Tag Archives: implausible stories

How to Hook a Reader with Cool Stuff

25 May
The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontentthe latest novel by Karan Bajaj, tells the story of a “quest for answers that bother all of us at some level.”

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Good luck.

An Interview with Mo Daviau

25 Feb
Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave has been called a "bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs" by NPR.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave has been called a “bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs” by NPR.

Mo Daviau has performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award. Daviau lives in Portland, Oregon. Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.

To read an exercise about explaining away implausibility, inspired by Every Anxious Wave, click here.

In this interview, Daviau discusses making implausible stories believable, the litmus test for whether personal tastes are shared by readers, and where plot twists come from.

Michael Noll

The novel presents you with a pretty significant problem. The characters need to travel through time. How do you they do it? And how do you explain it? You tackle those exact questions in a couple of paragraphs after the time travel device is discovered. What was your approach to those paragraphs? I love how fast they move, basically telling the reader, “Some stuff with computers happens and–boom. Time travel.” But a quick look at some online reviews reveals that sci-fi purists don’t agree. Of course, this isn’t a sci-fi novel. Was this an issue you faced writing it?

Mo Daviau

This is something I worried about, that I would be displeasing hardcore sci-fi fans by not going hard and deep into the science of the wormhole. There is actual science behind the mechanics of time travel as I’ve written it in the book—it’s based on the theory of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, which was explained to me by a post-doc in physics at the University of Michigan who I met while I was there doing my MFA. But since the novel is told from the first person perspective of Karl, who has no knowledge or interest in physics, the burden of understanding the wormhole’s mechanics fully is on Wayne and Lena, whose voices we are not privy to. Was this a cheat-out? Maybe, but I never intended the novel to be sci-fi. To me, it’s magical realism. I did not build a new world—I only added one fantastical element to the existing one.

Michael Noll

The premise of the novel (time travel to great concerts) allows you to namedrop a lot of bands and a lot of particular concerts. In terms of reader appeal, this would seem to be on the level of Ready Player One, which was adored by pretty much anyone with a particular pop culture sensibility. Did you think about this (how readers might respond to the bands) as you wrote it? Or did you simply write what you liked?

Mo Daviau

I worried that since I chose to write towards my own musical tastes, and to pay tribute to, and in some cases, satirize, the indie scene of which I was a fan in the late ‘90s, that since the vast majority of readers wouldn’t have heard of those bands, they wouldn’t really connect with the work. No one up my chain of command—agent, editorial staff at St. Martin’s Press—is a fan of the bands I name in the book, or had much knowledge of that particular scene, yet they still connected with the themes in the novel. So that was my litmus test for being able to write a novel around obscure music that bore or alienate the non-indie-fan reader.

Michael Noll

You currently live in Portland, and, before that, you lived in Austin–so, two cities with strong live music sensibilities. Did these cities have any impact on the novel?

Mo Daviau

Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

The short answer is no. And I feel like a jerk saying that, but it’s true. Portland more than Austin-the novel was mostly finished when I moved to Portland in 2014, and although Portland gets a few mentions, and Austin gets no mentions (there were references to clubs in Austin but they ended up getting cut in the end) I’d say that there is no true sense of place. Every Anxious Wave takes place largely in Chicago, but only in Karl’s bar and in his head. It also takes place in Seattle, though not the Seattle we currently know and love. I was writing more about time than place.

Michael Noll

My favorite thing about this book is the fact that a character accidentally travels to 10th-century Manhattan. This is just so weird and wonderful, a bit like the section in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay when a character spends an entire section in Antarctica. In both cases, the story is doing something totally outside the bounds of what the reader probably expects given the frame of the novel. Did you always know this would happen? Or was this the result of a moment of inspiration?

Mo Daviau

I don’t remember how or why I came up with the idea of Karl leaving the number 1 off his transmission entry sending him back to 980, but that was a pretty early idea that I had in my head, the first problem Karl would face. I’d just read the book Sex at Dawn when I started writing what would become Every Anxious Wave, and the idea that among early hunter/gatherers, there was no concept of personal property and that everything was shared communally was one that I found fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed communal living, something that our society frowns upon once college is over.  When I was trying to figure out under what circumstances Wayne would return to modern times, my personal inner impulse was “I wouldn’t. I would want to stay in hunter/gatherer society.” It’s a mild social commentary, I guess, and maybe one I didn’t punch very hard, looking back on it. But that’s where that idea came from.

February 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Explain Away Implausibility

23 Feb
Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

All superheroes have origin stories: Superman came from another planet, Spiderman got bitten by a radioactive spider, and Batman saw his parents murdered and so became a vigilante. Such character explanations are expected in comic books, but they are, in fact, part of almost every story with a fantastic plot.

A great example of an origin story can be found in Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave. You can read the first pages of the novel at her publisher, St. Martin’s, website.

How the Novel Works

The first line of the novel gives away the plot: “About a year before the time traveling began, before I lost Wayne and found Lena, Wayne DeMint stumbled into my bar for the first time.”

It’s a novel about time travel, which poses a basic problem: How to introduce the mechanism that allows the characters to travel through time. The answer depends on the novel’s genre. A sci-fi novel would likely be interested in the actual science behind time travel and would include a lot of mechanics, explanations, and even, perhaps, equations. An adventure or thriller novel would include much less science. My favorite example of a non-scientific answer is the film Inception, in which characters enter people’s dreams. How do they get into the dreams? There’s a box and some tubes that get connected to the characters and—voila—into the dreams they go. The solution contains zero science. The point is simply to get the characters—and the audience—into the dream as quickly as possible so that the plot can move along.

Mo Daviau does the same thing in Every Anxious Wave.

Karl is crawling around on the floor of his bar when, suddenly, he falls through a hole and lands in another time and place. His friend explains that the hole is a wormhole and then builds a mechanism to control travel through it. Watch how fast that mechanism is explained:

He went home to his fifteen computers and wrote the software program, an astonishing time-bending navigational system that harnesses the directional pulls of the wormhole and allows you to choose when and where you’d like to land. Two laptops, three generators, and a series of wires now occupy the desk next to my closet. On the laptop screen there is a Google map with a grid over it. You type in the coordinates of where you want to go, physically.

How does it work? Some computers and wires and a Google map. As an explanation, it’s roughly similar to Peabody’s Wayback Machine—and that is exactly the point. The book’s interest lies in what happens after time travel is made possible, and so it needs to get there quickly. In case a skeptical reader wants more science, Daviau gives them this:

If pressed to explain his scientific understanding of our portal to the past, Wayne would describe Carl Sagan’s theory of the wormhole: that it is totally possible to travel from point A to point B on an unseen plane C.

Carl Sagan does, in fact, have a theory of wormholes, but this is the fastest possible summary of it. Again, audience is key. If this were a sci-fi book, the explanation (and, indeed, the entire book) would be quite different. But the novel is more of an adventure story, and so a bone is tossed to scientifically-minded readers, and then off we go into the past.

These passages create an origin story for the novel’s time travel. They establish its plausibility and allow the story to move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an origin story, using Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau as a model:

  1. Identify the moment of implausibility. Almost every story has one, not just stories with fantastic premises like superheroes and time travel. Most love stories involve unlikely love; otherwise, they’d be boring. Even that great literary genre, coming-of-age stories, has implausible moments. In The Catcher in the Rye, for example, Holden Caulfield escapes from his boarding school, a difficult challenge in real life. In Every Anxious Wave, the implausibility is time travel for a bar owner. In short, the implausible moment is anything the reader might balk at.
  2. Offer a plausible explanation. This is the origin story, but it doesn’t need to completely and totally explain away all implausibility. It only needs to keep the reader reading. In The Catcher in the Rye, the novel is careful to point out that Holden’s roommate doesn’t wake up and that Holden’s grandmother has recently sent a wad of cash—just enough luck to get him on the train. In Every Anxious Wave, Daviau throws some tech at the reader. Is her explanation actually plausible? Who knows? The point is that it says to the reader, hey, there is an explanation. It’s also short and sweet, like Spiderman’s radioactive spider. If it was too long, the reader might begin to doubt it. So, consider what details can you give the reader to make your story plausible. Try explaining the implausible thing in a single breath—or to someone about to answer a phone call. You have until they pick up their ringing phone. What can you say in that short period of time that will make them say, “Oh, okay, got it. That makes sense?”
  3. Answer the skeptics. If someone were to doubt your explanation, what would they say? On what question would their doubt rest? The best answer is not to give more details. Instead, you can try one of three approaches. First, you can have a character or the narrator ask the same question and someone else answer it. Even if the answer isn’t great, asking the question lets your reader off the hook. Secondly, you can let a character confirm the implausible thing, something like “That sure was crazy, getting bit by that spider.” The more characters who see something, the more plausible it becomes. Finally, you can lean on authority. This is Daviau’s approach: she namedrops Carl Sagan, saying, in effect, that her rationale is supported by a famous scientist, an expert. Your expert could be someone from the outside world, like Sagan, or someone who’s an expert within the world of your novel.
  4. Move on. Once you’ve addressed the plausibility issue, don’t belabor it. Move on with your story. Ideally, this means introducing some problem related to the premise. Daviau’s novel sends one of its characters back to a time the character didn’t expect. As a result, the reader is too busy wondering what will happen next to worry about the plausibility of the wormhole.

The goal is to let your readers off the hook, to let them enjoy your story without worrying about the plausibility of it.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: