Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Paolo Bacigalupi's Advice for Writers of Action and Adventure

A Tutorial Assistant in university once told our class that good writing is always, on some level, about the craft of writing. The context was poetry, but I wonder if the sentiment could be applied to fiction as well.

I'm reading The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi, and came across this sentence yesterday.


Now, what struck me about this sentence is that Mr. Bacigalupi, in the context of the narrative, is also revealing his own technique--thus writing about writing--and this technique is something every writer should take to heart when it comes to conflict.

Whether we are talking about the minor conflicts in which a character is engaged at the level of the chapter, or the major conflict governing the whole novel, the protagonist must have a problem for which the reader cannot devise a solution. If the reader can see the solution, then what point is there in reading on? It must be an impossible trap, not simply a difficult one. Of course, the difficulty is that the writer has to be clever enough to figure a way out. I didn't say it was easy; that's just the job.

In an early version of Caravaggio: Signed in Blood, I wanted Beppo to escape from Kheir Pasha, the leader of the Pirates. To accomplish this, I had him hide a pistola in the captain's cabin for some unrelated reason, just so he could find it when he needed it. 

I can hear your eyes rolling in their sockets from here.

Of course that was just a little too tidy, wasn't it? What if, I thought, Beppo only believed he had a weapon at his disposal? What if Kheir Pasha himself had discovered it and possessed it? Now I had Beppo in an "impossible trap." This gave the scene drama and the character a chance to grow.

I'll sum it up this way: if your character has a solution to her problem, take it away. Drop it into the sea. Blow it up. 

And if that frightens you, then you have some small inkling of what your character is feeling, and that should make for an interesting and satisfying moment in your story.


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