What makes a gimmick?

What feels gimmicky in one book may work beautifully and naturally in another. It all depends upon the author’s intent, execution, and skill. Some types of stories also lend themselves better to styles or devices which seem annoying and gimmicky in others. There are some things which can be gimmicky in the wrong hands, the wrong book, or for the wrong reasons.

1. Everything (or the meat of the story) was just a dream or fantasy. Who doesn’t want to bang his or her head against the wall after getting emotionally invested with characters and a story, only to discover it wasn’t real? This is a slap in the face no matter whether it’s a book, movie, or TV show (looking at the series finale of Roseanne!). It would have to be done extremely well, and for an original reason, to work and not feel like a huge insult to the reader’s intelligence, time, and emotion.

2. Nonlinear narrative. This was done very well in Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, but the author is Vietnamese, and nonlinear structure is apparently more common in Asian novels. If it’s a Western novel, I’ll be less likely to give it a pass. The main exception I can think of is if the book is being told as a flashback by someone in the present (like a grandmother telling her grandkids the story of how she immigrated), with periodic interludes to now, or if it involves someone in the present trying to solve a mystery from the past.

3. Alternating between first- and third-person. This can work in a good nonlinear book, like the examples mentioned above, but other times it just feels annoying and gimmicky. It could also be tolerable if the meat of the book is a flashback and has some wraparound segments in the present, like Nancy Garden’s classic Annie on My Mind (a classic YA I highly recommend).

4. Alternating narrators or POV characters. This just feels gimmicky and faddish after seeing it done so many times in recent years. I’m not saying writers are doing it on purpose just to mindlessly follow a trend, because that would be insulting, but when it’s all or mostly what they’ve seen examples of, how will they know how to write a good story with multiple protagonists or an ensemble cast? Third-person omniscient can be your friend!

5. An unnamed narrator. This works beautifully and perfectly in Jerzy Kosinski’s haunting classic The Painted Bird, but there’s a reason for it. In most other books, it would probably feel poorly-executed and gimmicky.

6. The narrator dies at or near the end. Unless there follows an Epilogue by another person explaining how this story came to be told, like the papers were found after the death, I can’t suspend my disbelief. Who is this “I” telling the story if s/he dies? For that matter, I also don’t feel on the edge of my seat if a first-person narrator is in a very dramatic, live-or-die situation, since I know s/he obviously survived to tell the tale.

7. Ridiculous or too-convenient deus ex machina plot twists or coincidences. Just step away from this one.

8. Death or some other omnipresent, all-knowing being as narrator (coughthebookthiefcough). There has to be a sensible, believable explanation as to why this person is telling the story, and focusing on a certain person or event. Being so completely omniscient also doesn’t mean God mode. I’m glad modern omniscient writers have moved away from that archaic style of judging characters, manipulating prose to essentially tell the reader how to feel and react, and giving away future developments.

9. The long-lost relative, suddenly, miraculously reunited or discovered.

10. A story within a story within a story. Until I radically rewrote and restructured The Very First, this is how the book was structured: It opened in 2000, as the now-elderly women gathered at Violet’s mansion to make a tape recording about their lives in the years leading up to WWII. Then it cuts to August 1938, as the Brandts arrive in Atlantic City. Violet upstages Cinni, the Most Popular Girl, by arranging a meet and greet for Sparky (Katherine) at The Tuna Paurlour.

The event doesn’t go as planned, and Cinni takes Sparky aside to teach her all about the strange town and its people. So scores of pages are just endless backstory, with occasional asides in parentheses reminding the reader that Cinni is telling this story to Sparky. The real story doesn’t begin till Part II. I had a few intermissions to the present in TVF, and The Very Next. Talk about a terrible gimmick!

Any other gimmicks you’d like to add?

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12 thoughts on “What makes a gimmick?

  1. You don’t consider two characters too many for alternating points of view, do you?
    The story was a dream. That has been overdone. Best one ever was the television show Bob Newhart, the second one – where at the end, he wakes up and he’s back in the first show and the second was all a dream. That was done well.

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    • I don’t consider two too many necessarily, though I personally don’t like the trend of bopping back and forth between them, one chapter at a time, instead of just going omniscient and not breaking the narrative flow up.

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  2. I think you’ve pretty much got them all. lol
    I’m right with you there on most of them. I’ve seen #1 work RARELY, and only when it worked toward the overlying plot of the story…like the main character needed to learn a great deal about his/herself and the subconscious mind was the only way to do it.

    #4 drives me foolish. It feels…childish somehow. Maybe because this is how I used to write my stories when I was a child. lol I’ve actually changed a story of my own from 1st person to 3rd person just to avoid this kind of thing when I realized that certain scenes would have to be told from the view of a different character. >.<

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    • I think third-person is generally the best way to tell a story, unless there’s some awesome reason it could only work in first. I really feel like a lot of modern writers think third is stuffy, old-fashioned, etc., and so only consider first.

      The worst example of alternating narrators I’ve seen to date was Andy Mulligan’s Trash. It bopped around back and forth between EIGHT narrators, three of whom only got one chapter apiece. I already forgot who one of them, Grace, even was while I was still reading the book! The final chapters were so bad they bounced around among 3-4 narrators in each chapter.

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      • Yup, that just sounds horrible. lol It sounds very similar to the House of Night novels. I enjoy the story, despite there being an avalanche of issues with the writing, but the thing that just frustrates me to no end is how the narrative jumps from character to character each chapter. I find it really difficult to deal with it because of all the different voices. :\

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  3. If you can believe it, I almost did the “it was a dream” ending for one of my stories, but promptly changed it because I didn’t want what happened to have been a lie.

    Like Alex, I’m wondering what you think of two alternative character points-of-view, because I personally think it’s fine.

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    • I don’t think two are too many per se, though it’s just a trend I personally amn’t keen on. A lot of times, I can’t help but feel like this writer chose alternating narrators or POV characters instead of third-person omniscient because s/he thinks that POV is too old-fashioned and stuffy, has never seen any recent examples of it, and/or just plain doesn’t know how to write it well.

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    • I was wanting to read Annie on My Mind for the longest time, since I heard about it (over 15 years!), and the long wait was well worth it. It’s totally earned its status as a classic.

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  4. Pingback: What’s Up Wednesday | Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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