4.07.2016

Cheap Victories

A novel consists of a number of obstacles that the main character must overcome. The obstacles fall into two basic camps: physical and mental. Overpowering brutes requires physical prowess or training, hopefully of an exotic martial sort. If a character is unable to assail a foe frontally, overcoming the brute requires guile. To extend this mental realm further, I’ll point out that a book can consist of a series of mental obstacles, such as a mystery with its clues.

Where I find a novel falling short is when a plot turn is accomplished too easily. A computer that may contain valuable information is protected by a dopey password. A dumb henchman is lulled by chatter into leaving his balls open for a kick. A heroine is about to be shot when a white knight just happens to barge through the door. The interest a reader feels when wondering how she will get out of this fix is dampened by the mediocrity of the author’s solution.

There are two primary reasons for such a let-down: laziness or lack of ingenuity. The obstacle may be judged as minor as compared to what the hero finds in that computer, for example. The author wants to get to the good stuff. Yet that’s not how a truly engrossing book works. Such a book is studded with cool nuggets all along the way. Why didn’t that author research how to crack passwords?

Lack of ingenuity is a more dire problem than laziness. This failing can well be the brother of lack of imagination. Yet because most authors I’ve ever worked with are pretty smart, I have found that usually the problem is: flaming ego. That is, the flames are high enough to blind the author to what is in front of his face: other books that do have clever obstacles. What obstacles do they raise, and how do their characters conquer them?

You need to be prepared for any eventuality that comes up in the book. A reader is along for each step of the way. When you are continually pulling surprises, because you took the time to make the turn unique, you generate buzz about a novel that is bursting at the seams with original ideas.

Exercise: You need to develop the discipline to stop and research your topics. The Internet, not to mention other sources, is filled with bizarre, wacky information that you can use. That’s what good writers do. They’re constantly hunting for a new oddity that they can hold up and say, “Look at this one.”

“Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all.”    
― Abraham Lincoln

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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