Back in high school I knew of a kid in the graduating class ahead of me who would get to school early so he could be seen standing in front of his Mazda RX-7. A car his parents very obviously bought for him. Come time to go home, he would stand next to his car and…regale kids with stories of his parent’s wealth? I’m not entirely sure what he talked about. In my graduating class there was a kid who went a different route. A lull in a conversation? Good time for him to bring up the latest gadget he supposedly got to play with. He’d quote the price, rattle off the name of some wealthy person no one else knew who had that gadget, then tell how amazing it was. While both acted in different ways, each yearned for the same end result: to be viewed as “cool”.
A recent book I read reminds me of those two kids.
Now, I understand the urge to make a story as cool as can be. People like cool stuff. Fonzi is still brought up in conversation. People buy posters of James Dean to this day. Buddy Holly has a song named after him. Each would have ended up as obscure pop culture references if people didn’t like “cool”.
So yes, adding a little “coolness” to a story is just fine, however there is a point when that “coolness” takes on a life of its own; eclipsing the story it is part of.
This recent story, in the effort to make a totally cool, bad ass story, forgot three key elements which allowed the desired end-point to eclipse the actual story.
- Characters that have some sort of growth. ANY GROWTH.
- A plot that actually does something.
- Suspension of disbelief.
I probably shouldn’t have to explain this, but readers expect characters to not be static. Now, the word “static” is tricky; for how can a character that does stuff be static? When we say something is static, we generally mean it’s the same, has not changed, or has done anything. A character who is talking and running around is doing something, so they can’t be that word.
If characters simply do stuff and go places, doing the same stuff in these new places as they did in the old places, they are static characters in a static plot. Nothing more. But wait, you say, action isn’t the only part of a book! There’s those middle squishy areas in between the doing of stuff. True, there are those areas, but if the characters only talk/have internal monologue about the previous and future doings of stuff, then they go do more stuff; they are static/cardboard/not fleshed out.
Let’s put it another way.
If a reader can read 5 pages, skip a good 30 pages, read a few more pages and not miss anything (no matter how many times a reader does that), you have a plot and characters more static and cardboard than cardboard sent through the dryer without a dyer sheet.
Which brings us to the point about the plot actually doing something. A story that is just a bunch of psychopaths running around murdering people and bitching about the other psychopaths, is not a plot. It’s just a long action scene. And yes, if a character runs around killing people because they get in their way, that person is a psychopath.
Murdering—okay, fine, killing people to achieve a story goal is shoddy writing. It shows lack of imagination or lack of skill or both. Sure, just about every book has violence and killing in it. However, most books (at least the ones that are well written) use the trope only in action sequences to ramp up the tension, not to resolve issues/achieve goals.
Violence that solves issues and progresses the plot works in videogames. Those things can get away with plots and characters that are weak and a gratuitous amount of violence if the gameplay is super fun, because in the end that is why people play videogames, TO PLAY. Books are different. It’s the same reason why movies and TV shows don’t follow books exactly. What works in one medium rarely translates well to a different medium. What is “cool” in videogames is not the same type of “cool” in books.
Books are literary in nature. They should be written to engage the mind and imagination, not pretend to be videogames, eschewing the mind engagement in favor of balls-to-the-wall action. Read the Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach if you think books can’t engage the mind and imagination and be as frantic as a Call of Duty session on speed.
Stories shouldn’t be able to be read and forgotten as easily as the names of the “cool” kids we all knew back in our teenage years.