… I’m in trouble deep.

I always figured papa was sort of entitled to preach, as he was obviously doing the rescuing.

This is at least in part one of those ‘curse of the Buddha’ posts, which may change the innocent joy you had in reading… because it’s about the levers behind the story. And once you’ve seen them, you can never quite go back. So now is the time to quit, if you’re just a reader. If you’re a writer, I am sorry, but you really ought to read on. Oh, and in the interest of transparency there is only one mention of Sad Puppies in this post…

And you’re safely past it now.

I got suckered into this, as I am very bad writer who has had to try and learn what comes naturally to most people. I learned my ‘writing skillz’ from the Skool of Scientific Deniability, Impenetrability, Rotten Grammar and Shakespearean Spelingg, and it shows. Seriously, I had a delightful Germanic style which would have done Hegel proud. Sometimes I managed as many as two sentences to the page. I believe I did manage a paragraph once that was less two pages long.

In the process of unlearning – which was long and painful – and involved many self-beatings until the morale improved — I had to actually work out what most of you know instinctively. I am in no way a master of this craft. I’m a journeyman, but it has meant I have some value as a bad example.

So: I happened to make an idle comment on facebook about the two phases that any story has, for me. Firstly: The part where I take the character – probably from trouble – and drop them into a real morass. I said how this came naturally to me, because I was singly experienced at it. In fact, you might say I am positively gifted at willfully going where angels cop a sickie rather than venture in. I will own up to being a man of no small ingenuity at going places and doing things where even the Evil Emperor Mong* covers his eyes and shakes his head. I can write from experience, which is easier than having to look it up. It is of course sadly true that fiction has to be believable, whereas fact just is – which also makes it harder.

The only difficulty is choosing the awfulness for maximum depth. Sometimes an author is spoiled for choice. And you face the chess player’s dilemma – you have to work out all the probable (if not possible) courses of action from this.

Still, being a writer gives some sort of purpose to that miss-spent youth (I have continued to enjoy a happy childhood for long time, at least as far as getting muddy, bloody, and as dirty as a happy ten year old is concerned.)

But of course, with the exception possible of a few miserable books…

Every story needs a second stage: where the character tries to dig himself out of the bloody awful mess you have put him into.

This is important: it’s not about whether they succeed or not. That’s actually NOT a requirement. It’s if they tried, and how they tried.

I personally have seen enough misery in the real world. If I wanted leaves in the wind of events blown to their destruction, I could open a newspaper, or turn on the TV. My characters HAVE to dig themselves out of the hole. They might die reaching the top, but even dying will be a victory. YMMV. I can only talk for myself.

So you have mister fiendishly ingenious get-into-trouble, the sort of guy who you think ought to be embarrassed to get another Darwin Award, trying his best to kill his characters, or at least make them very, very sorry to be alive.

And then you have the same guy – Good-Dave — trying to dig them out. Oh and mister fiendish-and-evil Dave KNOWS exactly what he’s doing and will thwart it at every turn. ‘Whata mistake to make!’

Tch. A mess. No wonder my good friends Sarah and Cedar were leaning on me to write my method.

Sigh. The problem with this as with so many things… is that you’re watching the wrong hand.

Work it out. You’re looking at a guy who keeps doing things you think ought to win him a Darwin award. Who has been going into sea that no sane man would go near, wriggling down underwater caves to find… sometimes lobsters. Sometimes eels. Sometimes sharks. A guy who opened hundreds of rock-climbing routes everyone said were suicidal. Who has been stranded on more mountains in killing conditions than you’ve had birthday treats. And that leaves out things like fighting wildfires, cutting down 100 foot trees piece by piece from the top, and rescuing others from their folly in the sea and mountains, and the mindlessly stupid stunts, which have included getting in the middle of a knife fight with a sluice-plank.

There are plenty of photographs and witnesses – people who will confirm I’m daft as a brush, and they took pics to prove it.

Seen the other hand yet?

I’m 55.

I started diving in the rock-pools while my brother was in the sea… at 5. I started climbing at 8.

I have done things which could kill the unsuspecting Darwin Award winner thousands of times. I’m still alive. I hurt a bit at times, but I’m still doing them.

Which has to mean several things.

1)I’m actually better at surviving, at getting out of trouble, than I am at doing stupid things. For now. That could change tomorrow.

2)They probably aren’t quite as stupid as they look. If I actually had the poor judgement it looks like I have… I’d be dead, many times over. I have the skills and tools, and a cool head and quick mind under fire or stress. Darwin let me live to breed. I am actually a lot more careful and cautious than it appears. I have a lifetime of a lot of varied experience and I know my ability and know the risks. I take active steps to minimize them, short of not doing it all. That will fail me one day. I know that.

3)Therefore… I’ve fooled you. And THAT is what you have to do to your reader. Your character HAS the tools and skills to survive. If you’re a writer worth your salt, you will have shown the reader every one of those tools before the event – probably at least three times. Thus, when it happens, using those skills and tools it will seem plausible – remember this FICTION – it needs to be plausible. If not it’s either fact… or badly written.

And now that you know that author is a stage magician. Now you cannot go back. Now you’ll be looking for that other hand. It is always there, if the writer is worth his salt. Everyone’s methods differ. I am not a pantser. Ask Kate. I plot. My plotting starts with intractable problems. Problems which SHOULD destroy a random individual, or society or world. Problems I can make worse. Surprisingly often a whole book has come out of someone saying ‘That’s impossible.’ Or ‘You can’t do that.’

Because nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.

I work out how to solve them. Then I build the character and setting and make sure the elements of how they can be used to escape the predicament are there. The combinations may be unlikely. Shrug. I am an author. I can change characters and circumstances until they not only are likely, they’re damn near inevitable. When I do it well… you don’t see it coming. You’re watching the other hand. But because this isn’t a ‘magic trick’, the escape is perfectly logical and plausible… in retrospect.

Doing it well worthy of huge respect, because it is very hard, and takes a lot of skill. THAT- from the writer’s point of view is great writing. The reader shouldn’t even notice.

Now you know. Now you will see the build up to it. Now hopefully it will make it easier to do for yourself. You may not need to do it this way, but I do. Of course, having worked it out in advance, doesn’t mean it doesn’t change as we go along. It does, because Nasty-Dave is still doing his fiendish best, and sometimes an author’s plans do not fit with a character’s nature.

YMMV… but that’s mine.

BTW this was an example of showing, not telling. I’m curious as to how many people noticed.

*A fine oriental noble gentleman with long mustachios who has advised the ‘other ranks’ (such as me) impeccably for years. If you need further explanation I suspect Jonathan La Force could help you out. Graphically.

19 thoughts on “… I’m in trouble deep.

  1. In case, somebody misunderstood the reference, the Evil Emperor Mong’s advise when followed gets the other rankers in deep trouble.

    As for myself, I don’t need the Evil Emperor Mong (or the Good Idea Fairy) to get me into deep trouble.

    I do it all by myself. [Wink]

  2. That’s putting it one way, Dave. I’ve advised readers to torture their character. How he/she responds is the crux of the story.
    Case in point, in Hands, the protagonist is caught with his hands where they shouldn’t be and an enraged father has them lopped off at the wrist. Then cauterized in hot tar.
    Now THAT’s the start of a bad day! But since the book went on for another dozen chapters or so, you can figure that, being heroic after this slight mishap, a true hero is winkled out of his shell and goes on to do great deeds.
    In Home, the main character is back from a hunt where one of his men is stomped to death by a mammoth. This is somewhat dismaying, as you might guess. As soon as he’s home, the flood waters rise. His wife’s in the final stages of pregnancy, the waters surround them, and she insists she’s not leaving her home. Oh, yes…there’s a nearly unclimbable cliff behind them. And her water breaks. My oh my, what’s a hero to do?
    You get the idea. If my characters ever come to life, they’ll be after me with pitchforks!

  3. Alternatively, sometimes a character faces a major obstacle that wouldn’t be a problem for most people. That can be just as much of a surprise for the reader as a character who handles what many would consider an impossible setback.

  4. This was amusing. I have had similar experiences. I’m just a bit ahead of you – I just turned 68.
    I’m getting push-back from my readers that my characters are never defeated. That they are too smart too skilled and especially too capable for their age. My kids can’t do that, they protest.
    Well I’m sure they will never get the chance to try. And if they do let us hope nobody sees it or the state will come take them away. Apparently my own life is a story which would fracture their belief if read because I’ve survived and obviously should be dead.
    I had my own business selling bait to fishermen at 11. I also had a pistol and carried it just about everywhere same year. I buried my money out in the woods or my parents ‘borrowed’ it.
    I bought a ticket and flew commercial from North Carolina to Ohio to visit my aunt and uncle with my own money in 1961. A lot of my school mates had never been out of the COUNTY.
    I’ve sat on the rocks and watched big horn sheep climb past me in the Rocky Mountains. I swear one old ram in passing gave me a dirty look for being where people shouldn’t be – above him.
    I’ve laid flat on the ground in a soaking rain on Mt. Rainer, with my hair standing straight off me from the electric field, because to stand up was to die from all the lightning strikes coming down.
    I’ve caught trout by hand, and been close enough to a wild bear to touch him and know they have horrible bad breath.
    I’ve raced cars and lived in bad neighborhoods and quit a new job in the first 20 minutes and walked away.
    The girly boys they are raising now can’t read things like that and relate.
    Perhaps it is time to write about heroes who dare to sneak off and play forbidden dodge ball as the peak of rebellious adventure. And then remember that from their cubicle as their grand life adventure.

    1. “Perhaps it is time to write about heroes who dare to sneak off and play forbidden dodge ball as the peak of rebellious adventure. And then remember that from their cubicle as their grand life adventure.”

      Well 😦 there is a depressingly large market segment who can identify with that. But not for me, thank you.

  5. A judge once said in court that because I was ‘so good at doing dangerous things’ that I made it ‘look deceptively easy’ and therefore I was at fault for someone else’s actions, because after seeing me they thought they could do it too.
    I wanted to ask him about airline pilots and brain surgeons, but it had already been made clear that he hated me and was looking for any excuse to throw my ass in jail.

    1. Ah. Enter the Handicapper-General. It’s amazing how many people seem to take Harrison Bergeron as a prescription, not a dire warning.

  6. A paean to plotting – long may it live!

    Sorry. There are so many pantsers out there, that it’s nice to know you plan – like I plan – to the last minute detail.

    Mind you, not to the WORD. That comes during the writing. The HOW part.

    But the WHAT, and the WHY, WHO, WHERE, and WHEN – predetermined. Because I can’t seem to do it any other way.

    Wish I had your experience – I did far more than many girls of my age (I’m 65) where I grew up (Mexico), but mostly they were of the mind and academic.

      1. For me, it frees up the creative juices to concentrate on what I’ve decided separately has to happen – and I get all kinds of interesting and fun and relevant add ons AS I write.

        Writers have different methods – writers are different people.

        But it does not shackle me to know where I’m going, as many claim it does for them.

  7. I might have known you were a fiendish plotter! On the other hand, so is Lois Bujold, so you’re in very good company.

    The twisted corollary to showing your character’s competence ahead of time, so the reader accepts his ability to get out of dangerous situations, are those writers who suddenly afflict their characters with stupidity, part way through a book. Or series where the MC apparently suffered massive head trauma in between books in the series (Joan Hess, I’m looking at you!) and lost any ability to think.

  8. Great article Dave. Very helpful.
    I won’t say it’s all clear now, but at least I can see the trail of bread crumbs.


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