Articles on Writing:
Writing Good Stories
The Novelization Process
Approaching Revisions
Rethinking and Revising Imagery

Revising the Horror of Stage Directions
Maintaining and Violating POV
Logic vs. Illogic - Hanging the Lanterns

How to End a Novel

Sound and Sense - Shelley vs Dickens

New Leaves in the Wind - Essays on the Interet Experience

Logic vs Illiogic - Hanging the Lanterns

So you've finished your draft and have all your ducks in a row. You're ready for the revision and, as you do your read-through, you begin to second-guess the logic of specific elements in your work. These logic flaws sometimes sneak up and stymie when you least expect them. Some are easy, continuity problems and relatively routine to fix. However, others are like quicksand. The more you try to resolve them, the more damage control you need to apply.

To my mind, there are four categories of logic lapses:

1. Continuity
2. Poor Research
3. Counter-active
4. Global

Continuity and Poor Research are the easiest to fix. They are also the elements most evident to editors, long before readers get their mitts on your book. Continuity is a lapse in memory. Simply put:

Paragraph one:

Tom inherited his wonderfully green eyes from his mother.

Paragraph two-hundred and eighty:

Suddenly, Tom's eyes changed from blue to gold signifying the presence of Sydney's spirit.

You might laugh, but I have in one of my novels a possession sequence, which has a blue-eyed character possessed by a green-eyed character. The effect was perfect, except I had the eye coloring wrong at two ends of the novel. Now because the continuity error was separated by nearly 200 pages, the reader may never had noticed, but never underestimate the reader.

The simpler paragraph-to-paragraph continuity lapses scarcely need mention. We all know that things that a pocketed are suddenly out in the open or pocketed twice. Characters leave twice, or never enter. However, in my opinion, the worse logic lapse is ignorance - the lack of proper research. Many times, we will make it up as we go along, and many times, we can get away with it. However, even if it is for short stretches, we, as authors, owe our readers a proper look and feel.

For example:

Sergeant O'Hara finished relieving himself in the muddy ditch, and then zipped up his fly.

Considering the above sentence is extracted from a Civil War novel, and the zipper wasn't invented yet, it is anachronistic slop, which could have been avoided if the writer had taken some time to research Civil War uniforms in all their richness.


Sergeant O'Hara finished relieving himself in the redoubt, buttoning up and fastening his buckler.

I once spent two weeks cooking Tuscan cuisine to learn local ingredients, aromas and textures for a scene in my novel The Third Peregrination. I savored my research, not to mention putting on a pound and a half. Results: two well-researched, logically correct paragraphs tucked away as background to an important scene. The research gave the background authenticity, but like the meal ingredients, didn't overpower the main course - my story.

The logic lapse that can prove most frustrating is the Counter-active. You have an important plot development or a character following a specific arc, then - wham. You begin to second-guess it, because might be alternative courses of action that are just as logical. You know that the reader will question your twists, and, if questioned harshly, you will earn the dreaded label: Contrived. In addition to the developmental counter-actives, there are other points of question that the reader could contest, such as, How is there light in a tomb that hasn't been explored in a thousand years? Little things like that. There are two solutions for these common second-guessing points. Remember that whenever the reader second-guesses you, they are thrown out of the story. Reader off track = story flailing (as opposed to story telling).

The first method is to handle logistics appropriately. If a cave will be dark, be sure that your spelunkers are fully outfitted with every prop necessary to light the way. You can't start producing ropes and riggings, spikes and flashlights mid-scene without tracking, or at least nodding to their origin. Also, be sure that your characters are properly trained to use their props. If there's an escape using a motorboat, account a reason why the protagonist is to drive the damn thing to chug away from the villain. The protagonist may not be an expert at watercraft, but he/she could have watched ten hours of Sea Hunt as an unwitting preparation for the sequence.

We walk a tight-rope here. Be careful not to over-emphasis logistics. I once spent so much time explaining why a tomb had lighting that my surprise ending was no surprise. In that case, I rewrote two chapters to undo my over-emphasis. I just hung a lantern on it and moved on.

Hanging a lantern. This is an old movie expression that every writer should now. When you reach a counter-active point, hang a lantern on it, before the reader does. This means a short brake in the flow - an aside or some otherwise witty and well-conceived comments that says, what was just said doesn't really make sense, but that's the way it is folks. Here's an example from a novel I'm currently writing - Surviving an American Gulag.


Avila shook his head and followed. A cricket chirped. Odd and out of season. Perhaps it was some rare Georgian variety bred on mess hall muck. Its chirp did not go unnoticed. Gibbs halted.

"Just the stars singing, Winslow."

Frank hummed his grandmother's song.

The lantern is in italics, even in the context of the work. It is important that these men hear a cricket. The sequence is an echo from a previous section and the effect is powerful in context. However, we are I Georgia in February, and crickets don't chirp in Georgia in February. Therefore, I had a counter-active moment. By hanging a lantern on it, I acknowledge that it's an odd (illogical) thing to say, because we are out of season. I then add my own take on the science of the comment. Does it change the course of cricketdom in Georgia? No. However, the reader will not stop here and kvetch. They will stay in the story.
Other species of this chameleon happen when characters are trying to solve a problem, choosing a course of action. They choose the one that's most interesting for the story and befits the character arc; however, easier courses cannot be ignored. In these cases, I generally have a character say, "Wouldn't it be better if we yatter yatter yatter." A brief discussion ensues, steering the logic to the chosen course of action. Doing this constantly can become tedious. Therefore, sometimes we hang the lantern latently, during a character's internal sequeling. This helps demonstrate that the character isn't so shallow to follow the author's will without question. In the sequeling, we firm up elements, while becoming the reader's advocate for alternative solutions. I'm always reminded of that scene in Indiana Jones, when Indy is preparing to sabre-duel the thuggish giant and opts to shoot him instead. This is a hanging a lantern moment. The only issue in that instance is that Steven Spielberg is winking at the audience, which breaks the fantasy, something we ought not to do. Hanging a lantern is an art akin to prestidigitation.
Finally, there are Global logic flaws. These are so big they are generally missed. And they should be. These are the great logic flaws that if corrected would shatter the work. These are elements like Shakespeare's setting Bohemia on the Adriatic, or Frederick's leap-year birthday in The Pirates of Penzance. The first act of the beloved G&S opera takes place on the sunny Cornish coast, complete with a bevy bathing beauties. However, the plot turns on Frederick's birthday being on February 29 in leap year. Have you even been in Cornwall in February? Sunny? Bathing? I think not. I mention The Pirates of Penzance to demonstrate how W.S. Gilbert manages to pull the wool over our eyes. It is the juxtaposition of facts. The illogical facts precede the logical premise. Thus, this is how you hang that particular lantern. If the reader believes you in the first place, you do not need to correct logical lapses in the second place. This is how J K Rowling manages the twisted logic of the elder wand; so much so that readers may go scrambling back to retrace who has which wand. Still, the story is finished by then.
In short, logic lapses may not be a novel's downfall if we excel in the author's finest attribute - telling the good lie, one that's credible, real and hung with enough lanterns to decorate a Chinese garden party.

Edward C. Patterson