I recently read a picture book version of The Odyssey to my 4 and 6-year-old sons. We read, of course, about the Cyclops and how Odysseus’ men clung to the bottom of sheep as they trotted out of the blinded monster’s cave. And how Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead, sacrificed two sheep, and let their blood pool because the dead love to drink blood, and how he saw, among the blood-drinkers, the shade of his mother. And how, when Odysseus finally returned to his homeland, only his old, sick dog recognized him—and then the promptly died. My kids were rapt. I could hardly read certain parts without getting choked up.
It’s tempting to forget amid the five-paragraph essays and multiple choice tests that we attach to literature that the reason certain stories stick around for years or millennia is because they’re freaking awesome. But their appeal isn’t based on “literary merit,” whatever that means. Odysseus watched a bunch of shades lap up ram’s blood so that he could get instructions from a dead, blind prophet—and his mother showed up, which meant she’d died in his absence. That’s great storytelling because of the emotion and because it involves dead people drinking blood. Without the latter part—and all the other crazy stuff in The Odyssey—Homer’s work likely doesn’t survive.
Great stories do cool stuff (to use the technical term). A perfect example of the power of cool stuff can be found in Karan Bajaj’s novel The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. You can read an excerpt at Riverhead’s website.
How the Novel Works
The novel is about an American named Max who becomes disillusioned with his Wall Street lifestyle and travels to India to study yoga and meditation and discover other ways of viewing the world and himself. In short, it’s a story that, if you’re interested in spiritual enlightenment, you’ve probably seen before. So, the challenge facing Bajaj is to hook a reader who knows what’s coming. He begins to set the hook when Max buys falafel from a street vendor, who throws in some cool stuff about certain yogis:
“I don’t know, these yogis were superhuman, like God more than men, sir,” he said. “All Indian soldiers selected to go up to the high camps of Siachen had grown up their entire life in the mountains. On top of that, we were put through a year of survival training and a team of psychologists monitored us when we came back. And yet none of us had even a fraction of the yogis’ powers. We walked up and down the ice in our five layers of clothes all day to keep warm. But the yogis just sat in the caves, their eyes closed, meditating, and they would come out once in ten, fifteen days, wearing nothing but a loincloth. They walked barefoot in sixty or seventy inches of snow and we used heavy snowshoes with crampons imported from Russia. Yet their feet were quicker, surer than ours. Like machines their bodies were, not human at all.”
A little later we learn that bears and snow leopards guarded the yogis’ caves. Even if you’re not inclined to read about yoga and meditation, it’s hard not to be tempted by these details. It’s the same reason that, if someone says they saw a ghost—really saw one—you pay attention. You’re probably about to hear something cool and weird. At its heart, that is what stories are often about: the cool and the weird. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible, and while he applies that maxim to realism, it’s a natural fit for the sort of stories people have been telling as long as stories have been around.
When in doubt, throw in something that makes the reader go, “What?” At best, you’ll write The Odyssey. At the very least, you’ll keep the reader turning pages.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s add cool stuff to a story, using The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj as a model:
- Decide what sort of story you’re telling. Homer was telling (literally) a story about gods and men. Bajaj is telling a story about spiritual practice. Both imply a beyond-human element. As a result, it’s not shocking when superhuman and supernatural details crop up. But not all stories are this type. Some are romances. Others are mystery or crime stories. Others are sci-fi/fantasy. Others are dirty realism. All of them are about people doing things. The question is, what sort of things might be expected in this particular world? How do you answer that question for your story?
- Find your character’s discontent. It might be the threat of physical disconnect (the alien is going to eat me). Or it might be romantic, philosophical, cultural, economic, familial, or professional. This discontent is often the source of whatever cool stuff you’ll pull out of your sleeve. Rocky Balboa is discontent with his archenemy pounding his face, and so he gets up off the mat and takes it to Ivan Drago (leading to the great line from Drago, similar to Bajaj’s line about machines, “He is not human, he is a piece of iron”). Cool stuff is the stock-in-trade of sports movies: a character gets beaten down (becomes discontent) and then does something awesome. In bro movies (whether it’s Animal House or Fight Club), you know that as soon as things get tough for a character, something crazy is about to happen. What is the nature of your character’s discontent?
- What sort of cool would your character perform or seek out? Sports movies are about individual performance. Romances are about passion—and so the passion better be hot. When I saw Titanic in the theater, in a moment when we’re teased with but not given a glimpse of Rose’s nude body, a guy shouted out, “Oh, c’mon!” Shortly after, the handprint-in-steam scene arrived. Regular old literary realism does the same thing. Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, contains stripteases, gunshots, and stolen train tickets. One approach is to ask, “What is the craziest, slightly unbelievable thing that could happen to the character right now?” Ask that question of third graders, and they’ll invariably answer, “Ninjas!” But you’re aiming for slightly unbelievable within the context of the story. We know that Bajaj’s novel contains a quest for spiritual enlightenment in India, and so it’s believable that the cool stuff will revolve around yoga and meditation and slightly unbelievable that it might involve superhuman elements of those practices.
The goal is to get your readers to say, “Oh, c’mon,” after teasing them with the potential for something cool and “Whoa,” when you actually deliver the cool thing.