In case you’re wondering if I just made up “The Flashflood Syndrome”…um...yes, yes I did. The flashflood syndrome is a name I came up with for an annoying phenomena I’ve seen too often in fiction. It might also be called lack of set-up, out of the blue complication, or maybe even “episodic” writing. But since the worst case I’ve ever seen involved an actual flashflood, and since it provides such a perfect metaphor, I will now and forevermore be dubbing it “The Flashflood Syndrome.”
Writers are told that we must have goals, conflicts, and motivations in our stories. That we must have tension and continue to ratchet up that tension throughout the book. At all cost we must avoid the writer’s worst enemy—the dreaded sagging middle.
So what do we do?
We add twists, turns, unexpected complications to up the tension and keep the reader turning pages. But like with all of the “rules of fiction writing” this can be done well, or it can be done poorly.
Let me give you the soon to be iconic flashflood example. (Now if you’ve read this book and know which one I’m talking about, please don’t mention it in the comments. My goal is not to trash the author, but to make a point about writing.) This book was a fun, somewhat fluffy romance novel. It had a lot going for it. The heroine was just adorable. The dialogue and descriptions were great. The author had a nice, fluid writing style. There were some interesting historical details, which I really enjoyed. And, most important to me, I loved the refreshing spiritual elements in the book.
But here’s where the problem came in. There really wasn’t much keeping the hero and heroine apart, other than the hero’s mistaken perception of the heroine and a good dose of stubbornness. So by the middle, guess what, it was coming precariously close to sagging.
At that point I, the savvy reader, think to myself, "If this writer is smart, she’s going to throw in twist right about now."
Oh yes, a twist was a coming. But not a well-planned twist that would bring the reader a sense of subtle satisfaction. That “I should have seen it coming” feeling. No. A flashflood. A literal, out of the blue, flashflood. On a bridge the heroine had never before traversed. Over a river that I don’t even recall being mentioned up to that point. And just to add insult to injury, the flashflood comes roaring her way right when she's smack dab in the middle of the bridge.
The heroine impetuously decided she must go visit someone who might be in trouble, and instead of offering to go with her or in her stead, the hero hitches up the horses and sends her on her way. Now I should give the writer a little credit, on the way to the cabin the heroine notices the rising water from the recent rain.
At which point I, savvy reader, think to myself, “There’s no way she’d try to pull a flashflood on us. There was no set up. It would seem way too hokey and coincidental.”
But to my dismay, it was indeed a flashflood. A flashflood that seemed to take place for no other reason than to put the heroine in danger so that the hero would have to rush to her rescue and be forced to face how much he loved her.
Now, this situation could have been easily remedied. And here is my lesson for writers today. Twists and turns are great. Sometimes they’re unexpected even to us as authors, which can be fun. But, it is our job to go back and provide the necessary set-up and foreshadowing to allow it to make sense.
In this book the heroine took a walk every morning. She could easily have walked by or even over the bridge. She could have noticed how the bridge crossed a narrow part of the river and the water level varied with the rain. You don’t want to be too heavy handed, but a little gentle weaving in of the bridge could have made that flashflood fit the story much better.
Or maybe the area is known for flashfloods. Maybe the heroine learns this as she’s traveling there. Or maybe she’s warned about it, and she thinks to herself she’s thankful she’ll be living in town far away from the river. Or…maybe the relative of a minor character died in a flashflood.
Should the author have used all of these set-ups. NO!!! You don’t want to be too obvious. That would be making a mistake to the opposite extreme, but you should have something. In real life flashfloods can be completely unexpected, but let’s face it--novels are not real life. We write tighter, cleaner, and with more direction than real life. That is the nature of storytelling.
Reader expectation is soooo important. You either want to give your reader what they want or give them something better. The last thing you want is for them to say, “Ugh! A flashflood out of nowhere. Do you seriously expect me to buy that?”
Have you noticed unexpected twists in books that seem just too convenient? What’s one of your pet peeves when you’re reading?