Writing Tip: Frustration of Goals

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.

I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.

Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes.  They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature).  And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.

That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.

As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.

One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!

The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity.  The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man.  However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.

So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year.  Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book.  The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one.  Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.

Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book.  Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it.  Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.

The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.

The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.

I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes.  I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.

There is so much good here.

First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges.  The evil people see goodness as weakness.  And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people.  Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could.  And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall.  He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.

This makes the story more believable.

But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.

This is backstory.  This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.

And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.

This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.

Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds.  Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win.  But it shouldn’t be direct.  The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.

One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed.  If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.

Consider Ocean’s 11.  They make you *think* you know what the plan is.  Then so many things go wrong.  It looks like they have no chance.  And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection.  But that’s what made it good.  If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.

What Jin Yong did here is closely related.  But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward.  Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted.  What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.

Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much.  Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.

But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it.  And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win.  You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.

Jin Yong shows us another way.

The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too.  Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.

And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle.  Who will win???

The good guy, of course.  But now you have no idea how they will win.  You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.

It adds complexity, but requires more patience.

I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.

 

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