Monday, September 21, 2009

TSTL Defined

* Lacey’s fingers trembled as they gripped the banister. The heavy clunk came again and a shiver slithered up her spine. The serial killer she had been hunting still hadn’t been found. Could he be here, in her house? No, it was impossible. As a woman living alone, she always locked her windows and doors. She swallowed against the lump of dread lodged in her throat. She could go back downstairs and get a weapon or call the police. But that might waste vital moments. She rounded the landing, and started up the last flight. From somewhere deep in the heart of the rickety old mansion a guttural chuckle punctuated the patter of rain on the roof.

As an avid mystery reader moments like these make me want to cringe. Why? Why? Why won’t this woman call for help, or get a weapon, or simply leave the creepy old house harboring a serial killer? A sort of shorthand developed among fans of mystery and suspense novels to describe these bizarre characters—TSTL—Too Stupid To Live. As in “There is no way she is making it out of that house alive.”

Since I first heard the acronym a great deal of furor has apparently risen among people who may misunderstand what it was coined to mean. Apparently some people think those who use the phrase are advocating the wide scale slaughter of naïve characters. On the contrary, we’re generally advocating for the character. We want these people we’ve come to know to be savvy. Or at least to use a modicum of common sense.

The fact that these moments crop up so often in fiction prompts a few obvious questions. One: Why do otherwise intelligent and gifted writers fall into the trap of forcing otherwise intelligent and gifted characters into downright stupid actions? And, two: How can we avoid the same pitfalls?

They (and by “they” I mean the all-knowing industry wags) say that an author can make anything plausible with the proper set-up. I suppose the trick is figuring out the proper set -up.

Part of it has to do with motivation. If we use my paragraph at the top as an example, it is easy to see that the only thing compelling Lacey up those stairs is her own morbid curiosity. A pretty thin reason, if she suspects a murderer is lying in wait for her. But what if we up the stakes? Perhaps a fire is spreading through the bottom floor, and the only way out is through the window and down the tree she used to sneak out of the house when she was a teenager. Or maybe she believes the killer has a hostage. That may explain the haste, if not the lack of forethought in grabbing a weapon.

I think the rule of thumb has to be our own life experience. Faced with the same situation would I respond in the same manner? What basic precautions would I take? Then we can take the next step of figuring out how to plausibly strip the character of those options and force the action.

So how about you? Do you find the notion of TSTL offensive? Have you ever been accused of having a TSTL character? How did you remedy the situation? As a reader, have you ever been frustrated by a TSTL moment in a book?

Leave a comment on this post between now and 9/24/09 with your e-mail address included (include spaces or brackets around the "@" sign so Net spiders, etc, can't phish your address) and we'll enter you in two different drawings. One on 9/25 and also for one of the grand prizes which will be chosen the first of November!

* Virginia Madsen in The Haunting in Connecticut


  1. I write suspense. I have to admit it, my heroine has a few scenes where she does something that would make me say, "fuggedaboutit." I know I must make the reader feel her apprehension but also the compelling reason she needs to take a chance.

    Well, I finally got some sleep and it feels good to be back in some sort of 'normal'.

    Great topic, and nice job introducing it, LIsa. I can't wait to read what we've all written about it this week. Finally the TSTL theme is here! See ya'll later.

    PS. Here's a note for readers to think about. If we are watching a movie/tv show, the music always seems to direct our emotions, right? Well, the next time you read something that builds up your fear for the character, remember that writers only have the words. They don't have the benefit of "scary music starts" and fancy camera work. Writers must put you into that scene by creating the tension IN you. That's our job. It's a big one, but one we love.

  2. I don't write suspense, but I have noticed that there are times I can take the easy road or the more complicated yet rewarding road in creating my characters motivation. The hard road always makes for more rounded and relatable characters.

    I do wonder, however, if I have some "too stupid to live" moments in my own life.


  3. I've tossed aside many a book for a TSTL character, or even hoped the guy would get her to empty out such a poor specimen from the gene pool. Yes, I work hard to keep my characters from not falling into that category. For myself, I never answer the door in my cul-de-sac house, where the neighbors are gone during the day, without the dog at my side and cell phone in my pocket or hand. Call me paranoid if you like, but my husband's job has given me TMI about criminals. (too much information) I would hope my characters would be as sensible.

  4. Thanks for the comments ladies. Yep, I think we all have those moments in real life. Maybe that's why the term has leached over into being an insult in some circles. The temptation as a writer is to just put the character in the predicament we need them to be in for our great denouement. BUT I think when we do that we can rob the reader of some of their enjoyment. Or even of some of the story.

    I know many readers who refuse to read on after a TSTL moment. So the way in which we place a character in the showdown scene is just as important as the scene itself. I think most people want to read about people who are just a little 'bigger' than the rest of us. In a mystery we want the sleuth to put together all the clues, even if we can't. In a romance we want the leads to be worthy of finding TRUE LOVE.

  5. Hmmmm. Here it is 9:00 a.m. TWATW (the weekend after the wedding) and this old dog has learned something TSTL. Never heard it before. My reaction when a book turns out my brain ilght? Throw it across the bedroom and grab the next TBR from the pile.

    I guess many have to understand the character's motivations...and have some reason to keep reading, whether it's liking the character, wanting to know what will happen.

    However, if I like the way the author plays with his or her words (if they are a word meister) I usually give them the benefit of the doubt and keep reading.

    Lisa, TFATPP.
    (Thanks for a thought-provoking post!)

  6. Great job introducing the topic, Lisa. Fun to read this post, and a bit poor heroine made a TSTL choice so I rewrote the scene after we first broached the topic. Argh.

    Seems like many movies and TV shows wouldn't exist without TSTL plot decisions. I often yell at the TV, "Why aren't you waiting for backup?" The Mentalist isn't even a cop, never has a gun, yet almost weekly, he ends up alone with a perp. Yet still I watch...

  7. Susanne is right about TV. I'm thinking about lost. I must blow up the island! No, wait. I must save the island! No, wait. I must blow up the island.

    And yet I never miss it. My husband gave up on it for a while, though.


  8. I'm blessed to rarely bump up against these characters. In fact, I find that fiction characters are getting smarter, more savvy.

    But when I do encounter one, the bile in my throat begins to rise, my eyes roll, and the hair on my neck stands up. I don't really want to see the characters killed off. I'd just like to send them to the Scarecrow School of Brain Power.

    [pwriter1] [at] [yahoo]

  9. I think you're right Patricia W. Characters are getting smarter (at least in books). I'm wondering if some of the credit for the change can go to all the tireless contest judges who call entrants on their TSTL moments?

    And I'm with you. I don't want the character to be killed off. That's why those moments make me so nuts!

  10. I had to laugh because as reader those TSTL moments are so frustrating to read about. I get so into the story that when a moment like that happens I feel like shouting "What were you thinking?" It's a good thing I internalize my frustration or my 6 year old and 2 year old would probably think their mommy was going crazy. Most of the time authors are pretty good about making their character not do absolutely stupid things but occasionally I end up shaking my head in horror.


  11. Good to see you again Patricia W and Cherie J. It's like we have real followers that stop in and comment. YAY! Not that we don't love our lurkers too.
    We are doing the happy dance here and it really looks stupid.

    I was just thinking that if there were no more TSTL characters out there, there'd be no teenager slasher movies. Maybe it's a good thing, eh?

    Hi Laurie Alice. Thanks for stopping in.

  12. Jurassic Park (movie) is absolutely FULL of these TSTL moments! But the first thing that came to mind after Lisa did such an excellent job of explaining TSTL moments were the "disposable extras" from Star Trek episodes. It was usually the guy in the red shirt you'd never seen before, who went to the scary new planet first. I guess I don't notice it in books as much as I do in movies. Odd, isn't it?

  13. I used to love MJ Rodgers's romantic suspense. She wrote page-turning, edge-of-your-seat Intrigues and they were great. In fact, I have every one. She doesn't write for them any longer, unfortunately. But the one thing she always talked about that is required for a good romantic suspense (and I suppose mysteries and any other book where your female might have one of these moments) is a STALWART heroine. Interesting word, but she's absolutely right. Who doesn't want to read about a heroine who is strong and capable with common sense? As much as I don't like the term TSTL, I am very careful to buy authors who give me more of the stalwart heroine and less of brainless ones.

  14. I would love to be entered in your draw. Thanks.

  15. Thanks all for the insightful comments. Oh, and Niki you're right, those poor red shirts were always like poor little lambs led to the slaughter. Although at least they had proper motivation in that they were following orders, and didn't necessarily think they were doing something dangerous.

    Cherie J and Wanda thanks for stopping by. We love having you here.

  16. I think you said you wanted us to comment, nice blog! I'm tired and that is the best I can do. My hands hurt from holding the mouse, I have to go to bed. Nice blog, I think I already said that.....

    dancealert at aol dot com

  17. Nice intro to the topic, Lisa. I see lots of TSTL moments in movies and TV. The one that bugs me the most is when someone goes back into a burning house to rescue the dog/cat/hampster/goldfish/etc. I mean, the place is an inferno, and some hysterical person screams, "I've got to save fluffy!" Sorry, but neither one of you's getting out of that tinder box alive.

    Another is when investigators are going through a crime scene and they don't turn on the lights. All these people, walking through a house in the dark with their itty-bitty pen lights, sometimes days after the crime has taken place. Turn on the lights, people!

  18. TSTL--yes, hate that! I agree that I'm reading less and less of it. Part of that is because I don't go back to an author who's put stuff like that out there. I think it can tend to be less-than-best-effort writing.

    sallybradleywrites [at]

  19. Lisa, you hit the nail on the coffin. We need to make it all plausible. And the fire below would do it for me. If I write my characters in the manner I'd react, I get the TSTL moniker from my crit partners. Often in our personal lives, we react without thinking. Our characters can't. They need to be bigger than life. It's fun (and challenging) to direct a character against the grain!

  20. I've come across many characters in books who fall into this category and it's always annoying. I agree that as writers we need to up the stakes and think about the motivations behind every action our characters make. After all, there's no way I'd have gone up those stairs unless, for instance, I thought my baby was asleep in her crib in a room up there somewhere!
    I'd love to be entered in the contest. :) Marcia AT vinemarc DOT com

  21. We have a Winner! Marcia please send your snail mail and we'll get that out to you asap!


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