.

(My only complaint with your release date is that it is AFTER Mockingjay releases, and I've ordered them together. Not only do I have to wait to read Mockingjay, but I must choose which to read first.)

Alexa O said...

Yes! I agree completely. I love high-concept novels, and I think it's obvious why they are popular. But certainly, nothing should ever, ever eclipse the story telling.

The story isn't found in the hook. That's just the premise. The story is found in the relationships and the actions of the characters.

Can't wait to read the book!

Dara said...

I tend to write more low-concept things, which has pitfalls of its own.

Anyway, I read those first 70 pages and wow! Cannot wait for it the rest. :)

Elizabeth Poole said...

Ooooooh good point! This is a wonderful post, and point writers tend to forget. The high concept gets a lot of attention, and is frequently the reason why we're so excited about the book in the first place (or the plot of the book, to be more accurate), but at the end of the day, the characters have to be just as good, if not better, than the high concept. Same goes for the setting and plot events.

Books with high concepts but nothing else are like a guy with a really cute face, but has no personality, or is an arrogant jerk, or who is clueless...you need to have the entire package. :D

Bahnree said...

Great post! :D
And just so you know I read the preview chapters yesterday....I wasn't sure what to expect, since I love your blog but wasn't sure if I would like your book. I LOVED the preview chapters! I laughed out loud several times, thought the characters were VERY interesting, and loved Evie's point of view on paranormals. I finally preordered the book and can't WAIT to get it! And I will make sure to gush to my friends. ;)

Bárbara said...

I was up until 3 AM last night reading those first pages of Paranormalcy after seeing your tweet. So any yawning on my part today is all your fault! And I may or may not really like you for that. :)

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

So true! It's so easy for these high concept books to become gimmicky. It's the characters and the voice and the world that take them from meh to AWESOME.

PS: I'm FINALLY starting Paranormalcy tonight. Can't wait!

Lisa Gail Green said...

OMG YES!!! "Take Hunger Games as an example. It's not an original hook--the idea of people hunting each other or even kids having to fight to the death has been done before--but where Collins knocks it out of the park is in execution." Excellent example!

Sandy Williams said...

Hi Kiersten! I'm a relatively new follower of your blog. *waves*

Just wanted to say this is a great post! How'd you get to be so smart? (cue: jealousy) Also wanted to say thanks for mentioning high concept. I'm brainstorming a sequel to my UF right now and the whole high concept think totally slipped my mind. (Yes, I can be very dense sometimes.) I know my characters extremely well and some of what happens in the sequel, but I don't have that tight, one to two sentence hook that will, uh, hook readers.

Gonna work on that now!

Kiersten White said...

Aww, thanks guys. Really, I can't tell you how much it means to me that you like what you've read so far! It gives me that happy, butterfly-feeling every single time.

Sandy--Brain transplant. Not gonna say whose brain I took, but trust me when I say it was worth the accompanying migraines, hallucinatory flashbacks, and occasional lapses into Russian.

Zachary Grimm said...

Great post, Kiersten! I feel ashamed that I didn't know you changed your blog layout. BUT I LOVE IT! I think I was perhaps focused so much on Paranormalcy's release that I did not notice.

Anyway, it's preeetty. haha. :)

Debra L. Schubert said...

Love your new blog look, and what a poignant post. My YA novel is high concept. I'm working hard to raise the plotting and character development up to the level of the "idea".

Excuse me now, while I dive into PARANORMALCY!!!

ali said...

You know, I can honestly say this was totally new to me! I mean, I've sort of thought about this, but not in so many words and those words really helped me identify the concept. Thanks!

Liz said...

Wahoo! Thanks for giving me something to do at work today! Except now that I've read the first 70 pages, I want to read the rest. Grrr...I don't like waiting. :)

p.s. I saw the blurb from Aprilynne Pike and immediately thought, "Oh, no! Now I know how the love triangle works out." I could be wrong, though...

Julie said...

Thanks for the post. Great things to think about while writing.

And I'm going to practice restraint (I even have rules that dictate the frequency of Dairy Queen visits) and not read Paranormalcy yet... I want the pages something bad, but I want them all. :)

Gretchen said...

Love the idea! And it is so true without character development and good writing books kind of disappoint you. I feel the same way when I see a movie that is high concept and just sort of fails. I feel even worse because it had everything and just sort of went the lazy route.

Claire Dawn said...

As a fellow analogista (don't you just love my new word?), I love this!!!

Whirlochre said...

People tend to forget about the characters, it's true.

No chance of that with Evie: she's hot.

As for the 70-page tease — you know that feeling you get when you put on half a pair of trousers...?

Tere Kirkland said...

In my experience, crutches = sciatica

Ouch. I've read plenty of so-called "high-concept" books that were almost as painful as sciatica, though.

Just read the first fifty or so pages of Paranormalcy on Harper-teen, and I love it as much as I thought I would. Can't wait til it's released!

Inner Moppet said...

Loved the first 70 pages! I teach in a girls' school and sent the link to my Year 9 English class at the start of the period. Cue blissful silence! We are all excited to get the book and I hope the New Zealand release date really is September 1st (25 girls in powder blue kilts might not SOUND scary, but you don't want to be there when they get testy...)!

Congratulations!

Kari (Flamingo1325) said...

So... after reading this post... tell me again why you insist on not having good writing advice and will route people elsewhere? See, this is why I like you... you the most obvious things in a non-condescending, understandable, and, uh, obvious way... and remind people of the little things. Your point is also proven that it took no thought to know which book each of those big hook descriptions belonged to, and how I felt on everything else with it. Basically... thanks for the reminder that it's more than the hook... but for the record, I think you kinda nailed all that stuff with your book...

Seabrooke said...

First, on the blog post itself, I wonder how much of lack of character in books/movies is the writer being completely focused on the high concept and totally forgetting to develop the characters, and how much of it is simply that the writer isn't very good at character development, even if it does cross their mind? As I've been working on my WIP I've worried I might fall into the latter camp... creative-types like writers and artists are usually the poorest judges of their own work (you're so invested in it and so close to it it's hard to look at it objectively with an outsider's point of view; not to mention we tend to be extremely modest and often cynical about our own talent). I guess I'll see when I send the draft off to my beta-tester...

And second, I popped over to check out Paranormalcy, even though I've been only so-so on the paranormal genre, and got so caught up in it today I had trouble getting on with my other work. The pacing was great and the characters and premise interesting. I'll be looking forward to reading the rest once it's released! Tell your publisher that this is a great idea - it's like giving someone a half dozen potato chips and then saying they can have the rest if they buy the bag. Easy enough to resist if you haven't had any, but once you're hooked, who wouldn't buy the bag? :)