Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Big Dead Horse

I started writing this as a comment to my last post, in response to some of the very thoughtful and insightful comments some of you made. But I thought it made sense to bump this to the front page.

People are discussing how optimistic or pessimistic they feel in this economic environment. Is the glass half full or half empty? There are some in publishing right now who are happy to have a glass at all, never mind how full it is. (Nota bene to any of my writers who might be reading this: Don't worry. I've studied the crap out of every number I can find, and we're in good shape relative to the market.)

Books are still going to be purchased, though perhaps not in the same quantities. One thing we've got going for us -- and this is really a strong factor -- is that a mass market paperback still costs less than ten bucks. That's cheaper than a DVD, CD, video game, dinner out, movie with your spouse, and so on.

Consumers may have fewer extra ten dollar bills laying around for impulse or entertainment purchases, but a book is still a good entertainment value at that price point. Think about it. How long does it take you to read an eight dollar book? Six hours? Ten? You're looking at an average cost of a buck an hour, give or take a couple dimes. Not bad at all, really. What I think we'll be doing now is focusing on ways to inject extra value into the product by making the stories as big as possible, so that the six to ten hours are really exciting experiences.

So, what is big? It's a tricky concept to define. It's not about word count or the number of point of view characters, though big books sometimes have more of each. It's not about setting, though unusual settings can make a book feel bigger if those settings are interesting and entertaining and are thoroughly utilized in the plot. Any story or narrative element, properly leveraged, can enhance the bigness of a book.

But I think of big mostly as having to do with plot and character. Shopworn plots and stock characters will probably never feel big, no matter how much you exaggerate their emotions on the page. But legitimately big characters do unexpected things, and the other characters around them react accordingly. The plots reflect that willingness in the big characters -- they reach for things that lesser characters around them would never do. And always, those actions are solidly motivated.

Think of Don Corleone killing the horse. You know the old saw, never kill the cat? This is because heroic characters, protagonists, are supposed to protect the weak. And also because people get legitimately upset over things like animal cruelty, even when committed by a villain. Authors receive letters of complaint over that sort of thing. So why did Mario Puzo have his character kill a prize racehorse in a disgusting and gruesome way?

Because it was big. Because it demonstrated Don Corleone's power, and his ruthlessness in pursuit of a goal. Because his love for his godson is so deep and profound that it compelled him to commit this unspeakable act -- and because that love rendered the act understandable, even, in a perverted way, noble.

The act was shocking, properly motivated, evocative of character -- BIG.



Ian said...

Big is good. In my current WIP, I took a very small plot and made the details around it big. And consequently my first & second readers have told me it's fantastic and very publishable.

Now if I can just get someone to bite. I'd send it to ya, but it's really not romantic enough. Unless you think action movies are romantic. LOL

I would much rather read a "big" book than an "event" book. I think a perfect example series is the Lensman books by E. E. "Doc" Smith. They progress from small and intimate until you've got galaxies at war with each other, using entire planets as weapons. It's mind-boggling in scale, and loads of fun to read.

Riley Murphy said...

Do you hear that? Listen: Crickets!
Am I the only one who is left scratching my head here? I’m trying to connect the dots from screwball comedy to an epic involving ‘A Big Dead Horse.’ It comes down to the concept of BIG, I suppose, whether in a wacky romantic comedy or an epic saga of historical proportions. But, when you say: ‘The act was shocking, properly motivated, evocative of character -- BIG.’ I was drawing a blank....and um, this usually never happens to me. So, I started thinking...
What similarities could be found between the ‘Bigness’ of say, You can’t take it with you (one of my favorites) and The Godfather( also a favorite, for different reasons) and you know, there was one underlining thing that occurred to me.
A clearly defined connection to a single character.
In the screwball comedy he is the sane one amidst a pile of insane oddballs. In the epic sage? There usually stands a single character at the helm of a family, business or company that is filled with cut throats, thieves and/or assassins. In both treatments, the writer establishes from the get go, motivational driven sympathy for this character - which paves the way for the reader to, not only forgive but, to excuse their actions, should they be at odds with the expected norm. And by doing this, a successful writer, has also given the reader a reason to NOT sympathize with the other characters that surround him. Oh, we may like some of them but, only as far as how they relate to that one.
Hey, now that I think about it, this is more of a personal experience for the reader. I mean the story is evolving and being shaped and unfolding - there are other characters who are introduced and they work to further the story - but, it is the connection to that one character that has us hooked cause we are emotionally involved on some level and we trust what motivates him because we, presumably understand them. He’s the one we cling to because, in an impossible situation, he is the only one who takes on the responsibility and does what needs to be done. There are no excuses to be made, no questions to be asked and as far as failing is concerned? It’s not an option. So, is 'bigness' what you get with a riveting story? or is it the Bigness of the character that makes the big story? Gee, it would be really great to have both! :)
Still thinking...and you know? I really should be working.