Vicki's Book News and Articles

The Sniff Test

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 26, 2010

If it…
looks like a skunk,
smells like a skunk,
acts like a skunk…
it’s probably a skunk.

Skunks are great for conflict,
but not necessarily great for fiction


Things happen, or our awareness is drawn to them, in clusters.

For the past several days, children have been on my intense radar–my miracles, the would-be abduction of the four-year-old, Liam’s email asking me to help spread the word about his post on child exploitation, a chilling phone call that would rattle the Apostles right out of their sandals…


And this cluster continues.  In this morning’s news, parents attempted to sell their child for $30.  A parking lot sale.  And a short time earlier, they’d attempted to sell the child in a bank parking lot near the location where this second attempt was made.

They were caught and arrested.

But my question isn’t about what happens to them.  It’s about what will happen to the child.

Too often children are placed back into unsafe homes for anyone to feel confident that it won’t happen.  A few counseling sessions and all is well–except it isn’t.  And the child pays the price for that.

We all get a Christmas wish, right?  It’s a long-established tradition.  My wish is that this child is placed in a warm and loving home, grows up safe and secure and free from any memory of a time before then.  A time when personal worth was measured at $30.

And while it isn’t perhaps charitable or the way one should feel, especially “in the spirit of the season,” I also wish that the parents who tried to sell this child and this child never again cross paths.  That, in my humble opinion, would be a blessing for the child.

As a writer, it’s interesting to ponder motivations and conflicts.  The immediate reaction is to detest the parents.  That’s an expected and largely universal reaction.  But for fiction, it is also the wellspring of enormous conflict.  And every writer knows conflict is the spine of the story–essential, or there is no story.  So the writer in me wonders what motivation could justify the parents’ actions.  Is there one?  And is it possible to create one with which readers could relate.  Perhaps not agree with, but relate to.

Using only the end situation as a springboard, a skilled author probably could “justify” in a manner acceptable to readers.  I thought of at least three plausible plot twists–all of which were for the safety and protection of the child, to remove jeopardy.  The challenge is that while these three scenarios are plausible, they are not inevitable, and they still reek.

And that’s the point of this post.  Anyone can attempt to justify anything.  They might or might not succeed.  But in the end, if the motivation or justification is logical and plausible and credible, that’s still not enough.  The actions still have to pass the sniff test.

On that, regardless of motivation, the parents failed.

When you test your characters, their actions, rationales, motivations, be sure to add in the sniff test.  Keep in mind that if it looks, smells and acts like a skunk, it’s probably a skunk.  Skunks make for great conflict, but don’t necessarily make good fiction.

The bottom line is that everything else can work, but if the sniff test fails, your novel will, too.




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