Thursday, January 20, 2011

Roller Coaster Story: Just Say No!

Reading thuRsday

Roller coasters can be loads of fun if you ignore the fact that you're simply going round in circles and that the ride is exactly the same every time. Indeed, there's something nice about being able to pretend you're doing something dangerous while knowing that the engineers have done everything humanly possible to make sure the ride is safe.

Just make sure you keep your roller coasters in the amusement parks where they belong. Don't let them sneak into your plot.

"Wait," you object, "roller coasters are exciting. Don't we want our books to be equally exciting?"

Yes and no.

Clearly, if your story doesn't offer an experience that is compelling or enticing, few people will give you their money and invest their time to read.

On the other hand, if your characters have as much influence on the course of events in your book as the riders on a roller coaster have on the direction in which they travel, you don't have a story. Story is about cause and effect. We love good stories because we learn something about how to solve our problems by going along with the characters as they try to solve their problems. A roller coaster story teaches us nothing more than, "Sit down, hang on, and enjoy the ride."

Last week I made the case that you don't have a real character unless they have two real choices and the ability to go either way. There's an analogous rule for plot: you don't have a story unless there's the real possibility that things could go either way.

This is why you'll often hear people characterize the three act structure in terms of try-fail cycles. In act one, the protagonist tries something that fails to solve the story problem. They try something different in act two, which also fails. It's only in act three, where we're afraid the protagonist is going to get their third strike, that they succeed.

Of course, in an objective sense, a story is just like a roller coaster because every time you go they take you to the same place. The difference is that while we can see the roller coaster's tracks the tracks of the story can disappear beneath the interplay of cause and effect, the verisimilitude of characters that have real choices, and situations that could go either way.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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