Monday, October 11, 2010

TSTL…….Or is she?

Most romance writers know that TSTL means a hero/heroine that is “Too Stupid To Live.” (Think about the stupid people in the Scream movies who go outside at midnight or down to the basement when they hear a noise, knowing there is a killer on the loose. I was surprised to find out it is not a common acronym with other genre writers, especially those who don’t belong To RWA (Romance Writers of America).

On the Book Cents Loop, we had quite a discussion about this and a few other acronyms writers use (H/H, HEA, GMC, etc.) It was suggested this would make a good blog topic, and since I had nothing prepared for today, here it is.

I’ll start with a story TCTH (too close to home). A few years ago, I was on a Caribbean cruise with my hubby, son and daughter-in-law. We had signed up for the excursions at the beginning of the week for each of the ports, and I was looking forward to them, especially the cave-exploring one in Belize. That was before clumsy me broke her baby toe and couldn’t go since it involved a lot of walking over rough terrain. So, I sent them on their way that day and decided to go ashore and check out the shopping.

The ship anchored out at sea, and we had to be shuttled to shore in smaller boats. There were two, long, storage-shed-looking units surrounded by a chain-link fence. In a matter of a few minutes, I had walked through both of them and was unimpressed. Being the shopper that I am, I wanted more. So, I walked to the edge of the fence where a policeman sat at the gate and many Belizean vendors (??) called out to me. I almost paid a guy $20 for a tour of the city in his limo, by myself, I might add. And then I decided I should stay close and shop since my toe had started to hurt.

I stepped outside the security of the gate and asked where I could find a souvenir shop. One young man appeared by my side and pointed to a little store about two hundred yards away. I headed that way with him right behind me, joined by a second young man. For some reason, I didn’t hear the Jaws music in my head (Da dump! Da dump!) I was hell bent on spending money since I had missed out on the excursion.

The little shop was a bust, and as I walked out the door, one of the boys said there was a really great shop in the alley. By now, I could hear the little voices in my head shouting “Get out of the water. Can’t you hear the music??” Suddenly frightened, I turned toward the cop and the safety of the fence and headed that way. One of the young men grabbed my arm and tried to persuade me to go to the alley with him. When I refused, he said he would be my bodyguard and not let bad things happen to me. Yeah, right! By this time, my smarter self had taken over my brain, and all I wanted to do was get back inside that fence. So, I handed each one ten dollars and made my way as fast as I could to the gate.

Back on the ship I was still shaking To this day, there is no doubt in my mind I would have been robbed or murdered or both. It was really a very stupid thing to do since we had been warned by the cruise staff to be careful.

So, for a few minutes, I became that heroine TSTL. Playing devil’s advocate here, I once heard Donald Maass say to think about what your character would absolutely not do and make him do it. But I don’t think he had stupidity in mind. I can’t tell you how many contest entries I’ve judged where I’ve had to take points off because of this. If you wouldn’t do it, why make your characters do it?

Oh wait, I forgot. I did do it! Does that make me stupid? Absolutely. For those brief minutes when I put myself in harm’s way, I was stupid. Fortunately, it only cost me twenty bucks. In today’s world we have to be on guard constantly for people who have no regard for our safety, especially in foreign countries.

But hold the phone! Just when you’ve declared a character TSTL for going down those steps to the basement, think about this. What if she knew her child was down there and needed her? All of a sudden, not only is she not stupid, she’s a hero, igniting every maternal instinct in our bodies. Think about those TV shows where a man straps a bomb on his back because some terrorist has his family. The Event (new show on TV right now) has a pilot who found himself in that same situation. Matter of fact, my sequel to my ghost story has a similar plot.

Moral of the story - it isn’t always black and white with the stupid thing. And you know what? I think that’s just what “The Donald” had in mind.

So, now I’m anxious to hear any stories you have about TV shows, your own writing, or your personal experiences where for a brief time, you transformed into someone TSTL.

And BTW, I didn’t come up with the “what if” scenario. Thanks go to my pal, Clarissa Southwick, on the BC Loop for thinking outside the box. Check out her blog tomorrow. She might be writing about the same thing.


magolla said...

IMO the key is to keep the TSTL aspect within the character's personality.

If you wrote a ditzy character, you wouldn't be surprised by any TSTL action.

I've noticed (in my paranormal judging) that many writers are going after the elusive kick-ass heroine--with zero flaws--but when she has to do something TSTL they force the character to do it, which rings wrong. BUT if they plant a little indication of the character's weakness, then I'll buy it.

That's what layering in multiple drafts is all about--the little hints that make a story believable.

Clarissa Southwick said...

Thanks for the shout out, Liz. My TSTL moments are many, but completely in character. I keep thinking with age comes wisdom, but it hasn't happened yet. Great blog. I always enjoy visiting M&M.

Liz Lipperman said...

Margaret, that is an excellent point and another reason why it isn't always black and white.

What else could influence a character's decision to do something that stupid?

Thanks for commenting, BTW. It's good to see you here.

Liz Lipperman said...

Ah, the outside-the-box-thinking Clarissa is here.

I,too, think wisdom should come with age, but the Caribbean incident happened only a few years ago.

I'm back to stupid!

Marilyn said...

I've been thinking about this since the BC discussion. Think of all the missionaries who have gone into highly dangerous situations because of their faith--those outside their faith might look at them as TSTL. I still miss Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter). Many people thought he was TSTL, and he did end up giving his life, but it was because of his passion--animal conservation. I suppose there are many incidences of what might seem TSTL in real life that would make good sense--and even be worth the personal sacrifice--inside the person's skin. Passion--whether for family, one's country, a cause, or a belief--overrides self-protection and fear.

Marilyn said...

Liz, maybe your comment brings out the issue of age and TSTL. JUST KIDDING! ;-> Maybe it was again about passion--your passion for shopping--that's some highly charged passion, btw!

Marilyn said...

I keep thinking about this topic, for some reason. Denial is also a huge issue with all of us. I question why anyone would go to Mexico right now. But I have only been to Tijuana, and that didn't inspire a passion for Mexico that would override my safety concern. But don't you think there's also an element of that will happen to other people but not me?

Up to the age of about 21, the reasoning part of the brain is not completely formed, making teenagers think of themselves as invincible. Also, many teenagers act out instead of withdrawing when they are depressed, and one of the symptoms is extreme risk-taking behavior, as though they don't care if they die. But the immediate adrenalin rush also pushes down the depression. They might appear TSTL, but in reality, they are TDTL.

Liz Lipperman said...

Wow! You bring some valid points to this discussion. I'll try to address them all.

Passion is a real motivator as you said. But I think the adrenaline rush is the bigger one. With Steve Irwin, I once saw him go after the ten deadliest snakes. At one point, he was lying on the ground, and the number one most poisonous snake literally kissed him. If I had been married to him, I would have killed him myself. That said, I loved the man and the entertainment he provided.

About my shopping passion - nope, just plain stupidity.

I agree about going to Mexico right now with all the crime and drug wars going on there. Nothing is worth risking your life that way, not even getting a huge tube of Retin A for $3.00!!

As for teens, I also agree they see themselves as invincible. I'm sending prayers for anyone out there who is raising a teen right now It was scary enough when my kids were that age, but it must be horrific now with all the things that can happen.

Thanks for your comments, Marilyn.

Marilyn said...

Let's face it. Some writers do take the easy way out with a TSTL. I raised the question on the forum about whether the reader or audience member's fear is increased by the knowing that this person's stupidity is going to put them in harm's way.

OTOH, it can also be a matter of distraction--texting while driving, thinking about a $3 bottle of retinol instead of the surroundings, trying to remember your to-do list and forgetting to look both ways before crossing the street. When we write, maybe a simple mental distraction can be enough to put a character in harm's way without causing them to be TSTL.

Anita Clenney said...

Scary story, Liz! That could have turned out disastrous. I have stupid moments, but I try to keep my heroines from doing it.

I did get really frustrated with an editor's assistant once. I'd only been writing for a short time, but he loved my writing and requested a full. After reading the full, he accused my heroine of making the same dumb mistakes over and over. He was just an assistant and I was fairly new, so I'm not sure who was wrong and who was right, but I didn't see the character as stupid. It fit her personality. She tended to rush out to help someone without thinking of herself.

I have to say that editor did me a favor by making me so aware of this problem. Now I try to make sure she isn't doing something that could define her as TSTL.

Barbie Jo Mahoney said...

This is great! I look at my own "incident" and let's just say I wasn't being stupid (in hindsight...YEARS later, I might add, I realized how stupid it was)but it was an innocence and believing that there were "good" people inthe world. and lucky for me in this case, there was.

I had just gotten married and moved to Georgia (I was 22). We had just moved into a new apt. and this was before the age of cell phones. If anyone knows, Georgia traffic is horrendous to say the least. I had gotten off the highway, but we were dedlocked on the offramp. As we battery died. I walk, in dress and heels, up the road to a convenience/gas station and ask to use the phone. I call home, but our phone wasn't hooked up yet! and I have no one else to call and don't know what to do.

so i go back to my car, thinking I'll wait and call home again (okay, so that's the stupid moment. it's 5:30 and if it wasn't working before, it sure as hell isn't going to work later). Once I get back to my car, this nice looking man (probably in his 30's) asks me if I needed a ride.

so..on the verge of tears, I say yes. so naive me gets in the car with a complete stranger, and instead of having him take me to a garage or gas station...I have him take me HOME! (cue the psycho music please) And as a mother, I know sit here and stupid idiot, let's just let the stranger know exactly where you live so he can come back and kill you!

but no, I gave him very good directions, and he dropped me off right in front of my apt. door, safe and sound and I was very greatful. No bad incidents followed, and we replaced the battery in my car the next day.

so..TSTL?? at that moment, no. I was honest and wanted to believe in the goodness of mankind. But 23 yrs later??? STUPID, STUPID, STUPID and if my daughter EVER does anyting like that... I will throttle her!

Now I'm somewhat 'wiser', and call it a character flaw but I still want to see the best in people.

Lindsay said...

Liz, I don't think what you did might qualify as TSTL. A little dumb, maybe. A little unsafe, definitely. Someone should have told you not to go outside the fenced in area.
When I write a scene where the H/H goes into a dangerous situation I try to imagine myself doing the exact same thing. That way I can keep them safe from harm, hopefully.
Then again I use to run into burning buildings, a fast walk might be more accurate since I had about 50 pounds of equipment on my back. Or stand next to a car with only a one inch diameter tree preventing the car from rolling over on me while gas dripped from the tank. Of course I was keeping the passanger's head immobile until the rescue crew could relieve me.
What I should have said first was that when I did those things and many others I was a volunteer fireman and it was my job, albeit unpaid, I had to buy my own beer later.
Were they TSTL? Maybe but I don't think so. Was I brave? No. Was I stupid?-hey, I'm a guy and we don't do stupid things. Except get married-twice. Sometime I never learn.

Marilyn said...

Okay, that's another reason--no choice but to trust someone. I've been in that circumstance with car breakdowns. That can lead to a scary scenario--alone and no way to get help but from a stranger.

VR Barkowski said...

I've had so many TSTL moments, it boggles the mind. One of the stupidest was to give chase to a guy who tried to mug me. He grabbed me, and I started screaming and hitting him in the face with a camera I had wrapped around my wrist - that was smart. When he backed away and started to run, instead of turning around and heading in the opposite direction, I was so enraged, I went after him - that was stupid. It took me a half a block to come to my senses.

It's important to acknowledge that what appears to be TSTL behavior on the screen or on the page, in real life can seem quite rational. I recently moved from a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country. There were always "murderers on the prowl." Still, I wouldn't have thought twice about going down into my basement to check out a noise. Had the electricity gone off or the theme from Psycho started to play as I descended the steps, I'd have reconsidered.

I agree, it's the writer's job to ensure a character's actions are logical. If character behavior doesn't make sense, then maybe it's the writer not the character who is TSTL. :)

Lindsay said...

VR from what I've seen with the new TV season, including The Event, a lot of the script writers belong in the TSTL category.

Liz Lipperman said...

Anita, I'm wondering if your character was ditzy, as Margaret mentioned in her comment. Sometimes ditzy behavior might be misconstrued as TSTL.

And everybody has an opinion. I'm glad you didn't give up on that story. Is that the one that sold to SourceBooks?

Liz Lipperman said...

Barbie, your story was as scary as mine. What were you thinking, says the pot to the kettle!!

Seriously, I think Marilyn hit it on the head that when we're younger, we don't think of all the bad things that can happen. Plus, when we were younger, there weren't as many bad things to worry about. I used to hitch hike with a group of girls.

Talk about killing my daughter if she did any of the stuff I did!! Turns out she did. Thank goodness I didn't know about that at the time.

Liz Lipperman said...

Lindsay, kudos to you for volunteering like that. I don't think it's TSTL when you're saving someone's life. It's like I mentioned in the blog. If a mother thought her kid was in the basement, that's a whole other story.

As far as two marriages, hey, you're a romance writer. You have to believe that stuff to write it!!

Liz Lipperman said...

Marilyn, so far we've come up with several reasons why something isn't necessarily TSTL. Sometimes as you said, you just have to trust someone and pray they were raised right.

Wow! this has turned into a pretty good dialogue today.

Liz Lipperman said...

You make a good point, V.R. I guess if you're going to make your characters do something stupid or really dangerous, you'd better have a good reason why they're doing it. It goes back to that Donald Maass tidbit - make him do what he thought he never would,then redeem him in the end.

As for chasing the mugger, I hope you learned a valuable lesson from that. My vet's hubby saw a theft at a convenience store one night and ran after the guy. Got shot 4 times in the abdomen, now has a colostomy and nearly died. But knowing him, he would do it all over again.

You were lucky.

Lindsay said...

I don't think of myself as a romance writer just someone disillusioned by romance.

Kari Lee Townsend said...

Oh my my my .... have I ever had some TSTL moments... and I too try to make sure my hero's don't make the same mistakes. Not sure I always succeed though :-)

Marilyn said...

Thanks for a great discussion--I don't write mystery or horror, but this has given me a lot to think about in terms of creating tension in middle grade and YA. It's extremely valuable to have inter-genre discussions.

Liz Lipperman said...

Kari, I'd love to hear about your TSTL moments. Maybe some night over margaritas!!

Marilyn, this was a great discussion, and we all learned from it.

Thanks to everyone who commented.