Saturday, May 17, 2014

The fate of the universe now rests in the hands of an ill-advised, unprepared hero who didn't want to be here in the first place. How's that working for you?

Neither one of these people is Andrew Leon.
Andrew Leon, contributor here and author extraordinaire, posted a review of A Wrinkle In Time on his blog the other day that really got me thinking.  While the entire review is worth reading (there'll be a link at the end) here is the part that worked on me:

Another thing I have really come to dislike: the giving of "gifts" that will help the heroes but not telling them how to use those gifts. How dumb is that?
"Here's a red button. Only push it if you really need to."
"What does it do?"
"I can't tell you that."
"How will I know when to use it?"
"I can't tell you that."
So Meg's usage of the spectacles that were given to her were less used as a "last resort" than as a "well, I can't think of anything else to try."
As a plot device, this ploy is rather lame.

Here is the comment I left on his blog, which I am reprinting here because I think both that commentary and the response deserve wider dissemination than it might otherwise get:


I read this last night and then had to do other things before I could comment, so I have had a night to think about it. Don't think that will make my comment any more intelligent.

I have been thinking about re-reading this story, too, recently, because I only vaguely remember it and wanted to see if it was as good as I recall. Now your review suggests that it may not be. Some of that is because as we get more sophisticated we need better stories: what appealed at 11 doesn't at 45. Some of it is that in retrospect, you can question a lot of what you question here. My rule on such questions is if you noticed them the first time you read the book/watched the movie/etc., they are big problems that pull you out of the story. If you only noticed it in retrospect it's not such a big problem. The "Looper" thing is a good example: that question of why the mob would ONLY use the time travel device for that purpose occurred to me the moment I heard the plot, and so it's a big problem.

So some of what you say is a big problem, some a little problem, because of course you read this again, so you have the ability to reflect instead of being carried along on the story.

But the biggest problem you identify is one I hadn't ever really thought of before, and that's the plot device of "I can give you this but not tell you how to use it." Until I read that, I had never even THOUGHT about such a plot device, but of course you're right: it's through EVERYTHING in speculative fiction. And it DOESN'T make any sense. 

It's one thing if the failure to give information is accidental (Wizard dies before explaining the magic scroll) or because the person can't handle the information yet (In Robert Asprin's MYTH books, Skeeve is a novice magician who learns as he goes) but the problems you identify are pretty huge, and hadn't been brought up earlier. Definitely worth a longer post.


So if you use this trope, DON'T.  Andrew is right: it's supposed to create suspense, but it's creating suspense in a stupid, unorganic way.  Any real group of heroes/adventurers, etc., would of course make sure everyone knows how to use everything as much as possible.  If you're not going to give your characters information about something important, have the reason be one that works in the story, rather than simply being a cheap plot device.

Read Andrew's original post here.  Seriously. Do it. It'll take you like five minutes and it's worth it.


Speaking of cheap plot devices, Saoirse's life didn't begin until it ended, at which point she died and went to 'the After', where William Howard Taft tells her exactly how things work.  Read the After, available on Amazon by clicking here.

Andrew himself would never resort to such tricks.  Not even in real life, like when he decided to teach a rude 'friend' of his a lesson via The Magic Cookies, a hilarious story that is available on Amazon by clicking here.



COMING ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, it's the first-ever anthology of stories by indie writers to bear the INDIE WRITERS MONTHLY stamp of approval*, and we want YOU to be a part of it.

The anthology is going to be a collection of stories about Time Travel, and here is HOW YOU CAN GET IN ON THIS:

A. Have a story about time travel, or write one.
2.  Submit that story to us, by June 15, 2014.  (send submissions to litaplaceforstories[at]** and label them "IWM TIME TRAVEL ANNUAL" or something like that.)
THIS IS IMPORTANT: paste the story directly into the of the email.  

III. Make sure you have the rights to the stories and it'd be nice if it hadn't been published somewhere else.  

Word limits? Who do you think you're talking to, here? Because there'll only be a few weeks to read them, shoot for somewhere between 1 and 1,000 words, but if you go longer, by all means, go longer.

Still reading?  Good.  Here is WHY you want to get in on this!

8(a)2.: The stories we like the best will get put into the anthology and you'll be a published writer! 

C: There are prizes! Specifically, the story picked as best by the IWM gang will win a $15 Amazon Gift Card and the Runner Up will get a $10 Amazon Gift Card.

So there you have it!  I look forward to getting those stories.


  1. I'm going to guess that it's a device most frequently used in children's fantasy stories, which Wrinkle is despite its disguise as a sci-fi work. (It also has going for it the whole "science is magic" thing.) I think the whole thing must work for kids because that's how life must feel to them a lot: "Here's this thing, but I'm not going to explain it to you." "Just do what I say, don't ask me why." All of that stuff. So the idea of "here, you figure it out" must resonate on some level.

    It was actually serendipitous that I read the book after scheduling my "why?" post, because the two things fit together.

  2. Have already read the (excellent) review and commented at Andrew's place.
    I do agree that this particular point needs more discussion. You do make a case for it working for kids, because truly, life does seem that way a lot. We don't know everything that's going on and adults are always trying to "protect us" from stuff we "don't need to know right now." However, if you're in a grand adventure, a little, "Use these glasses if..." does make sense to me.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  3. That seems like the Adam and eve story where god says not to eat the apples but doesn't really say why.

  4. Well, I don't know. He said it would kill them if they ate it, which is a pretty good reason, if you ask me.

    1. That begs the question of why put something in the garden that could kill the occupants?

    2. It wasn't an immediate death.
      And it was, theoretically, an obedience test.

  5. If a character finds a magical object and has to figure out how it works, that's one thing, but I agree that this instance doesn't make sense. We expect things to come with instructions in this world. Maybe the fantasy world needs more technical writers. There's a story idea for you....

  6. LOL
    All I know is that I wouldn't hand my kid, any kid, some -thing- and tell him/her to figure out when and how to use it. Especially if it was a one use item like the spectacles. Of course, Meg didn't even know that.

  7. Sandra your idea about tech writers for fantasy gear is brilliant. I'm going to steal it. You have to call "dibs" on ideas around here.

    I think Andrew and/or Tina is right that it reads okay to kids because their world does seem arbitrary.

  8. Love the "more technical writers" idea! Briane may have called dibs, but he didn't copyright it yet, so you still have a chance.
    Briane - I bet my favorite UFO maker also had to write the manuals. Perhaps that's why he was not so happy about his job.
    People: You gotta read "Santa, Godzilla, and Jesus Walk into a Bar" by Briane. I have a review up on Amazon (as does Andrew). Do it!
    Tina @ Life is Good
    On the Open Road! @ Join us for the 4th Annual Post-Challenge Road Trip!

  9. That's what I get for even mentioning the idea instead of keeping it locked away inside my own skull. Well, he can't copyright an idea, only an expression of the idea. I bet we would take this story idea in completely different directions.