A Writing Entry – Lazy

I’ve mentioned perhaps a few times that I can’t stand lazy writing.  I see it a lot in fiction, movies, television, and comic books.  So I figured perhaps I could expound on what I consider to be lazy writing and how I try to avoid lazy writing.  This, by the way, is kind of a long, rambling entry, so you might want to take a minute and get what you need to settle in.

The purpose of writing fiction, to me, is to tell a story.  My Muse slaps me upside the head and suddenly I have a story banging around in my fevered hamster writer’s brain that absolutely must be told.  I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and attempt to bring that story out of my brain and onto the paper (or document file).  This process is neither easy nor quick and littered with potential pitfalls.  Sometimes I have the whole story in my head and sometimes I don’t.  Even the elements I do have (plot, characters, setting, dialogue) are not always well-defined, even in my head.

– Sometimes I have a starting point and an ending point and no real plan on how to get there.
– Sometimes have a great middle and an end, but need to start somewhere.
– Sometimes the story is set in a completely made up setting and I have to describe that without boring anyone (I freely admit exposition is hard).
– Sometimes I have a great character but don’t necessarily know how to fit him/her into a story.
– Sometimes I have most of a story but know that it’s just not quite coming together.

And it is absolutely my job as the writer to resolve these problems before I expose the reading audience to the story.  How well I do that is another matter, but I do firmly believe if the reader doesn’t understand the story I am trying to tell, it is my responsibility to make sure I have presented all the elements in a complete and coherent fashion (if all that checks out, well, then that’s on the reader).

How does lazy writing manifest?  Oddly, lazy writing manifests with components that are good starting points, as illustrated below.

1) Relying on tropes and/or stereotypes.  I’ve commented on this before in my entry on fantasy writing.  As TvTropes says, tropes are not bad.  Tropes can be handy shortcuts to help pull a reader into a story quickly.  In short stories, tropes are almost essentially for getting an idea across within the constraints of the genre.  Stereotypes aren’t ever okay to use, but unfortunately easy to fall into because, well, all writing is the sum of the writer’s experience, and writers can’t experience everything or experience it accurately.  Thus, there is always the danger of falling into stereotypes when a writer (and I’m including myself) tries to write something outside their personal experience.

Where tropes become simply lazy is when tropes are used as a substitute for actual characters or character development.  I can start my story with, “The new kid rode up into the parking lot on a beat-up Harley Davidson.  He dusted off his worn leather jacket, took off his helmet, and immediately tried to light up a cigarette.”  You know instantly that this “new kid” I’m describing is supposed to be a Bad Boy.  Perhaps a bit stereotypical, but this gives my reader a starting point.  Their first impression of this new kid is everyone else’s first impression.  Maybe he’s really like this.  Maybe it’s all an act.  That’s for me, the writer, to develop.  Frankly, if the first impression of this character is a Bad Boy, and that’s all the character he’s ever given, then the readers aren’t going to care about what happens to him.  Character development needs to start with an actual character and not just a trope, and the character needs to change.

2) Relying on generic settings.  Exposition is often boring, and describing every rock and tree as the heroes slowly walk to Mordor can be exhausting to read.  But setting a fantasy story in Ye Olde Medieval Europe is not the solution.  Setting a sci-fi story in Standard Alien World (complete with oversized dragonfly-monsters) is also not the solution.  Even setting a modern urban story in New York-esque City is no good.

In the case of a setting, the length of a story and the unfamiliarity of the setting dictate the amount of information the reader needs to know.  If a story is short and set in a place that the writer expects the reader is familiar with, then there may not be a lot of time spent on describing the place.  How important the place is to the story also factors into how much detail is necessary.  If part of the story takes place in a modern corporate office, then the writer probably only needs to use the phrase “cube-farm” or something and the reader will know what the setting is supposed to look like.  However, if any part of the setting is crucially important, such as an elevator shaft or stairs, then the writer needs to spell that out.  Otherwise, the reader may be confused as to how the daring spy made his escape, especially if a lot of the story time has been spent in a particular setting and that crucially important bit hasn’t been described.  Think of it as a scenery version of Chekhov’s Gun.

Generic settings are particularly lazy when it comes to fantasy and science fiction settings, or, at least I think so.  There’s no limit to imagination for fantasy and science fiction, so why pick Ye Olde Medieval Europe as a setting?  Just adding dragons does not a fantasy world make.  Just adding laser rifles does not a science fiction world make.  If the setting is so unimportant to the story that the writer leaves it as some generic flavor text, then I’m going to bet other elements of the story are equally as lazy and/or ill-thought out.  The setting influences the character and the plot, and those elements drive the story.  While Tolkien drew heavily on England for inspiration for Middle-Earth, he made it clear Middle-Earth was not England.  The green hilly country the hobbits lived in shaped their society.  A peaceful, easily tended land led to a generally content (maybe even complacent), salt-of-the-Middle-Earth people.  Herbert makes it clear the Fremen would not have been the fierce people they were if not for the harsh world they lived on.

3) Relying on a shared background.  This can be the over-use of tropes or generic settings, but doesn’t have to be.  If a story is about baseball, it may make some sense to assume the readers are familiar with baseball, but that doesn’t mean the writer should assume all the readers are familiar with every single aspect of the game and therefore write as though that’s the case.

This issue is pretty subjective.  To some degree, every writer does assume a certain shared background with their audience.  They assume the audience knows what a chair or a cat or World War II all are.  So where do basic assumptions of common ground become laziness?  When the writer relies on that assumption of a shared background to tell part of the story.  If, for example, Susan says, “Oh, yeah Jane always dresses like Lady Gaga,” and the writer leaves the entire description of Jane’s clothing at that, then that is lazy.  Sure, the writer may assume their audience knows that Lady Gaga wears items of clothing like meat dresses and ridiculous high-heeled shoes in her music videos.  That’s fine.  But the writer should be aware that a reader may not be familiar with Lady Gaga and should describe the clothing.  Does it mean such references shouldn’t be allowed?  Of course not.  In this case, Susan’s comment about Jane’s clothes tells us something about Susan (in that she is familiar with Lady Gaga and her fashion choices) and something about Jane (in that she wears eclectic outfits).  In fact, Susan’s rather blaisé comment about Jane’s clothing further indicates that Susan is familiar with Jane’s fashion sense and is neither shocked nor particularly interested in it, and that Susan is talking to someone is not familiar with Jane and her quirky/shocking style.

But if the reader is unfamiliar with Lady Gaga and doesn’t want to do homework to enjoy a story, then all character information illustrated above may be lost on the reader or confuse the reader.  The reader will draw on their own experience and hazard a guess as to who this Lady Gaga is and how she dresses and may well come to an entirely different mental picture.  If, later in the story, Jane’s clothing is given more description, or her clothing is a key part of the plot, the reader may be pulled out of their enjoyment of the story by realizing their mental image of Jane is all wrong.

The writer must strike a balance between describing every little thing in a scene and leaving all of it to the assumption of a shared background.  Assuming the reader knows what a cat or a chair or WWII is are probably all fine assumptions.  The writer must also make sure if some detail is crucial to the plot then that detail shouldn’t be left to assumptions.  For example, imagine if a Sherlock Holmes story ended with this:

“But how did you know James Howlett was the killer?” I asked.
“Simple, Watson,” Holmes replied.  “Because the cigar ash ground into the victim’s carpet was from the Logan brand of cigars.”
“Oh, Holmes, you’re so brilliant,” I said, as his statement made everything perfectly clear to me.
(The end)

That would be confusing and unsatisfying and lazy.  Actually, a lot of Holmes stories do end like this, except Holmes (and Doyle) knew Watson (and the audience) don’t know a damn thing about kinds of cigars and cigar ash residues, so instead of assuming this bit of trivia will sudden enlighten Watson (and us), Holmes patiently explains his air-tight train of logic to Watson (and us).  A better ending would be:

“But how did you know James Howlett was the killer?” I asked.
“Simple, Watson,” Holmes replied.  “Because the cigar ash ground into the victim’s carpet was from the Logan brand of cigars.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Well, Watson, we had already established the victim did not smoke cigars, which meant a visitor to the house must have been smoking one.  Now, none of the seven suspects smoked during the investigation, but I detected signs of active smoking on the clothes of three of them, including Mr. Howlett.  You have observed, of course, that smokers tend to have a distinctive smell, traces of ash in the clothing, and the occasional burn mark on said clothing?”
“Of course,” I replied, although I had never actively observed this.  But thinking back, I did recall active smokers had these characteristics.
“I followed up on the Logan brand and found they are imported to only a few shops, including one called Hudsons in Westchester, where Mr. Howlett lives.”
“But being in the same area as a store with the cigars doesn’t mean he smokes them, or no one else does,” I objected.
“Very true Watson, which is why I cleverly disguised myself and followed Mr. Howlett on his rounds for a few days to test my hypothesis.  This, of course, led me to much more solid evidence which was presented earlier in the evening.”
“Brilliant, Holmes!” I said.
(The end)

4) Reliance on fridge logic.  I’ve already explained my views on fridge logic and I think a lot of thriller and horror type fiction do rely on their audience not catching on to the plotholes until well after the end of the book or movie.  If the writer can get away with that kind of fridge logic on the first reading/viewing (which isn’t guaranteed), a second reading/viewing is probably out of the question.  I would prefer anything I write stand up to a second reading.  The second problem is that logic in a narrative exists on a spectrum from Holmes’ air-tight step-by-step deduction all the way down into chomper logic, which I’ve also discussed.  Fridge logic sits past the mid-point of good and into bad.  The only barrier between fridge logic and chomper logic what the reader/audience knows and how much they’re paying attention.  Yes, a lazy writer both relies on a reader sharing their knowledge (see #3) and relies on a reader’s ignorance.  Fridge logic spoils a reader’s second reading.  Chomper logic spoils the first reading (or viewing).

Fridge Logic – *nom nom*  Good chicken.  Hey, how did the Joker know no one would find the bombs on the ferries?
Chomper Logic – No!  No no no!  Concrete is not explosive!  It’s stable!  ARGH!  When is this movie going to be over?

Don’t be lazy!  Tropes are a starting point, not an end point.  Generic settings are boring.  Shared assumptions only go so far.  In-jokes are fun and can be funny, but the plot shouldn’t depend on that.  Fridge logic is barely acceptable (and it helps to be Alfred Hitchcock to get away with it) and chomper logic is unacceptable.  Lazy writing is bad writing.

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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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