Thursday, April 25, 2013

Racing Ahead

I’m using this phrase to describe a standard plot tactic which covers everything from ensuring the heart-warming outcome of the most bodice-tattered romance (just as the evil villain of the piece is about to spirit away the heroine) to the glory-drenched rescue of the most beleaguered troops (in the nick of time as the enemy hordes threaten to descend upon them). Hollywood's corny overuse of the latter has even caused the phrase "here come the cavalry" to be coined.

So, what's the ‘racing ahead' bit got to do with anything, then?
Time flies when you're having fun
I’m acknowledging the way in which the detrimental 'here come the cavalry' device can be happily avoided by authors. This tag refers to an almost deus ex machina solution whereby the 'good guys' (for which read anyone from the suave doctor on his white horse to a bunch of bedraggled starship warriors) arrive at exactly the right point in space and time without apparent thought for how this might occur. My label, racing ahead, is aimed at determining a viable way for describing how the hero/heroes and the victim get there.

To make both paths clear (that of the rescuer and the rescuee) two of the most popular ways of achieving this consist of separating the storylines into two discrete sections within the book or by splitting the tale into a number of discrete alternating chapters: for example, odd-numbered = victim, even-numbered = hero. It's the latter ‘alternating’ process that I'd like to discuss here and I'm going to use the book I'm currently reading to illustrate my point although I won't mention its name or title for fairly obvious reasons.
To give a bit of background, the underlying story is a harrowing one relating to the consequences of human trafficking. As our victim gets drawn ever deeper into the tenaciously sticky web of his evil abusers, his band of would-be rescuers are themselves forced to descend to depths that they would have preferred to leave unplumbed. Apart from the primary subject matter being highly worthwhile, the associated crisis of conscience for his rescue party also intrigues me.

Unfortunately the author's made a common mistake with the way in which the book's been structured, being of the erroneous opinion that chapters have to alternate between victim and rescuer. No such rule exists and I've labeled the process 'racing ahead' as it seems to resemble a race - who can get to the finish first? I'm sure that there's some literary terminology for this but I'm a plain-speaking guy and my nomenclature will have to suffice here.
Writing a book this way works if you can:

  • Control the time periods so that each chapter spans a virtually identical period of time
  • Generate a sufficient number of interesting and noteworthy actions/events for each of the characters in each of the chapters
  • Avoid the unenviable situation of B needing A to have done something before B can do something that will cause A to perform the original action - a circular argument, in other words
George R R Martin doffs his cap at the first problem in his foreword to Game of Thrones (which is a perfect example of 'racing') in which he acknowledges that chapter lengths are completely uneven in the time period that they cover. However, like him or hate him, his books are not short of action and he gets away with it.

Circular arguments are always going to be an issue and worthy of a blog topic in itself.
The problem lies with the attempt to juggle characters and the need to maintain interest. In the case of the book I'm reading, it's come at the price of cutting back on the time given to the victim's struggles with his abusers (which is fascinating) in order to give air time to what is currently a rather uninteresting travelogue as the rescuers attempt to get to where he's been taken captive. Later on their side of the story might well take over the lead from the captive’s but, at the moment, I'd rather read about him than them.

What could have been a real page-turner transforms itself into something soporific as the author strives to spin out text with labored accounts of hotel rooms, meals, the weather etc. Next thing we're back with our main man getting mutilated à la 'Kunte Kinte' (my name is not 'Toby') from Roots. The two threads are completely incomparable and almost insulting in the way in which they are being equated.
It's easy to get a raspberry
There's absolutely no reason why chapters have to alternate nor do they need to be of equal length (expressed in either words or time period). As long as the threads legitimately come together at the dénouement stage, the rest is by the way.

After all, this is one of those cases when racing ahead is not the objective – if you’re aiming for an exciting tale, what you want is a virtual dead heat.

Besides being an author, Clive West co-runs Any Subject Books, a book publishing company which specializes in seeking out new and exciting talent. Click here if you'd like to know more about the book publishing services which they offer.

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