This is the third time I’ve tried to write this one, and hopefully the last. The first one was about religion, and the second about politics… Two topics guaranteed to give me more “oops moments” than I could handle. So I tossed them both aside and started over again.
I’ve had so many “oopses” in my life that I could probably fill ten volumes with stories detailing them, but, I always say making mistakes is part of learning. Thus, I try to learn from my mistakes and move on, hoping not to repeat them. While that’s probably a good policy for life, it doesn’t really work as far as fiction is concerned. Fiction, especially mystery and suspense fiction, thrives on those “oopses,” because plots are primarily based on conflict. To paraphrase Aldrous Budrous, all plots follow the same basic formula: Character encounters a problem and this is followed by things getting worse, things getting worse, things getting worse, things getting worse, the climax, and the resolution. If you think about it, this formula makes a lot of sense. Think about your favorite book or movie where the hero is a man (or woman) alone, fighting against the tide of overwhelming odds. From Shane, to High Noon, to Die Hard, to the Rocky movies, this tired and true formula has seen us through a lot of entertaining times. Thus, when the cowardly towns people desert Will Kane as the noon train approaches, or when Rocky Balboa stands in the center of the ring doing the stare-down with his fearsomely undermatched opponent, it’s the precursor to the ultimate “oops moment.” But would we want it any other way? It’s the quintessential retelling of the Hero’s Journey.
One of my favorite authors, Brian Garfield, once came up with a list of dos and don’ts for writing suspense fiction. One of them was “Make it hard for your protagonist.” We all like to root for the underdog, and love to see a person come out of nowhere and succeed despite seemingly impossible odds. How boring it would be to see the hero breeze through the conflict, besting each adversary without breaking a sweat. The ones we remember best are those knock-down, drag-outs that test the protagonist by taking him to the brink of defeat.
I’m currently writing the Executioner series, and the hero, Mack Bolan, is a consummate professional. He’s morphed form an urban vigilante into the American James Bond. Fans of the series know he’s going to eventually triumph, because he’s going to be back in the next book, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give him a free ride. Quite the opposite. Bolan can be sure he’s going to be put through his paces with each adventure. As I’ve have his partner point out in several novels, “Saving the world each time is hard work.” In the current one I’m working on, Fatal Prescription, Bolan pays homage to Murphy’s Law, which states that “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with Murphy myself, and I know he can never be counted out. I’d go so far as to appoint him “King of the Oopses.” But in a lot of ways, he’s also a fiction writer’s best friend. As I said, plots thrive on conflict, and the worse things get for the protagonist, the better the reader likes it.
So, let’s not be too hard on those “oopses.” After all, where would fiction be without them?