NDTS: Evil Cousin Alphonse

Never Do This Shit
I have a series of notebooks labeled Never Do This Shit filled with advice for myself about writing issues I dislike. Examples come from books that publishers deemed worthy of publication and readers liked enough to put on my radar, so other people obviously don’t share my dislike! I post occasional NDTS entries not to dunk on others’ books (no names named and anything longer than one sentence gets thesaurus-ized) but to show my process as I strive to level up my own writing to where I want it to be. As with all writing “advice,” take what resonates and disregard the rest.

Years ago, I read a romance novel in which the main characters had basically resolved all their conflicts by the midpoint. The story could have ended right there and been a satisfying novella, but somebody wanted 300 pages instead of 150, so on page 151, Evil Cousin Alphonse burst onto the scene with not one single prior reference to his existence. (I checked, to make sure my BURN IT TO THE GROUND reaction was justified.)

If everything seems to be going great at the midpoint, you’re supposed to fuck things up in order to make the characters fight to prove they deserve to live happily ever after. Easy victories are boring reads.

HOWEVER. This Fucking Up of Things needs to be SET UP, at the very least with foreshadowing. Act I is for planting every seed that grows during Act II. Act III is for reaping what was sown in Act I and grown in Act II. You can’t get halfway through the growing season, decide to plant a new seed, and expect it to catch up with seeds planted at the beginning of the story.

Evil Cousin Alphonse has become my code name for this midpoint mess, which:

1. Destroys premise. You can’t spend 50% of a book telling readers the story is about one conflict and then change your mind and make it about Evil Cousin Alphonse at 51%. He needs to be integrated from the start so he doesn’t seem like an afterthought pulled out of a hat when you ran out of the original plot.

2. Is sloppy and lazy. The trouble with Alphonse could have been completely eliminated by simply mentioning him twice before he showed up — “my cousin Alphonse has always made me uneasy” in Chapter 1 and an anecdote a bit later to characterize Alphonse as a Bad Guy would make the reader say “Shit just got real” when he shows up at the midpoint rather than “Who the fuck is Alphonse?” Not going back in revisions to make two minor changes that could redeem the whole story is inexcusable.

3. Forsakes suspense. Mentioning Alphonse causes unease and has a history of Bad Behavior creates an expectation that this Bad Guy will show up and do Bad Things. Anticipation of his arrival gives readers another reason to continue reading to find out what form his Badness will take.

4. Conflates confusion with surprise. The only good surprises in writing are a result of subverting mindfully set up expectations — not by springing random shit out of the blue. A surprise would be the heroine saying Alphonse makes her uneasy and relating a vivid anecdote about his Bad Behavior, but when Alphonse shows up, he’s charming, handsome, and otherwise entirely delightful, not at all the monster he’s been made out to be, so the reader AND the heroine AND anyone with whom she has shared her misgivings question her recollection and wonder if Alphonse has been misunderstood and misjudged all along. Of course he’s a gaslighting asshole, but doubt gives him more power as an antagonist.

5. Screws up pacing. The last half of the story should race toward the conclusion. There is no room in a race to stop and explain who Alphonse is and why he’s bad and why the reader should start caring about a new development at this late stage. Act I is for explanations. Acts II and III are for delivering on the inherent promise of all those explanations, a reward for the reader for trusting that you were going somewhere with the more leisurely opening.

When I invoke “Evil Cousin Alphonse” in a writing rant, he’s a cautionary tale about diligent setup and payoff, which are always crucial, but he achieved special status with the timing and magnitude of his manifestation. He’s a shapeshifter and can take many forms, so recognizing the spoor of poorly set up late-stage conflict may help identify his presence. Fortunately, he’s a fixable problem, but you must first recognize that the problem exists — ironically, the solution to the problem of Evil Cousin Alphonse’s existence is making the reader aware from the start that he exists.

P.S. Some ideas aren’t big enough for novels. It’s better to turn a small idea into a great novella than to a wrap a small idea in random unrelated garbage to force it to fill a bad novel. Writing well is more important than writing long. If you have a good small idea, don’t invite Alphonse over when the party’s winding down to fuck it up with his drama.

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