Sunday, March 14, 2010

Making it plausible

Sometimes even the best writers seem to take the easy way out, presenting something implausible or character-inconsistent to the reader. For example, I was reading an Ellis Peters book (and I esteem Ellis Peters-- I read her books over and over), and there was a scene where Cadfael (the monk-detective) double-crosses a knight (who is amused and will become a friend). The "MacGuffin," as Hitchcock would call it, is some treasure of silver and gold plate that Barringar (the knight) knows Cadfael has. Cadfael wants to give this to a young couple who are fleeing England's civil war. But Cadfael, when caught, sits on a burlap sack full of clanky things as if he's trying to hide the treasure. And Barringar falls for it and seizes the sack.

So far so good-- the implausible part comes after. The young couple get away with their goods (and the treasure, of course), and Cadfael allows the knight to escort him back to Shrewsbury (keeping him occupied so that he doesn't go after the youngsters). The knight talks merrily of how, when he gets back, he'll open the bag and have the treasure to fund his marriage. But... he never opens the bag. And of course, we know and Cadfael knows... the treasure is on the way to France with the young couple.

Why doesn't Barringar open the bag? Because the author needs him to be occupied and not chasing the real fortune and the young lovers. And that's not a good enough reason. It's not plausible that he would ride along with the bag tied to his saddle and not at any moment stop and look. Humans aren't built that way ("look, shiny!"), not to mention he knows Cadfael is a sneaky old bugger.

But Peters just doesn't make that plausible, perhaps because she didn't realize that it would jolt with us as "unlikely." So often we don't notice when something is implausible or inconsistent in our own story, though it would really stick out when we're reading someone else's. And it's often necessary to have this thing happen, for example, Barringar -can't- open the bag too early or he will discover it doesn't contain the treasure-- 1) so that the young lovers can safely escape, which he wouldn't allow if he knew the truth, and 2) he has to show that he has underestimated Cadfael's brilliance, and 3) he has to show that he is capable of laughing at himself later.

But you see, all this can be accomplished AND also be plausible. So if you were writing this, how would you make it plausible that Barringar doesn't open that bag?


I'd have some reason he couldn't open it here, like it's chained closed and he needs equipment to open it, and that's back at the castle. So that bag can't just be burlap (easily cut with a knife), but maybe a couple layers of leather, or chainmail (oh, btw, this is medieval, so no Samsonite :). And of course, it doesn't have to be a bag. Anything that can be tied to a horse (a small trunk?) could work.

So what's a simple, believable reason why Barringar has to bring the bag intact back to the castle before he opens it?

Alicia

15 comments:

Asea said...

He can't figure out HOW to open it - it's a wooden box, seemingly with no openings or hinges. A puzzle box. He starts to feel stupid trying to open it in front of the monk, so he gruffly orders him to the castle where he can smash the darn thing open with an axe.

Alicia said...

Yes, and the axe would reveal more about his character. :)
Smash first, ask questions later!
Alicia

Asea said...

Precisely! We learn that he's a bit insecure, resorts to brute force, and has never seen a puzzle box. ;-) SO much more interesting than carrying a sack.

(Now if only I could manage to be consistently this analytical with my OWN writing...)

Dave Shaw said...

The problem with a box that he can't figure out how to open is that this guy is a knight. Does he have no weapons with him? Are there no well-to-do peasants around with axes or hammers he could borrow? Are there no rocks around?

Medieval knights were very adept at breaking things open. I think we need an additional reason why he can't just smash it open until they reach his destination. Maybe the box is valuable in itself. Locksmiths weren't common, so that could work. Alternately, maybe he has orders from someone higher up the food chain to deliver it intact. Or maybe the treasure itself could be damaged if he breaks in to get it out.

Anyone have anything better?

Jami G. said...

I have no ideas to add, but I'm just wondering how the hair-pulling, knock-out, drag-down fight is going between Alicia and Theresa. ;)

After all, there's a mysterious post on Edittorrent's RSS feed labeled "Good example of the reason for an Oxford comma" that doesn't exist here on the blog. Now given that we know how Theresa feels about Oxford commas, I find it interesting that this one specific post is missing... Hmmm, coincidence? I think not. :)

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Really? I wonder if that was a draft post that never went live. Hmm. Will check into it.

I don't have strong feelings about Oxford commas. Surprising, I know, given my strong feelings about other punctuation issues.

Theresa

dnaknitter said...

I think I did read one Cadfael book years ago, but I don't know this particular book so I'm not sure if my idea would really work. BUT...perhaps it could be revealed, later, that Barringer secretly ALSO wished to allow the young couple to escape, for his own reasons which he didn't want Cadfael to know until after the fact. So Barringer was deliberately not opening the bag but allowing Cadfael to think he might at any time, to keep Cadfael on his toes and allow him to think he was getting away with something.

Maybe this is too complicated. Maybe it won't work for some other reason given the circumstances of the story. But it would be fun to read!

sylvia said...

I don't have strong feelings about Oxford commas.

My partner and I have had screaming rows about them, throwing grammar books onto the coffee table in rage. We have friends who make us promise not to discuss grammar before they will come over for dinner.

I like the puzzle box idea best and that the man doesn't want to look stupid so he ignores it.

Dave Shaw said...

Don't commas get sort of uppity if you send them to Oxford?

LOL

Edittorrent said...

Yes, it's just a draft (the Oxford comma one). Someday, no doubt, I'll finish it. Well, some doubt.

And I don't actually that T is against the Oxford comma so much as the Oxford comma RULE (that you almost always use it in a series of three). I think she'd say-- correct me if I'm wrong-- to use it when it's needed.

I noticed that there are MANY drafts of posts I never finished. Stick-to-itiveness is not my forte.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Dave, good idea-- the box itself is valuable-- inlaid with gold and jewels, etc.

And that would show that this knight was a bit of a connoisseur. :)

Alicia

Edittorrent said...

dna, good thought. Actually, Barringar does have reason-- the girl in the couple is his betrothed, and he's fallen in love with someone else, and if she runs off to France with this outlaw, he's free to marry his true love. So that's a good idea-- maybe we could have him pretending to do this so he gets free!
Alicia

Jordan said...

(On the disappearing Oxford comma post: it's the first of three posts in my feed reader I've clicked on only to have Blogger tell me the post doesn't exist. Looks like Blogger's having quite the glitch these last couple weeks. And as I read the post, it was pro-Oxford comma, actually.)

Jami G. said...

Jordan said: ...as I read the post, it was pro-Oxford comma...

Yes, which is why I suspected Alicia wrote it (even though it wasn't signed), and started teasing that Theresa had made it disappear. :) (Draft post...hmmpf. My explanation was much more interesting. LOL!)

Jami G.

sylvia said...

I have to admit, I like Jami's version of events best. :D