Thursday, September 20, 2012

One Step Ahead

            First off, if you want it, there’s kind of a bonus post this week.  Go check out Ebon Shores, a great little horror site from down under, where I was asked to prattle on for their "Wednesday Writer" column.  Actually, page through some of the past ones, too.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there.
            Speaking of horror...
            By nature of my chosen career, I tend to read and see a lot of horror stuff.  Specifically, post-apocalyptic stuff, usually with some form of zombie in it.  And there’s a certain recurring flaw that always gnaws at me. 
            It’s when characters do or say things that experience says they shouldn’t.  The kind of things that common sense tells you they should’ve figured out not to do or say ages ago.  How often do you see zombie hunters in t-shirts, even when they know one scratch could mean death?  Or that one guy who sets his gun down and walks a few yards away from it?  Or, knowing there could be zombies in the area, they reach into the dark room and start feeling around for a light switch with their one, ungloved hand...
            Or sometimes it’s what characters don’t do.  They’ll find a door and talk about how it might be locked, how it could be dead bolted, or how there may have been a cave in that’s blocking it from the other side.  The one thing none of them will do is actually attempt to open the door.  And if they did and it didn’t open, it’d never occur to them to try that key they found on the floor down the hallway.  Even though they know there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, they’ll forget to barricade windows.
            Simply put, it’s when the readers can see one step ahead and the characters can’t.  It’s when the audience can foresee the consequences of an action (or inaction), but the people in the story don’t.  And if the reader stops to think about that sort of thing, then I’m doing something wrong as a writer.  It means my characters’ choices or actions are breaking the flow of the story.
            There’s a very, very bad sequel to a very, very good classic World War Two movie.  Early in the film, our heroes arrive in Germany in a stolen plane.  The plan is to pose as German soldiers and officers, sneak away, and then begin their mission behind enemy lines.  It’s only after the four hour flight, as the plane is taxiing to a stop at the end of the landing strip, that the mission commander realize the one flaw in their plan.  One of the team members is a black man!  How will they pass him off as a Nazi?
            The resolution was kind of clever in that quick-fix sort of way, but it didn’t change the fact that the whole situation was stupid as hell.  The one question everyone asks at this point is “Why the hell did no one think of this before?”
           Y’see, like most readers and movie watchers, I have a tendency to think about what I’d do in a given situation.  I’d punch that guy.  I’d lean in and kiss the girl.  I’d make sure my shotgun was loaded before I stepped out into the zombie-filled hallway.  And nothing frustrates me more as a reader than when I see an immediate, obvious flaw in a character’s motivations or actions.
            That’s not to say every character should react like me (or you, or that guy).  If the writer’s got any sense of empathy, though, I should at least be able to see why characters make the choices they do.  I might’ve punched that guy, but Jack Reacher might be biding his time or just trying to keep a low profile and not to stir up too much trouble.  Many of us might’ve leaned in to kiss Elizabeth Swann, but we all understand why Will Turner feels bound by duty, honor, and social mores to let that opportune moment slip by. 
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the best things I can do as a storyteller is think one step ahead.  For the most part, the audience shouldn’t be able to think of something I didn’t already think of.  Oh, there’s always going to be that five or six percent who shriek about “totally obvious” things, but forget them.  I don’t need to cover everything, I just need to answer the immediate questions.
            “Hanging a lantern on it” is a great example of being one step ahead.  I know this odd coincidence is going to bother the reader, so I’ll have one of my characters point out how odd and coincidental it is
            LOST did this a lot to help take the edge off some of the oddities of the island and the plot devices they needed to further the story.  Hurley questions why there’s a brand new washer and dryer set in the otherwise very retro underground station called The Swan.  Kate and Sun wonder what kind of person travels with a pregnancy test.  Ben questions the odds of a spinal surgeon literally dropping out of the sky just a few weeks after he learns he’s got a tumor on his spine.
            Looking ahead can also be a good gauge for exposition and figuring out how much is too much.  In a couple of my books and novellas I have scenes of scientific jargon and techno-speak.  But I don’t need to explain things out in full and exacting detail.  I just need to be one step ahead and address enough points that my story doesn’t get hung up on my lack of explanation. 
            In Ex-Patriots I explain that the military’s been “training” zombies to follow simple orders.  But I don’t leave it at that.  In the same chapter I introduce the idea of the Nest—a NEural STimulator—which sends electricity to parts of a zombie’s brain in order to reactivate it.  I don’t need to explain what parts of the brain, how much voltage or amperage, or how they first tested it.
            A famous example of this is in Back to the Future, when Doctor Emmet Brown tells us he’s made a time machine out of a DeLorean.  Even as we’re processing this, though, part of us wondering... well, how?  How does someone turn a sports car into a time machine?  It’s kind of goofy and ludicrous all at the same time.  And then Doc shows us the flux capacitor and tells Marty (and the audience), “this is what makes time travel possible.”  And it’s glowy and it buzzes and, well... yeah, okay, that makes sense. A DeLorean on its own couldn’t travel through time, but a DeLorean with a flux capacitor channeling 1.21 gigawatts of electricity...
             Doc’s addressed our question before we even got to ask it out loud. So the story never pauses and we get carried along into the next bit.  And the DeLorean goes down in history (no pun intended) as probably one of the top three fictional time machines.
            Sometimes all staying ahead takes is being aware of where the characters are in the story.  If I’m confusing the first time I’m showing something to the reader with the first time the characters have seen it, that’s going to lead to problems.  There are mistakes and screw ups that we’ll accept from amateurs in any field, but not from people who’ve supposedly been doing this for a while (whatever this is).  If my plot point depends on a Master Sergeant in the Army not knowing how to load a pistol or the head chef at a restaurant not being able to tell salt from sugar... well, there better be a damned good reason for it.
            Stay one step ahead of the reader.  Know where they’re going to go, be there waiting for them, and guide them back to the path you want them on.  Not the path where they growl in frustration and shout “Why the heck did they...?”  And then toss your manuscript in that big pile on the left
            Next time, by request, I wanted to talk about how you can use plot and story to develop an idea.
            Until then, go write.

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