By Margaret Lucke
The house in on fire.
Lee gets home to see flames shooting up, smoke filling the sky. Pulls a cell phone from a pocket and calls 911. But the house is remote, and the fire is fierce. Help may arrive too late. Inside the house is something of value that will be destroyed if action is not taken right now. So Lee rushes into the inferno, risking life and limb, hoping to save the precious item.
As a reader, what's your response to this scenario? Are you cheering Lee on, turning pages as fast as you can to find out what happens? Or did you just throw the book across the room?
I can hear you saying, "It depends. What is Lee so desperate to rescue?"
That's a key question, isn't it? What is this item so prized that we understand why someone would court danger to save it? Is the reward worth the risk?
Suppose a child is trapped in the burning house, and Lee rushes in to save the little one's life? Most readers would agree that Lee's actions are justified.
Now let's assume Lee charges into the flames to rescue a brand-new pair of expensive shoes or a favorite set of golf clubs? No way! What an idiot! The reader's sympathy and involvement evaporate, and the book goes sailing against the wall.
But what if Lee is trying to rescue the only existing copy of a manuscript that represents several years of difficult, passion-driven work? Or a shopping bag filled with $100,000 in cash? Or a friend's beloved pet?
I can hear you saying it again: "It depends."
Depends on what? The issue now is what kind of person the author has set up this character to be--Lee's personality, background, values, and goals. Because it's these qualities that determine what kind of risk a person has the capacity to undertake and what the stakes must be in order for the risk to be worth the payoff. I'm happy to have characters take risks I wouldn't--watching them behave with more courage than I'd be able to muster is one of the reasons I read novels. But I need to believe that this character would behave in this way under these circumstances, and stands to gain or lose something that makes the effort worthwhile.
Risk versus payoff. Right now I'm struggling to achieve the proper balance between the two in my current work in progress. I know I'm not alone. Authors are always grappling with this dilemma, especially writers of crime fiction, who constantly send our heroes into life-threatening situations. If the characters don't take risks, the story is flat and dull. But if what they stand to gain doesn't merit the risk, then they look like fools, and readers cease to believe in them and care about them. Either way, the book goes flying across the room. Or is set down half-read and isn't picked up again.
When a plot doesn't work, when a character becomes unbelievable, a lopsided balance of risk and payoff is often to blame.
Okay, how about this? Lee is a professional golfer. The golf clubs in the burning house are lucky clubs, which guarantee that superstitious Lee will win a career-defining tournament that begins the next day. Losing those clubs means the shattering of Lee's lifelong dreams, hard-fought accomplishments, and desperate battle to overcome a background of adversity and abuse. So when Lee arrives home and the house is burning, the only choice is to rush in and . . .
What do you think? Could a clever author (probably someone other than me) bring the risk and payoff into balance and make this scenario work?