Thursday, August 27, 2009

When a Tuba Will Do

The 1960’s television show, The Wild Wild West had three ground rules for every episode. There had to be a gorgeous woman. There had to be a strong adversary. There had to be something bizarre. A gorgeous woman does us little good in a book, since the reader decides what the cast looks like and the bizarre may force us over into speculative fiction when we don’t want to go, but there’s something to be said for these ground rules.

Someone Needs Saving

While in The Wild Wild West it isn’t always clear why the gorgeous woman is always working such strange men, she serves an important role in the story. In a story, it is easier to save the world than it is to save the girl. There always needs to be something at stake for an individual if we want to bring the story home. Remember The Dollmaker? It told the story of the Detroit factory workers, but it told it through the eyes of a woman whose husband worked at the factory. No loss is ever as great as the loss of an individual. By placing someone to be saved in the story, we highlight the danger.

A Strong Adversary

Some people love complicated characters, but great stories come from characters who are more black and white. Many great stories leave no doubt in the reader’s mind who is good and who is bad. Dickens created some very interesting characters in Oliver Twist and yet there is no doubt about where they stand. If they are good, they are very good. If they are bad, they are very bad. They also present a good challenge. Bill Sikes kills his own girlfriend because she did something he didn’t like.

The strength of the adversary reveals the strength of the hero. If we want our hero to appear strong, we have to throw a big challenge at him so he can defeat it. If we protect our hero, he will be weak and boring.

Something Unusual

We may not want to venture into the bizarre, but we want to show readers things they haven’t seen before. In a whodunit, why kill the victim with a knife when a tuba will do? We want the reader to be asking, how does that work?