Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: We Know They’re Going to Pick the Wrong One First

The longest book I’ve read for my notes service was just over 500 pages. There was a heist element: They were looking for a piece of paper with the identity of the bad guy written on it. They knew that a man kept this paper in one of his two offices. They didn’t have any real reason to choose one over the other, but they decided it was probably in office #1. They then spent more than two hundred pages planning and executing their break-in, only to find out the paper wasn’t there. They realized that it must be in office #2 and spent another hundred pages planning and executing that break-in, whereupon they found the paper they were seeking.

Do you see the problem? Presented with these two choices, it’s immediately obvious to the reader that the paper they’re seeking will be in whichever one they choose last, and so we just sort of roll our eyes and wait for them to realize that and finally raid the other office. In this case, that was 200 pages of eye-rolling (Most likely, a reader would flip ahead to get to the second office raid).

The hero and the reader should assume that the story will end halfway through, only to be thrown for a loop when they have to keep going and rebuild after the big crash. Obviously, in this novel, they shouldn’t have known about the possibility of a second office until after the first raid failed.

But really, they should have found the paper on the first raid. Raiding two offices for the same piece of paper is too repetitive (even though the offices were in very different places). The midpoint needs to turn the story: They find the paper, find out who the bad guy is, and then launch into a new phase of the story. The big crash means that the hero needs to start over, but not that they need to start the same task over.  They’re starting over in the sense that their goal now seems ever further away than it did before, and they need a new plan, but not a new plan to do the same thing.


Sean said...

I think the two-office setup could work if the heroes decided to hit both offices simultaneously. (After all, if they picked one and got it wrong, the bad guy might figure out what they're up to and destroy the paper.) The heroes would face some tough problems when dividing their resources and expertise, and the actual heist sequence would offer twice the opportunities for things going south in entertaining ways. And then you're well-positioned for the midpoint crash: one crew finds the paper, another finds or does Something Else that puts a disastrous new spin on the situation.

Jason said...

Sean, your comments about the two-offices being hit simultaneously reminded me of the ending of Silence of the Lambs when the FBI is raiding the wrong house while Starling in the course of her investigation stumbles upon Buffalo Bill's lair somewhat accidentally. The scenes bouncing between the two locations followed by the gut punch when Gumb answers the door for Clarice was extremely effective. Granted, it's not quite what Matt was referring to in his post- but still, unforgettable. Is there a name for that technique?