Last week on StoryWonk Sunday, Lani and I discussed writers writing about writers writing. We alighted, as we are wont to do, upon the idea of informed ability; that is, the gap between what we are told about a character’s expertise or talent, and what we see them demonstrate within the course of the story.
Here’s the TV Tropes link. Be careful, and leave a breadcrumb trail, or you’ll never find your way back out.
Our conversation started me thinking about informed ability, and why it is both so common, and such a problem. Why would an author set themselves up in this way? Are we supposed to write only about characters who share our own strengths and weaknesses? How do we avoid this trap?
Since we began by talking about writers, let’s look at a couple. Consider Ike Graham, the male lead in The Runaway Bride. His scathing and incisive assault on Maggie Carpenter fuels the conflict through the first two-thirds of the film, and yet… it’s rather weak, to say the least. Ike’s entire career as a columnist, in fact, is fairly difficult to believe, particularly as a columnist who is famous across the country.
Speaking of columnists, we’d be remiss if we skipped past Carrie Bradshaw of Sex And The City. Carrie writes a weekly sex column for the fictional New York Star, and is apparently so good at it that she earns a prodigious salary, and is recognized and celebrated all over town. Things are complicated further by the fact that Carrie is also our narrator, so her lifeless prose doesn’t just reveal a talent gap in her characterization, but also compromises some of the narrative structure. It’s tough to deliver an insightful and perceptive bon mot at the end of the episode when the prose reads like a freshman article for a college newspaper.
Informed ability isn’t limited to writing, however. One of the very few problems with the new BBC Sherlock series can be found in the first episode of season one. After tracking a taxi across London, Holmes and Watson question the passenger, and then let him go. The first time we watched it together, Lani and I immediately recognized that — spoiler here — the culprit was, in fact, the driver. Everything in the show seemed to be pointing in that direction, and yet Holmes never considers it. It seems like a strange oversight for someone so remarkably intelligent.
As we mentioned on the podcast, one of the worst examples of informed ability can be found in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Matt Albie is supposed to be a world-class writer, but despite Matthew Perry’s charm, we see no evidence of it. Worse still, staff writers Ricky and Ron (played with wonderful understatement by Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott) are supposed to be unscrupulous hacks, but neither their behavior nor work seem to be significantly worse than Albie’s. Danny Trip is supposed to be a genius producer, but you’d never know; Jordan McDeere is supposed to be so good at her job that she survives as president of NBS despite professional mistakes and personal embarrassment, but we see no evidence of it; and as for Harriet Hayes, a woman so beautiful and talented that a choir of angels appear every time she opens her mouth or blows her nose… well, there’s precious little reason to believe the hype. Even the brilliant Judd Hirsch, who begins the series with an on-air meltdown explicitly reminiscent of the movie Network is neither as charismatic nor as scathingly original as we are lead to believe.
And I say all that as someone who liked the show.
The point is this: as authors, we can create characters who exceed our own limitations, we can describe extraordinary talent, excellence and mastery, but if we’re actually called upon to deliver that world-class performance and we can’t, then our reader is instantly thrown out of the story. Every one of the examples I listed would have been improved if the space had been left blank, if we had simply never seen Matt Albie’s wild stumbles toward sketch comedy, or Ike Graham’s apparently-incisive commentary.
Understand your limitations, and respect them. You don’t have to be bound by them, but you must avoid the temptation to shine a light on them. Your reader will fill in the blanks on their own, but they won’t believe you if you tell them that your characters are creating a comedy show more daring, original and hilarious than Saturday Night Live ever dreamed of being, and then show them this:
So, what are your favorite — and least favorite — examples of informed ability? Which writers get it right, and which don’t?