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Round and Round

Image Pixabay.
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

36 Comments
  1. Umph. Well, “story axle” has just been added to my writer’s lexicon, so there’s at least two of us now.

    One to be squirreled away in the permafiles, to be taken out and reread every so often. Thank you.

    November 19, 2018
  2. George Crichton #

    It also addresses the Why question. Why does the ring Frodo inherit matter? Why does it matter if a character lives or dies.

    November 19, 2018
    • Why do I care about these idiots?

      I’ve part read many books where I realized that I really didn’t care about the characters and their mission/struggle whatever. There’s no axle to wind the story around that makes me care

      November 19, 2018
      • Pretty much. “Why do I want to know what happens next, or why should I care?”

        November 19, 2018
      • Mary #

        Eh, sometimes there’s an axle, but the characters would be lucky if they evoked nothing. I passionately want them ALL TO LOSE. Which alas is impossible.

        November 19, 2018
  3. It’s a bit like the historian’s “Big So What.” OK, the “Edmund Fitzgerald” sank. So what? So there was a federal court case about the Colorado River.* So what?

    *And the individual in the peanut Gallery who yelled “Which one?” can write up a four page, twelve count font, space and a half spacing, one inch margins, report on federal Colorado River water claims cases from 1890 to 1990. Due Wednesday at 1600 CST.

    November 19, 2018
    • Only four pages? *ducks and runs*

      November 19, 2018
      • I have the sneaking suspicion she’s going easy; the 4-page is just the listing of the court cases, not the conclusion, precedent, or impact. So, just barely do-able, but extremely awful and certainly getting the point and the punishment delivered. 😛

        November 19, 2018
    • With apologies to Monty Python:
      “What is the average velocity of an unladen Colorado River?”
      “Texan or Western?”

      November 19, 2018
    • Mary #

      Good thing I was in the almond gallery.

      November 19, 2018
  4. Fascinating. (Frowning back at a ton of stories) Now I’m going to have to do some analyzing, and see if I can do this on purpose.

    November 19, 2018
    • Yeah, me too. I’m thinking the axle acts like the MacGuffin. I will have to think on this a bit more.

      November 19, 2018
  5. This… is amazingly helpful. Thank you! I have several stories I need to go find or turn axles for.

    November 19, 2018
    • 🙂 I formed the idea when trying to work what I had done wrong with a story. It was a series of very entertaining …disconnected events. It’s so basic to what I do I thought I had written about it ages ago. Then I found I hadn’t.

      November 19, 2018
      • This was an epiphany moment for me on several stories that needed such a thing very badly.

        November 20, 2018
  6. Draven #

    this would have been more helpful with an Amazon link to Demon Breed.

    November 19, 2018
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      It’s part of “The Hub: Dangerous Territory” (published by Baen)

      November 19, 2018
      • Ben Yalow #

        Minor note:
        As with all of the Schmitz stuff published by Baen, be aware that Eric Flint, in some cases, made changes (some minor, some major) to the original texts of the works, and, in many cases, didn’t note what the changes were, if they were, in his opinion, sufficiently minor.
        For works with major changes, he’s published the original versions, as well. But, for those with minor changes, if you want to read the original texts, you need to find the pre-Baen books (which means physical books; the electronic editions are the Baen text). Fortunately, Demon Breed had a Science Fiction Book Club edition, which means that there are lots of copies of the original text available for a few dollars in hardcover, as well as an Ace paperback. The original magazine version was in Analog, under the title, “The Tuvela”, and you can often find the issue used.

        And I completely agree with those who say it’s a really good story.

        November 19, 2018
    • I’ll go edit it in

      November 19, 2018
      • Draven #

        Thanks Dorothy. added to wishlist, i’ll never remember it next month

        November 19, 2018
  7. Hmm. Like “theme,” but a little more flexible.

    November 19, 2018
  8. So, I looked at the WIP. WITHOUT SMELTERS, THE MINES CAN’T MAKE MONEY. Without money, THE TOWN WILL LOSE ITS FREEDOM. So I do have an axle I just hadn’t really thought hard about it yet. The protagonist trying to stay below notice so his secret won’t be found is just the side-story, like the runaway great hauler and her owner.

    November 19, 2018
  9. 23 skidoo

    November 19, 2018
  10. Spider Robinson had a writer in one of his books that looked for the “cry from the heart.” Which is a similar concept, though it’s from a character POV. It’s the sort of thing that can be as simple as WHO AM I? or I CAN’T GO WITH YOU, BUT YOU HAVE TO GO. But yes, I like “story axle.”

    November 19, 2018
  11. Hmm… I think that for what I’m working on now it would be YOU CAN’T HIDE IN SPACE. Except that the people need to hide. So they have a problem. The themes seem to be firmly circling about the personhood of those who need to hide, and there’s immediate physical conflicts and so, hopefully, there will be plots.

    (Small numbers of people could hide or melt into other populations, but there are no secret stars, even if there are a lot of them. And we *now* are logging and cataloging exo-planets. There aren’t probably many secret planets by the time there are interstellar empires either.)

    November 19, 2018
    • Christopher M Chupik #

      Rogue planets drifting in interstellar space?

      November 19, 2018
      • Well, I suppose, if you figure out how not to need a star.

        November 19, 2018
        • Christopher M Chupik #

          Of course, in space it’s probably easier to pretend to be something you aren’t.

          “Nope, no secret colony here. This is just a boring little ice moon. Those thermal readings? That’s just the subterranean volcanic vents which are definitely not being tapped for geothermal power. Nosiree . . .”

          November 19, 2018
        • Mary #

          Nuclear power. In fact, you could do some fancy stuff with nuclear fusion because of the convenient heat sink.

          Poul Anderson used the concept for a different purpose in Satan’s World.

          November 19, 2018
    • snelson134 #

      Catalog is one thing; actually monitoring whether some one has snuck onto a planet has to deal with the vastness of space and limited resources for patrolling.

      November 21, 2018
  12. Luke #

    A McGuffin, but abstracted one level.
    A unified theme.
    An overarching conflict.

    I’m not seeing the crazy.

    November 19, 2018
  13. This post has made that part of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Dancing in the Ruins” that goes “Turn and turn and turn we must” to keep running through my head.

    November 19, 2018
  14. Lee #

    This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time. It is a great way to break down your story to it’s bare essence. This is a keeper.

    November 19, 2018
  15. Basara549 #

    And, why a story needs an axle, don’t be afraid to redefine it if the writing takes you in an unexpected direction from the original concept. Just be sure that the new one works better than the old one.

    It happens a lot when writing in gaming, for example, that a game master might be plotting an adventure with a certain axle – then in the course of playing the adventure, the players introduce a concept (or even a misunderstanding) that works FAR better than the original axle, or at least causes the GM to have an epiphany as to how to change the course of the “work in progress” that RPGs typically are, to make it more memorable and fun for all involved.

    The same can happen in fiction writing not tied to such, but it could be anything from a life event (much how 9/11 affected some writers mid-stream, like Ringo’s Aldenata), to a comment from an Alpha reader, or just something that pops up while researching for Chapter 30, that causes you to re-evaluate your protagonists’ intentions and motivations back in Chapter 4.

    Heck, I had a dream after running a game for almost 4 years (and writing a fanfic meant just for my players’ amusement), the week before the final game of a series of stories that had covered 20 years and 2 generations of a family, where the couple dozen of hanging threads (some of which I’d almost totally forgotten), suddenly tied themselves up in a single plot tweak – suggested in the dream by the NPC central to the tweak (reading dictionary: “Any one of the nine sister goddesses in Greek mythology, presiding over song, and poetry, and the arts and do you believe me now, Sonny?”).

    November 19, 2018
    • Mary #

      Plus the absence of an axle may be only apparent.

      November 19, 2018
  16. Got it. Just paused in reading this, and wrote the axle to 2 different stories.

    November 20, 2018

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