Avoiding Underwriting-Induced Magic

This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #9—Underwriting. We looked at the perils of overwriting early in the year, but underwriting is another problematic area for novelists. Too often necessary information is left out of a scene, leaving readers scratching their heads. This may pertain to narrative, dialog, setting—every and any component found in fiction. Today Christy Distler dives into the “wrong” kind of magic underwriting can create. (If you’ve missed the first two posts on the topic, click here and here.) 

Magic has no doubt played a huge part in fiction over the years. In the past we had classics like C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and a score of fairy tales. More recently, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Diana Galbaldon’s Outlander series have garnered millions of readers. The truth is, magic sells. But it doesn’t belong in all fiction—and sometimes it doesn’t even belong in fantasy and speculative fiction.

Why? Because sometimes a character’s “magical powers” result not from special abilities but from underwriting in the story. Meaning, certain events or actions seem to occur “out of thin air” without proper setup, and this becomes a fatal flaw in fiction writing.

Have you ever been reading a story and found yourself completely confused by something that happens? Maybe a character does something that doesn’t seem physically possible, or maybe a character speaks but you never knew he or she was even part of the scene. That happened as a result of underwriting-induced magic—or telling the story without using enough information to make it logical and imaginable. (Needless to say, this type of magic does not result in best sellers.)

Let’s take a look at a Before passage and an After one to see this “magic” in action:

BEFORE:

Once Mother, Daddy, and Mrs. Gray had left the room, Ashley sat on her bed. “So what grade are you in?”

“Twelfth.” I couldn’t tear my attention from the books on her side of the room. The bookshelf nearly reached the ceiling. Some fiction and some nonfiction, the books were separated by category and then alphabetized.

“Me too. A lot of people think I’m younger, but I’m just really short.”

Karli grinned. “Bet you never thought you’d be rooming in a library, eh?”

Ashley made a face at her. “You never seem to mind living across the hall from a library.”

She laughed. “Nope. But I’m still waiting for you to get Allegiant.”

Ashley grabbed a book off the top of the bookshelf. “Finished it last night. Just be sure to bring this one back when you’re finished with it.”

“Whatever.” Karli pointed the book at me. “Have fun living in the library—and don’t let the librarian shush you too much.”

I looked to Ashley. “The librarian?”

She shrugged and dropped back onto the bed. “She calls me that all the time. But what do you expect from someone who’s the queen of snark? Don’t tell her I said that.”

I grinned and moved closer to the bookcase. “I’ll take books over snark any day.”

AFTER:

Once Mother, Daddy, and Mrs. Gray had left the room, Ashley sat on her bed and crossed her legs. “So what grade are you?”

“Twelfth.” I couldn’t tear my attention from the serious amount of books on her side of the room. The bookshelf nearly reached the ceiling and didn’t have an inch of free space. Some fiction, some nonfiction, and all perfectly separated by category and then alphabetized by author name. This girl was awesome.

“Me too. A lot of people think I’m younger, but I’m just really short.”

A knock on the door spun me around.

In the doorway stood a girl with a pixie face and long curly red hair that contrasted against her black T-shirt and leggings. “Hey. I’m Karli. I live across the hall.”

“Cassie.”

She grinned. “Bet you never thought you’d be rooming in a library, eh?”

Ashley scrunched her face at her. “You never seem to mind living across the hall from a library.”

She laughed. “Nope. But I’m still waiting for you to get Allegiant.”

Ashley got off the bed and stepped onto the stool in front of the bookshelf, then grabbed a book off the top of it. “Finished it last night.” She hopped down and handed it to her. “Just be sure to bring this one back when you’re finished with it.”

What-ever.” Karli pointed the book at me and took a step toward the door. “Have fun living in the library—and don’t let the librarian shush you too much.” Heading back across the hallway, she called over her shoulder, “Later.”

I looked to Ashley. “The librarian?”

She shrugged and dropped back onto the bed. “She calls me that all the time. But what do you expect from someone who’s the queen of snark? Don’t tell her I said that.”

I grinned and moved closer to the bookcase to get a better look. “I’ll take books over snark any day.”

So what differences did you see in the two? Primarily, there’s blatant underwriting in the Before passage. While much of the wording is the same in the two examples, the After passage provides so much more information about the characters (physically and personality-wise) and what’s happening. It also doesn’t have the “magic” that’s going on in the Before passage. Let’s break it down:

  • In the fourth paragraph of the Before passage, all of a sudden someone named Karli is speaking. But where’d she come from? She wasn’t described earlier in the scene, so how did she just magically appear? If the story was fantasy or speculative fiction and the character had the ability to materialize out of thin air, that would be one thing. Or it would work if the narrative described Karli talking and then the other characters realizing she’d just stopped in the doorway. In this case, however, Karli just starts talking as if she’s been there all along.
  • Three more lines down in the Before passage, we have Ashley grabbing a book off the top of her bookshelf. How’d she do that? She’s sitting on her bed. If she’s on her bed, she can’t possibly grab a book off the top of a tall bookshelf. Not only that, she’s already told us she’s short. So she not only has to get off the bed to get the book, she also needs help to reach the top of the bookshelf (a stool)—unless, of course, she can elevate, but that’s highly unlikely in this story.
  • At the end of the Before passage, we have Cassie and Ashley talking about Karli. But is she still in the room or not? Going by what’s said (Ashley telling Cassie not to tell her what she said), it seems that she’s not, but that hasn’t been described. So technically she’s either still in the room or she’s transported herself to another place.

Okay, so this has been kind of an offbeat post. To be honest, though, as an editor I’ve seen this type of “magic” in plenty of manuscripts. Why? Because writers know what’s going on in their scenes; they know the character’s quirks, and they know exactly what’s happening. As a result, sometimes important information doesn’t get conveyed through the writing. It happens, and not just to beginning writers.

That said, I have to plug critique partners again. Having a crit partner who reads your manuscript can greatly decrease the underwriting-induced magic. They’re able to see your story with fresh eyes and point out areas where something is confusing or more description is needed.

Another way to get better perspective on whether you’re underwriting is to set your manuscript aside after you’ve finished it. After a few weeks, read it again. You may be surprised by how much you find needs to be added to make a good story great.

Your turn:

Have you ever found this type of “magic” in your own (or someone else’s) story? If in your own story, was there something specific that helped you see it (e.g., a crit partner, rereading, editing after some down time, etc.)? Can you think of other ways to avoid this type of underwriting?

5 Responses to “Avoiding Underwriting-Induced Magic”

  1. Dana McNeely September 16, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

    Thanks so much. I am really appreciating this series on “underwriting”. I’ve read each post at least twice and shared it with my critique group, who also love them. This is so helpful.

    • Dana McNeely September 16, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

      Oh, and btw, didn’t the other posts have the author at the end of the post? I had to look at my calendar to see which Wednesday of the month this is. Third. Thank you, Christy Distler. 🙂

    • Christy Distler September 18, 2015 at 6:00 am #

      Thank you, Dana!

  2. Christine September 16, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    Oh, yes, I’ve seen this kind of underwriting in books I’ve read. Sometimes it’s a very simple thing like “How did the crook/hero know where the victim/heroine was going, so he could arrange to meet her there.” The writer neglected to show us how he’d overheard her making that plan.

    One time I wrote a short story about two senior ladies discussing the husband of one of them–particularly his forgetfulness. I was reading this story to my critique group and one of them asked, “How old are these people anyway?”
    “In their late seventies.” I’d thought it should be so obvious, so I didn’t spell it out. But apparently it wasn’t as clear as I thought.

    • Christy Distler September 18, 2015 at 6:05 am #

      Crit partners are so awesome. Since a writer knows his or her story inside and out, it can be so easy to miss conveying important information for the reader. Crit partners help us see what’s missing.

      Thanks for stopping by, Christine!

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