The Tightrope

I’ve been dithering over a scene in the latest novel, THE EDGE OF DARKNESS.  In the interest of efficiency and moving the story forward I wanted this to be a simple set of actions.  People get locked up so hero and his Scooby Gang can escape. Eventually locked up people have to be freed, and take their nefarious actions.  Which had me reflecting on cell phones.  If you leave them with phones they call the cops and claim they are being kidnapped/illegally detained, and my hero’s lead gets cut down to mere minutes.  Or he takes the phones which makes this a longer action sequence, and then he has to call and have them released once he’s safely away, but that’s sort of dull, and he has planned for this….. Aaaargh.  What had been a simple three sentence description had suddenly become a circular brain lock.

Bottom line.  Protagonists need to protag, and they need to not seem stupid or the reader gets kicked out of the narrative.  On the other hand a hero can’t be perfect.  Every plan can’t work.  Every decision they make can’t be the exactly right decision.  If they are there is no drama and your lead character is boring.  Mistakes and how characters recover from those mistakes does two things.  It keeps up the tension, and it tells you something about the character of this person.  Because you need scenes to do at least two things or that scene probably doesn’t need to be in your book or your screenplay.

All of this had me sitting up too late last night thinking about the craft of writing.  How it’s a delicate balancing act, or juggling act if you prefer that metaphor.

We are balancing having enough action and excitement to keep people reading  interspersed with quiet moments that tell us something about these characters, how they view the world, their relationships with others.

We need the dialog to be crisp and compelling yet individual enough that all the characters don’t sound exactly alike.  And no, that doesn’t mean writing in dialects because that very rarely works, and is often just embarrassing.

We need sufficient description to put the reader in the setting, but not go on for so long that they become bored.  They aren’t reading your book for the furniture.  They want an adventure, a story.

As a writer you can never lose sight of that A story that is the major plot.  You need to keep it moving forward, but to have more than a novella you will probably have at least a B story, and sometimes a C runner in the book/screenplay.  Those lesser stories need to  echo back to main plot, but they can’t be too obvious or on-the-nose or the reader/viewer begins to feel like they’ve been beaten over the head with the theme of your book/screenplay.

And then there’s theme versus plot.  Theme is the bigger issue upon which you are reflecting.  It never gets stated in so many words during the course of the story, but when you finish you go — “Ah that was a meditation on loyalty, or unity through diversity, or the perils of doing good, etc. etc.”

And endings.  You by god better “stick the landing”, and made the climax worthy of the journey or people will not love you, and they probably won’t buy your next book, or watch your next movie, or play your next game.

These are just a few of the issues we wrestle with each time we sit down to write.  It’s endlessly fascinating to me.  I love to discuss the craft of writing, and it never bores me.  I can’t say that about any of my other careers.  I intended to write as long as I’m drawing breath.  And if I can’t manage to fall-down-dead-all-at-once while riding a horse, I hope I die at my computer writing.

3 Responses to The Tightrope

  • wolflahti says:

    Among the best writing advice I’ve received is this: If you’re stuck, hit your protagonist with the worst thing you can think of.

    • Melinda Snodgrass says:

      Chandler’s rule “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” But as one of my writer buddies, John Maddox Roberts pointed out — if you haven’t really planned for that man with the gun you could find yourself at the end of the book with a lot of men with guns bumping into each other. Which I thought was hilarious and very accurate.

      I’m not really stuck. I know what is happening in pretty decent detail. This ended up being one of those weird speed bumps that sometimes afflict writers.

  • I found “theme” baffling for a long time. It didn’t help that a lot of discussions treated a theme as a proposition that a work asserts, which is confusing “theme” with “thesis”—a novel needs to have a theme, but it doesn’t need to have a thesis and may be the better for not having one. I finally realized that a theme isn’t an assertion but a topic that a novel is interested in.

    What finally cleared it up for me, actually, was thinking about rpgs as a narrative art. When I run a campaign, I almost always have a pretty clear idea of what sort of situations I should involve the player characters in and what sort of challenges they should have to face. If I were doing superheroes I wouldn’t have them descend into mysterious subterranean realms, slaughter monsters, and come out carrying treasure; it wouldn’t be the sort of activity people play superheroes for. Nor would I have them spend multiple sessions trying to find the right person to marry, which I’ve done in a high fantasy soap opera campaign. I have a principle of selection that tells me what choices will work and what won’t. And that’s the theme of the campaign. I don’t suppose it works exactly the same in novels, but I think it’s doing the same job.

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