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You know those moments in TV shows or movies where you find yourself saying to friends, “I totally called that,” or “Finally! I could see that coming a mile away!" It can be so aggravating – not only are we no longer entertained (because we already know what happens), we also get pulled out of the story itself and wind up disappointed and let down.
The scary thing is it can happen with writing too. And, though it might seem painfully obvious while reading other people’s work, it can be downright tricky to find in our own.
Here are a few tips on spotting (and fixing) common “Captain Obvious” trouble areas.
1. The “Trying Too Hard”
Authors do this when they have a REALLY BIG SECRET to hide from the reader. The problem is they tend to have lots of characters hinting at something mysterious in ways that aren’t actually subtle at all – questions that people refuse to answer, dialogue that amounts to “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” or “You just wait…something big is coming.”
It’s like flashing a neon light at your plot twist. While trying so hard to disguise a big reveal, you can end up taking all the fun and mystery out of it. Plus, this approach comes across as unrealistic and heavy-handed. Think of it this way: if James Bond walks into a hotel, he doesn’t pat his black briefcase three times and tell the front desk, “I’m here on very important business. You might want to clear the entire floor next to my room because some pretty serious stuff tends to go down around me.”
The Fix: When people have something to hide, they work hard to hide it. That often means lying. Instead of having characters refuse to answer questions, let them answer…with something that points in a completely different direction than your reveal. When other characters are sniffing too close, use dialogue to evade or ask counter-questions.
2. The “Crystal Clear Killer”
Ever read a murder-mystery, only to throw it across the room because the killer was obvious from page one? Don’t let that happen with yours!
The Fix: The key here is often in building up the backstories and motivations for your cast of characters. Everyone should have some combination of motive, means or opportunity. It keeps the reader guessing. I know a lot of mystery writers who claim they didn’t know who the killer was until they wrote the ending. Put on your detective hat and think, “If I had to make it look like Character A did this, how would I do it?” Then, go down the line with all your characters. The same thing works for a guilty party who’s not technically a killer – could be a thief, a two-timer, etc.
3. The “Predictable Escape / Romance / Fill-in-the-blank”
If two characters are being chased through a river warehouse district and they reach a dead-end with a balcony, what do they do next? We all know the answer. They jump into the water. We see variations of this all the time in movies, TV and books. You can maybe get away with it once or twice, but it gets old (and predictable) fast!
The Fix: First, keep the tension high. A fast pace keeps readers from focusing too hard on what’s coming next, so even if the water escape is predictable, it still feels surprising. The better fix is to write the opposite solution of what first comes to mind. Instead of having your characters jump into the water, have them hear one of their pursuer’s boats downriver and scale the balcony to the roof.
4. The “Impending Betrayal”
This one is kind of like the predictable escape route, except it deals with emotions instead of actions. Betrayal is a huge plot device and can be brilliant when used well, but if the betrayer is obvious, then the act of betrayal loses its punch.
The Fix: Find the 1-2 characters least likely to betray your MC. Make one of them betray your MC. And give them a legitimate reason to actually carry it out (or come darn close). This plot twist hurts – it’s supposed to, and it can only hurt if it’s coming from an unexpected source. If you must go with the obvious candidate as your betrayer, give them reasons to help your MC first. It’ll endear them to readers and throw off suspicion later on.
Now that you know the signs, go out there and do battle with “Captain Obvious.” Good luck!
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