This is the third in our mini-series of critique abbreviations. Today let’s look at Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS).
A fellow writer once described to me her elaborate plot, which involved jealousy, revenge, and a woman’s ruined reputation. I was enthralled until she said, “Of course, at the end, it turns out to be all a misunderstanding. None of the characters are really bad; it’s just a case of mistaken identity.”
Her characters suffered from a bad case of perfectly nice syndrome and, in the end, it killed her book. She was never able to publish it.
Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, referred to this as TANSTAAFL, pronounced tan-staffle. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)—a term I learned from the writer Sherry Lewis—is much shorter to write.
Free lunches served in bars was popularized in the United States in the last quarter of the 1800s. The Spanish had been doing for centuries with tapas. We see it today in the bowl of chips or pretzels found in many bars, pubs, and taverns.
Whether the free lunch was the oyster soup, roast meat, and buttered bread found in high-end New Orleans clubs or the sausages, pickles, and cheese in less lofty establishments, free food had one thing in common. Salt: a hidden invitation to purchase more drinks.
In the same way, getting rid of PNS invites the reader to be more involved with the characters and to keep reading. PNS shows up in three ways.
The isn’t really bait-and-switch
An easy way to spot it is isn’t really as in, the protagonist’s landlord isn’t really going to evict her; or boss isn’t really that mean; or the protagonist isn’t really in danger here. We can wring so much more drama out of her really being evicted, or his boss being really that mean, or him really being in danger.
If, as my friend wanted to write, none of the characters are really bad and everything was a case of mistaken identity, what we’re pulling on the reader is a bait-and-switch scam. We lead the reader through a series of events designed to make them mistrust the protagonist’s boyfriend only to discover that the women he escorted around town was not only his cousin, but a nun to boot. The final revelation is akin to Orson Wells coming out of character at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast to say he’d dressed up in a sheet and said “Boo” to the listeners.
Bad things happen to good people
If the character’s coffee is always hot and tasty; there’s always a parking spot; people always cooperate with interviews; and, most especially, the protagonist always dodges consequences, our character has PNS.
Actions should have consequences, and characters should have flaws. Yes, the boyfriend really was cheating on the protagonist. Yes, he did go to bed with the other woman. Yes, she did catch a sexually-transmitted disease from him. Now the protagonist and boyfriend have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they will learn to trust one another again, maybe they won’t, but in either case, the writer has a lot more to work with than an actor, popping out to say, “Boo.”
No reaction to significant events
The third flavor of Perfectly Nice Syndrome is when we, as writers, have our eyes so firmly set on plot that we glosses over significant moments. Suppose our character is in heavy traffic and a guy cuts in front of her.
Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.
What? No reaction to almost creaming into the back of a pickup?
A significant moment tests a character’s perception of herself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most of us have dozens of significant moments every day. A guy changes lanes too fast and we almost slam into his rear bumper. A co-workers makes an comment that angers or hurt us. Our child’s school sends an e-mail that says, “Please make an appointment with the principal as soon as possible.”
Do we react? Of course we do. We might curse the driver or pray for his safety. We might turn on the co-worker or fume silently at our desk. We might grab the phone and demand to see the principal in the next ten minutes, or delete the e-mail, hoping if we pretend that we never got it, the problem, whatever it is, will blow over.
Does that mean our characters must react to each significant event, even a broken fingernail?
The obvious thing is to leave out events that aren’t significant. Why have the protagonist break a fingernail unless it will lead her to the manicurist who leads her to the victim’s aunt, who knows a clue the protagonist didn’t even know she needed?
The good thing is most reactions can be short.
Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. Her heart pounded. She bent her forehead to touch the steering wheel. “Lord, slow that crazy fool down and keep him safe until he has the good sense to listen to You.”
The pick-up turned right, fading out of Pearl’s sight and thought. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.
Pearl’s reaction added four sentences, but we learned a lot about her from that short addition. She has good reflexes for a 72-year-old woman. She’s more religious than spiteful, she prays for her enemies, and she has a sense of humor.
Every rose has a thorn. Every beautiful sunset includes bats swarming out of the old mill. Every favor demands payback—preferably at the most inopportune time. For writers and their characters, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Next Tuesday, July 28th, we’re doing the fourth critique abbreviation — VSOP, or Very Special Old Port. This one is not quite as obvious as the three we’ve already done, so I’ll let you guess for a week what it means.
I’m having such a good time with this mini-series that I’m going to do one on Level Thinking, too. Starting in two days, on July 24, we’ll be doing merit badges for adults. After all, it’s summer. Time to go to camp and earn badges.