Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Critique—PNS: Perfectly Nice Syndrome

Sharon Wildwind

This is the fourth critique abbreviation that shows up frequently in my manuscripts. Next week, we finish up the series.

A fellow writer once described to me her elaborate plot, which involved jealousy, revenge, and a woman’s ruined reputation. I was enthralled until she leaned back and said, “Of course, at the end, it turns out to be all a misunderstanding. None of the characters are really bad; it’s just a case of mistaken identity.”

Her characters were suffering from a bad case of perfectly nice syndrome and, in the end, it killed her book and she was never able to finish it.

Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, referred to this as TANSTAAFL, pronounced tan-staffle. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)—a term I learned from the writer Sherry Lewis—is much shorter to write.

Free lunches served in bars was popularized in the United States in the last quarter of the 1800s. The Spanish had been doing for centuries with tapas. We see it today in the bowl of chips or pretzels found in many bars, pubs, and taverns.

Whether it was the oyster soup, roast meat, and buttered bread found in high-end New Orleans clubs or the sausages, pickles, and cheese in less lofty establishments, free food had one thing in common. Salt: a hidden invitation to purchase more drinks.

In the same way, getting rid of PNS invites the reader to be more involved with the characters and to keep reading.

Perfectly Nice Syndrome usually shows up in one of two ways:

First, like my author friend above, none of the characters are really bad. It’s just a case of mistaken identity. The reader is led through a series of events designed to make them mistrust the protagonist’s boyfriend only to discover that the women he escorted around town was not only his cousin, but a nun to boot. The final revelation is akin to Orson Wells coming out of character at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast to say he’d dressed up in a sheet and said “Boo” to the listeners.

Actions should have consequences, and characters should have flaws. Yes, the boyfriend really was cheating on the protagonist. Yes, he did go to bed with the other woman. Yes, he did catch a sexually-transmitted disease from her. Now the protagonist and boyfriend have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they will learn to trust one another again, maybe they won’t, but in either case, the writer has a lot more to work with than an actor in a sheet.

Second, the author has her eyes so firmly set on the plot that she glosses over significant moments. Suppose our character is in heavy traffic and a guy cuts in front of her.

Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.

What? No reaction to almost creaming into the back of a pickup?

A significant moment tests a character’s perception of herself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most of us have dozens of significant moments every day. A guy changes lanes too fast and we almost slam into his rear bumper. A co-workers makes an comment that angers or hurt us. Our child’s school sends an e-mail that says, “Please make an appointment with the principal as soon as possible.”

Do we react? Of course we do. We might curse the driver or pray for his safety. We might turn on the co-worker or fume silently at our desk. We might grab the phone and demand to see the principal in the next ten minutes, or delete the e-mail, hoping if we pretend that we never got it, the problem, whatever it is, will blow over.

Does that mean our characters must react to each significant event, even a broken fingernail?

Pretty much.

The obvious thing is to leave out all events that aren’t significant to the book. Why have the protagonist break a fingernail unless it will lead her to the manicurist who leads her to the victim’s aunt, who knows a clue the protagonist didn’t even know she needed?

Most reactions can be short.

Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. Her heart pounding, she bent her forehead to touch the steering wheel. “Lord, slow that crazy fool down and keep him safe until he has the good sense to listen to You.”

The pick-up turned right, fading out of Pearl’s sight and thought. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.

What have I learned about Pearl now? She has good reflexes for a 72-year-old woman. She’s more religious than spiteful, she prays for her enemies, and she has a sense of humor.

Every rose has a thorn. Every beautiful sunset includes bats swarming out of the old mill. Every favor demands payback—preferably at the most inopportune time. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.


Joyce said...

Another great blog, Sharon!

When I first started writing, I never wanted bad things to happen to my characters. When I figured out that it makes for a really boring story, I got over it pretty quickly. Now I love to torture them. It's almost like I'm telling them, "Ha! How are you going to get out of this one? I gotcha this time!"

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I remember The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Sharon. It had an early AI character (forerunner of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Donna Andrews's cyberprotagonist Turing, and it gave the recipe for how to organize a revolution. :) But I digress....I've been enjoying your examples--microstories in themselves.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think a lot of beginning writers are afraid to tackle intense emotion. Either they're afraid of committing melodrama or they don't want to dig deeply enough into their own emotions to feel the event along with their characters. Stories not only must be thought through, they must also be felt through. And yes, it's exhausting. Hard work always is.

I rarely give my characters a moment's peace. It's one thing after another from beginning to end. I think it's best to write as intensely as you can, and if it seems melodramatic you can dial it back a bit on rewrite. But not too much!

A Paperback Writer said...

I remember learning about TANSTAAFL in a university behavioral science class more than 20 years ago. I'd never forgotten it, but I'd never heard it again until today!
PNS -- fortunately, I'm rarely accused of being too nice in real life. But with your warning, I'll make sure my plots aren't either.