For we were just the product
Of the ever spinning wheel
Round and round we go (The Strawbs, round and round.)
I read a story by a fairly well-known author the other day. The dialogue was good. The character was moderately interesting. The pacing was somewhat monotonous… but what made it a chore was that it had no clear ‘axle’… It was just a recitation of events. It had a beginning and a middle and end. The hero did something… but something essential was missing. That ‘axle’
Hmm. One of my own writing concepts. Therefore, probably mildly loony, at best. I’m going to have to explain what I mean.
The axle is the element without which there is no plot. The thing about which everything revolves, no matter how distantly. To clarify will require some spoilers – but you’re writers, right?
In DUNE, the axle is THE SPICE ON ARRAKIS, UNIQUE TO ARRAKIS, ESSENTIAL TO SPACE TRAVEL. While the book is a complex series of intrigues and battles, set in a complex universe with a the geography and biology as well as a whole future history playing an important role in shaping the story – no spice, no story.
In James H Schmitz’s DEMON BREED the axle rests on the Parahuans belief (founded in their own culture as Schmitz carefully foreshadows) that humans have a secret clan of ‘Tuvelas’ or near immortal superhumans who protect and direct such an obviously weak and inept race. It’s one of Schmitz’s most endearing books — to me at least – because axle is ‘THERE ARE NO TUVELAS, JUST HUMANS, MANY OF WHOM IN EXTREMIS CAN PROVE TO BE SUPERHUMAN.
Trust me on this: I’ve been in enough dire situations to know this to be absolutely true. Some people are indeed better than others, but, in a pinch, under pressure, some achieve almost superhuman efforts of courage, strength and endurance. And it is so often people who show no such signs in ‘normal’ life – who may be so ordinary under ordinary circumstances, and extraordinary when the need occurs. (I’ve also seen the gung-ho tough talkers fall apart. Rock climbing – which does have these moments in which fear strips your fellow humans bare of their masks and you see the essence — what they’re really made of… it’s an eye-opener. I’ve seen 6’6’’ ‘tough’ guys who talk the talk, weeping in terror – and the little titch who should be, keeping their head. Take any life-or-death situation, from combat to disasters to storms at sea, and the ‘Tuvelas’ of humanity come from the shadows. It’s why we are what we are as a species, both great and terrible – not the puling idiots you see needing a ‘safe space’ and a blanky and some play-do because their wittle feewings were hurt about some irrelevancy. Honestly, some alien looking down on some of these bizarre meltdowns over trivia could indeed think humans were a soft target.
They’d be wrong.
That’s what Schmitz’s book turns on. That – not the character of Nile Etland or Ticos Cay or Palach Koll or the strange aliens nor the weird life forms of the alien island — is what makes it work. Incidentally, the lead POV character – in a 1968 book – has that very thing that we get told golden age sf didn’t have and what was wrong with it: Nile is a strong, independent female lead character.
In my DRAGON’S RING, the axle of the story is that FIONN KEEPS SAYING HE IS GOING TO DESTROY THE WORLD OF DRAGONS. HE’S A JOKER AND TRICKSTER. NO ONE BELIEVES HIM. HE IS DEAD SERIOUS. The book turns on this point. Without this – without the disbelief and without the intent the settings and characters are of little worth to the story.
I hope you get the idea. The axle can be anything from ALL MEN ARE BAD, to ONE RING TO BIND THEM. The story spins out from this. It’s not the same as ‘theme’ although the two may intersect. Obviously that axle shapes the story. How often it has been used also shapes the story. As a writer you can be a pantser or a plotter… but either, without that ‘axle’ that a story turns on… it becomes an essay – a boring one.
It’s actually a very hard thing for most of us to pin down, to isolate from the complex structure of character and setting – perhaps because we’re too inside it all. I find, very often, that it is my story seed, per se. It is worth identifying – partly because it will help to clarify and shape your story – but for two other reasons.
1) It is a key part to an elevator pitch (which is not just how you sell a book to a publisher – but to any reader. If you don’t actually know what it is, you can’t use it. And so many people have failed to interest me in a story, because they haven’t really ever worked this out. They tell you about the characters or the setting, even parts of the plot… but not what it turns on. Whether that is an asteroid about to hit Earth, or an engineered plague that makes humans into mindless beasts… that’s the heart of the story, around which the rest turns.
2) For the same reason it works as an elevator pitch – it is invaluable in helping you write the blurb. And the blurb along with the cover are often what sells your book