Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tools of the Trade

Nothing super new and cool on the book front this morning. I did make a slight modification to the very ending. (Thanks Kerry for your sound advice!) And I also discovered I had a minor character with almost the identical name as a main character for a popular fantasy novel I hadn’t yet read but started this week. Which is really a strange coincidence. What are the odds that two people on their own naming characters Raodin and Raoden? Anyway, that has also been changed. Oh, and I also gave my editor a list of scenes that I thought would make great inside illustrations. But more on that in a later blog.

Instead of talking about the book today, I’d like to talk about writing. In particular three tools of the trade I use a lot. So if writing isn’t your thing, and you don’t like to peek behind the curtain of what goes on in the creation of a book, you may want to Google “real estate investing” or “Brittney’s babies” or something. That will keep you busy for at least the rest of the day—maybe the rest of the year.

In Stephen King’s great book, “On Writing,” he describes a toolbox every good writer should carry. You may not need every tool every time you write, but it’s great to have them when you need them. Some tools you use more than others. For me, my Phillips screwdriver, pliers, and hammer are isolation, disorientation, and misdirection.

These are the tools I break out when I want to raise the tension in one of my novels. They are often the key components of a thriller, but as you’ll see, they are just as important in other genres as well.

First of all, let’s take a look at how these tools fit into the toolbox as a whole. In any story with a plot (so really anything other than hardcore literary fiction, which according to Scott Card is just another genre) your main character must have a goal. Preferably a noble goal, so the readers will root for them, but that is not a hard and fast requirement. Second, your reader must care about your protagonist. Third, there must be some kind of negative consequence if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal.

Pretty basic stuff right? In order to save the townspeople, Sir Coughalot must duel the dragon, find the cup, and return it to the palace before the plague of bad breath is complete. I’m not sure how much we’d like a hero named Sir Coughalot. And his quest seems a little boring. But it’ll work for an example.

The problem is, Sir Coughalot is a knight, and we all know knights slay dragons every day. Also, he probably has a squire and bunch of friends with swords and shields. So we lay down the book with a yawn and say, “Ho hum. Maybe there’s something good on TV.” That is an author’s nightmare. I can’t have you laying down my book to run off and see who makes it to the next round of American Idol. Even if the cute kid with the weird hair sings just like Freddie Mercury.

In order to keep you hooked, I need to raise the stakes a little. I need to pull you into my web of fiction. (Wow, that sounded kind of cool. We need an author superhero who catches guys in his web of fiction. “Stand back, evil nemesis. I have a historical romance and I know how to use it.”)

Anyway, back to raising the stakes. One of the easiest ways to make you care about my character is by taking away his or her supports. In our story about Sir Coughalot, I need to get him away from his co-knights, and maybe even his squire. It’s used a ton, but there is a reason so many fantasy novels start with an orphaned child. What is more vulnerable than a baby left on a doorstep? Of course it works even better if the baby is left on the doorstep of a family that is mean to him and makes him sleep under the stairs while his mean older cousin gets two rooms to himself.

There are books which do not use this tool. For example my friend James Dashner has a novel called “The 13th Reality coming out next month in which the boy goes on his adventure with his father.” But even then, James uses the tool. He makes sure the dad is more like a big kid. Dad does not step in and save the day at every turn. So what we really have is more like a sidekick than a true parent figure. In Lord of the Rings Samwise stays with Frodo, but the rest of the fellowship can not come. It’s handled very skillfully, but in truth it’s just a tool to further isolate the protagonist. (Of course the first isolation is when Gandalf leaves.)

Okay so in our story, we could have everyone else be afraid of the dragon. But that’s pretty cliché (like the rest of the story isn’t, right?) So instead let’s say that the cup is rumored to turn anyone who sees it into a stick of gum. That should scare away all the other knights. The squire stays on, but he’s never been all that bright. And besides, he likes gum. We have now used isolation to up the ante.

Our next tool is disorientation. Let’s go back to our hypothetical misfit living under the stairs with a mean family and a bully cousin. His life is pretty miserable, and he certainly doesn’t have any friends, but at least he is used to it. In order to really create some interest on the part of the reader, we need to raise the stakes again. We need our readers to not only like our protagonist, but to actually begin the process of putting themselves in his place. A cool way to do that is to put the protagonist into a world he is unfamiliar with. And so much the better if the reader is unfamiliar with the world as well.

Because this is a blog for a fantasy novel, let me point out that when I say world, I am not specifically referring to another planet. It could be the world of high finance. It could be the country mouse going to the city. It could be that 99.9% of everyone on Earth dies. All it requires is that the protagonist finds herself in a place that throws her off balance. This is why Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts. It’s why Frodo leaves the Shire. It’s why Prince Raoden is thrown into Elantris. It’s why Luke Skywalker ends up in a swamp with a little green Muppet.

Let me use another example from a movie my younger readers may not be as familiar with. In the movie Jaws, the protagonist must stop a great white shark from munching its way through an entire town of tourists. We isolate him by turning the townspeople against him. Then we disorient him but making him afraid of what? Water, of course! Then we put him out on a boat with a crazy captain.

The other great thing about putting our protagonist into a new world is that we, the readers, get to discover the world right along with him—wondering over the flying brooms and laughing at the missing stair riser. Of course when they get to their new world, they might start making friends again, lessening the isolation. But there are plenty of ways to turn the people in the new world against them as well, right? So let’s send our knight to a land where dragons live in peaceful villages and knights are the ones that attack and terrify. And just for fun, let’s make the dragons people size and the bad knights huge terrifying creatures. That puts our little knight right in the thick of it.

Last but not least is misdirection. Going back to Harry, I mean our hypothetical misfit, how do we make sure the reader doesn’t guess who Voldemort is? This is a slight problem because the obvious choice would be the new teacher right? (Yes this is a spoiler, but if you haven’t even read the first HP book, what are you doing on a fantasy blog in the first place?) Okay, so we need the reader to completely discount Professor Quirrell. How do we pull it off? Misdirection. Get the reader to make an assumption which will keep them looking the wrong way.

In this case, JK Rowling introduces Professor Quirrell early in the story as a nervous little man who is overcome with wonder at meeting the great Harry Potter. This does two things. First, it makes the reader create a mental image of Quirrell as someone so non-threatening we can’t even consider him as a suspect. Second, she makes the introduction just as we are entering the world of magic. She distracts us with all the cool other things so we don’t have time to consider why she took all that time to introduce a character of such little importance so completely.

Of course the second part of misdirection is giving the reader an alternate target to focus on. If only JK Rowling could have come up with a slimy, mean, back stabbing type of character that skulks around the school. Someone who surely has it in for Harry. Oh wait. She did! Snape was the target she wanted us to focus on while Quirrell worked quietly in the background. Of course it turns out that Snape was even more misdirection for future novels.

To wrap up our story of Sir Coughalot, we could have the squire actually be a bad guy all along. He could be just waiting for his chance to turn our poor knight into a package of Hubba Bubba and steal the cup for himself.

So there you have it. Isolation, disorientation, and misdirection. Fun tools. Powerful tools. But use them carefully. You wouldn’t want to put out an eye.


Tamra Norton said...

Scott--this is really good stuff. As I read, I tried to apply these "tools" to my work in progress--an interesting exercise for me. Very helpful!

Tristi Pinkston said...

But he does sing like Freddie Mercury . . .

J Scott Savage said...

I'll grant that he might sing "like" Mercury. But nobody sings as well as Freddie.

Rachelle said...

Great tips and I loved the examples you used, except I can't believe you stole my idea about magically turning people into chewing gum. :) JK