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 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.