Friday, January 22, 2010

The Interim - Thoughts About Splosions

On the subject of making things more fun, more tense, more exciting:

I was browsing in the mystery section today, and found a series I had not known about before. (Jeffrey Cohen's Double-Feature Mystery series.) It's light comic mystery, and promises to be just what I want. One of the things that made me decide to buy the first book in the series was the back cover copy on one of the other books. The hero owns a small, struggling movie theater, and among the daily troubles it listed for him were things like a bomb in row five.

To quote Slappy Squirrel "Now, THAT'S comedy!"

I paused only to hunt down which title was the first in the series and immediately bought it. A bomb - even just a bomb scare - definitely qualifies as an intense and interesting complication.


I say "usually" becuase I am reminded of another series that I generally like, but not as much as I used to - the "Cat Who" books by Lillian Jackson Braun. The more bombs and buildings burning down that she threw into the series, the less interesting I found it. Why?

I think there are two reasons, and they contradict each other (at least on the surface).

The first reason is what a friend of mine calls "The Casablanca Test." This comes from the line about how the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. When you have something like a bomb or a major fire or a man with a gun, it's more important than anything else that might be happening. If the world is falling apart, your silly broken heart is not important, no matter how much it hurts.

This idea would seem to mean that comedies can't have bombs, but really it's why a bomb works better in a high comedy than a light cozy. Not that it can't work in a light cozy, but you can't be cozy with a bomb around. That bomb has to put the characters in a predicament. It's too important, too urgent, to be used as a mere clue or plot twist. And to me, that's what all these disasters were in the Cat Who books - just events.

So that's something to think about when you want to take your story to a higher level, or turn up the stakes. You won't achieve that by just inserting a more intense event. It has to create a more intense conflict. It has to be something that successfully competes with the existing problems and conflicts of your character.

In my opinion, a whimpy pretend bomb that scares the heck out of your main character and makes it impossible for her to do what she intended is much more effective than an explosion that levels a building but only inspires her to action. Whether it's tragic or comic, it has to put your character in some kind of predicament.

In the meantime, I put in a couple of hours on both chapter 1 and the rethinking. I forgot to mention: the dare countdown will begin again a week from now, on next Thursday.

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