Saturday, September 14, 2013

Delivering the Promise of the Premise

I've been in love with the written word as long as I can remember. In fact, my grandmother had me writing and illustrating stories since before I could even pen the words myself. I grew up with a voracious reading appetite—something that is essential to become an adept wordsmith. When you hear people talk about books, they usually say they liked it, or they didn't like it. As a writer, I make it a point to spend time thinking about what it is that either attracts or distracts me from a story.

So, I recently started reading a self-published book by a journalist/college professor. Man, this thing has prose that jumps off the page. Great characters, and a compelling plot-line. I was absolutely hooked...

Then I saw it, looming on the distant shore.

 A fin.

You know what I'm talking about, a story that was about to jump the proverbial shark. Maybe it was when a beer-drinking Jesus showed up saying things like, "Bztt," while poking himself in the forehead, and suggesting that extramarital sex was fine with him. I wanted to yell at the book, "Don't do it! Get out of the water, NOW!"

Instead, the story bore down on it like the Titanic heading for an iceberg, and the collision ripped the entire plot apart.

One thing writers are admonished to avoid is called, "Deus ex machina," or "God in the machine," which is a plot where something or someone shows up at the end and magically solves all the problems for the characters. In this case—well, Jesus showed up, and the plot fizzled.

My disappointment mounted with each turn of the page. I understand the message is that Jesus can fix anything, and that ultimately, he's in charge, but I had the same problem with the popular, "Left Behind," series. Loved the characters, loved the unique way the authors gave a relatable face to the book of Revelation, right up to the point that Jesus showed up and marched around the sky singing and chanting in everyone's head at the same time. It was a letdown, when the story I'd signed on for was that of a small band of people I was emotionally invested in. The addition of the divine minimized those characters I cared about to the point of making them inconsequential. I simply quit caring what happened to the characters, and when a reader stops caring, that's the kiss of death for a story.

The ending of this book now seemed rushed. Solutions to the apocalypse kept popping into existence with little setup, since now that Jesus in on the scene, we're good to go. I want characters locked in a life-or-death struggle until the bitter end—do or die, sink or swim. I want to raise my fist in triumph when they win, or grieve when they fail.

So, that's my lesson to myself today. Delivering on the promise is as important as the flow of the prose. Life—and writing—is the journey, more than the destination.

1 comment:

MJ Caffrey said...

Eloquent and so to the point as always, you bring up the dilemma that comes up now and again in some published works. The last time this happened to me, it left disappointment like the taste of a bad peanut in my mouth. I wondered if I failed to note earlier references in the book to an apparition plaguing one of the characters. I really think it is our job as readers to let the author know, by private email, just in case the "machine of the gods" seemed a Cat snowblade plaining off the surface of the book's meaning.