Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 5: Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

Credibility Flaws by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is the first novel in this series that I read on my tablet. Using the Kindle functions were more difficult, even frustrating, on my tablet. When I attempted to highlight with my finger, the whole page moved. I had to place my finger, wait and then when the marker showed, try to select the words I wanted which was hard to do with precision. By the time I made my selection, I wasn’t very interested in bothering with colors and notes.

So here’s my tip (for myself and you if you have a cheap tablet): have the stylus and bluetooth keyboard handy when reading novels like a novelist on a tablet.

Other people’s highlighted selections showed up as dashed underlines. I did find it interesting to see what people underlined. They did not appear to be craft notes, but more like quotable sayings, or pleasant platitudes.

On my tablet I discovered a couple more Kindle features: when I highlighted a name (an 80’s pop-culture reference) Wikipedia opened and told me who it was. I then tested this by highlighting the name of a character and something call X-Ray opened showing me all of the places in the book where that character is mentioned.

Things I Learned

Like I said in this week’s focus post, I was reading Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee this week and saw examples of things he talked about while reading Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey, but before I get to that, here’s a quick overview.

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is a novel, published in 2020 set in 1980. The book description on Amazon says it was “Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown” in Minnesota. It is told from the point of view of a twelve year old girl. The popular boy she has a crush on gets kidnapped.

Credibility Issues:

The Beginning: The beginning of this novel didn’t feel like it set up the tone or characters for the inciting incident. To explore this, let’s go through the questions about beginnings:

What do I think the book is about from the first page? A family that farms, or in a farming community, that has happy family game nights. The last line on the page mentions it’s nearly Summer, but it arrived early and “Was really going to mess with crops.”
Does the first page present characterization, energy/tone, mystery, and emotional bedrock? The characterization on the first page is from the point of view of one of the daughters, the energy and tone is content and happy, there isn’t any mystery and the emotional bedrock appears to be family bond, and belonging.
How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think this novel started in the wrong place. I would start around chapter six. The scene in the bar has the tone of the novel, the strange behavior of the father and the cop, the girls out of place in a bar but also doing something normal for kids their age, playing pac-man which brings in the 80’s connection without forcing the pop-culture reference.

How is the main character introduced? Playing cribbage with her family. She is paired with her mother, her sister is paired with her father. She and her mother win. She is laughing and eating popcorn.
How is the main character first described? Through an experience with her Aunt Jin. “She was the only one who didn’t pretend I was normal.” This could have been interesting, but she goes on to say that her Aunt had been at her birth and stayed for a few weeks after to help her mom, but then stared at the permanent red mark around her neck from difficulties in childbirth and said, “If you’d been born two hundred years ago, they’d have drowned you.” That’s the girl’s first memory of her favorite person. Then after telling the story of her birth, she comes back to the memory with her Aunt in which she goes on to say, “It would have been bad luck to keep a baby whose own mother tried to strangle it twice.” The twelve year old then says, “I decided on the spot that it was an okay joke because Mom was her sister, and they both loved me. ” So the introduction to the main character is that she has a red, ropy scar that circles where her neck meets her shoulders. And that her favorite aunt stares at it and says mean things.

I think this story really started in the bar in chapter six. The father taking his daughters to go day drinking with the local cop is much more representative of the feel of the novel than a game of family cribbage.

I think the author started with the cribbage game scene because she wants the reader to see what the family presents to the outside world: a normal, wholesome, loving family. But that’s supposedly a pretense. The main character says again and again that she’s not supposed to tell anyone what her home-life is really like, so the opening scene when no one else is looking from the point of view of a fearful pre-teen would be a very different scene. It wouldn’t be the fake happy family presented to the world. So this set-up which doesn’t include any interesting action or insight, or the inciting incident, gives a false impression and doesn’t bring the reader in. Later it makes it hard to suspend belief and I found myself wondering if the main character is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

The character of the aunt reminds me of the cook in the 1980 movie, The Shining. The character is built up as the savior, the rescue, is begged for help, finally arrives, and is axed instantly having done nothing. The whole character feels completely pointless. At least in The Shining the cook was a mentor, confidant for a moment at the hotel. In this novel, the aunt is only talked about and written to, she does nothing.

Credibility Flaws: The section of Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee that I thought related to this novel was called “Credibility Flaws.” Here is McKee’s list of faults that damage credibility, and examples from the novel. Remember, this novel is written in first person POV of a twelve year old girl in a small farming town in Minnesota.

1. Empty Talk – when the reader can’t find a motivation in the subtext of what the character says, causing the dialogue to sound phony.

“I know,” Sephie said, wiping her face, eager to agree. “I made a mistake. Mrs. Tatar is impossible but I should have gotten tutoring.”
“You think I should help her, don’t you, Dad?” My liver felt yellow at this, joining in coddling Dad like he was a babyman, but it’s what worked.”

2. Overly Emotive Talk – The character uses language that seems far more emotional than how she actually feels, making the reader think the character is hyper-dramatic and false.

“I’d die if he ever came all the way up those stairs.”

“If I didn’t see Gabriel for the rest of the day and he didn’t ride the bus, I’d walk to his house after school. I would. I’d do it. I needed that necklace.”

3. Overly Knowing Talk – injects the author’s knowledge into the character’s awareness. The character looks at events with insight beyond her experience.

“A strip of sweat rolled down my back and was absorbed by my training bra. The cicadas were whirring, and the air smelled dusty purple from the lilacs tossing up their pollen like Mardi Gras floozies. I licked my lips and tasted salt.”

4. Overly Perceptive Talk – characters with excessive, unconvincing self-awareness. “When a character describes himself with a depth of insight more profound than Freud, Jung, and Socrates combined, readers and audiences not only recoil at the implausibility; they lose faith in the writer.”

“I’d been studying the lacy frost pattern on the inside of the bus window, thinking Rorschach could have saved a buttload on ink if only he’d moved to Minnesota. . . .This was a Life Event.”

5. Excuses Mistaken for Motivation – “In an effort to match a character’s over-the-top action with a cause, writers often backtrack to the character’s childhood, insert a trauma, and pass it off as motivation. Over recent decades, episodes of sexual abuse became an overused, all-purpose, mono-explanation for virtually any extreme behavior. Writers who resort to this kind of psychological shorthand do not understand the difference between excuse and motivation.” I talked about this above in answer to How is the main character first described?

6. Melodrama – The problem of melodrama is not over-expression but under-motivation.

“I couldn’t run past hiim. Trapeed, I made myself arger, hoping he couldn’t see my knees shaking. “You come one step closer and I’ll slap you.”
Now I was in Dynasty? But I still couldn’t make sense of what was happening. was in Lilydale Elementary and Middle School, standing in a lit room, Mr. Connelly wasn’t more that fifty feet away. I could even hear Charlie Kloss’s ragged notes splitting the air. But my stomach held a bag of ice suddenly, and I grew light-headed. I was afraid, really and truly, and I’d known Clam my whole life.”

Using the pop-reference of the show Dynasty is like the character saying “I know I’m being as melodramatic as a prime time soap opera,” and the author continuing the melodrama anyway.

Misuse of pop-culture references:

The novel is set in the eighties which quickly becomes clear through reference after reference. But these eighties references feel out of place and forced, taking me out of the story. Right away while talking about the plans she and her sister have for tanning that Summer the main character says, “Boys liked no tan lines. I’d learned that watching Little Darlings.” Little Darlings is a film from 1980. Since I’ve never seen it, it doesn’t add anything for me.

Then, on the same page she describes her mom and dad. She says, “Dad was handsome, too, with a Charles Bronson thing going on.” I’m guessing she means some aspect of the actor’s characters, but without any detail, this also means nothing. She describes her sister as “a dead ringer for Kristy McNichol.” Wikipedia informed me she was in Little Darlings.

Then when talking about her birth she says, “The whole fiasco wasn’t exactly a job well done. Plus, Rosemary’s Baby had hit theaters a couple years before, and everyone in that room must have been wondering what had propelled me out of the womb with such force.”

Later on, some of these references became problematic because they were too familiar. For instance, Remington Steele was mentioned four times, and I just happened to be watching Remington Steele on Amazon Prime Video. So when she says, “That’s why I liked Remington Steele, Laura Holt did all the work. She was the real deal. She didn’t waste time being romantic.” That was just wrong. That was the conflict of the show. Laura kept saying she didn’t mix business with pleasure, but they couldn’t help themselves, and almost every episode ends with them kissing. She wastes a lot of time being romantic.

Then when she brought up The Empire Strikes Back, I knew there would be trouble.  Even if she hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back she would have seen Star Wars by then, or at least know everything about it. So it again felt completely unbelievable when she said, “Every single kid in the world but me and Sephie had viewed it at the movie theater three years ago. I’d had to pretend I knew what they were referring to when they made pewpew noises and talked about the dark side.” I mean honestly, that’s just ridiculous. She would have seen a million commercials for the toys. Back then there were story records, and books. She didn’t have to see the movie to know the entire world and stories of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. 

These misuses of eighties references was yet another way the story lost credibility.

Empty foreshadowing: Only 38% of the way through the book, she ends chapter 16 with, “I look back at that day and wonder where we’d be now if I’d eaten those strawberries, too.
It wasn’t fair that only Sephie had to bear that.”

This bit of foreshadowing is never resolved, and adds nothing to the story. After finishing the book, I think the author means that if Cassie had eaten the strawberries, she would have seen Gabriel’s necklace, but if that is what she means, Sephie would have seen the necklace just as easily as Cassie. She wouldn’t have ignored it if it was there. Either way, it doesn’t make sense, and is just left dangling there doing nothing.

Underlying Motivations by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

This week’s novel along with Mr. McKee’s craft book taught me a lot about making characters and their actions, including the act of speech, credible. It starts with the very first paragraph, setting the tone and introducing the character and dramatic question. If this doesn’t match the premise of the novel, the character and her story isn’t credible.

I also learned that pop-culture references, though specific and emotionally loaded details, can be problematic in different ways: some don’t add anything to the story because they aren’t understood, and others may be used incorrectly and be wrong to the reader. Either way they take the reader out of the story.

And a very important thing I learned is that if you use blatant foreshadowing, make sure that it actually means something, and isn’t just floating around out in the ether after the book is over.

To apply what I learned to my novel at this point in my developmental edit, I want to make sure that the motivations, and desires of my characters are clear and plausible. I also want to look for any characters that seem important but don’t really do anything. I have a character near the middle that might not really be doing anything. I think I was playing around with a possible love interest then dropped it. I’ve also already noticed some Overly Knowing Talk in my novel. My characters, whether a make-up artist or palm reader seem to like to talk about neurons and brain-function. I think I’ll be trimming out the neuroscience after I do the major structural edits. 😃

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