One of my favorite movies is a romantic comedy from the late 80’s called “American Dreamer.” It’s a pretty awful title, but the movie itself is charming. An American housewife who is a big fan of the Rebecca Ryan thriller novels enters a contest to win a trip to Paris. She wins. of course, and when she arrives, she’s injured in a car accident and begins believing she’s the star of her favorite books. Hijinks ensue. But there’s one scene that always annoys me, enough that I usually leave the room for the minute or so it takes to get past it. Rebecca thinks she needs to save a man from an assassination attempt, and asks the man she believes is her sidekick for his car keys. He’s so flustered he tells her the concierge has them, only realizing as the door closes behind her that he’s essentially given her his car. He panics, running around getting dressed and arrives downstairs as she goes driving by in his car. What bothers me about the scene is that it would have been simpler if he’d lifted the phone and called downstairs to the concierge to tell them not to release his keys.
Have you ever noticed how often story plots could have been solved with a phone call but aren’t? It happens all the time in movies and television, and it’s solely so that the characters can be moving and shaking. In a visual medium, the story is being told more in what the characters do than in what they say, so it’s more satisfying to see a man running around chasing someone than making a quick phone call. In the written medium, a phone call can be as interesting as a chase, so the novelist needs to be more careful with his characters’ behaviors.
You’ve heard writers talk about how their characters tell them what should happen next. It’s not so much that we slap words on the page hoping the characters will arrange them for us, but that we work with the characters we create so their behavior makes sense and so that what they do drives the story along. The last thing we want is for a reader to stop dead in the middle of a chapter because Joanna, the rakshasa hunter, has left her enchanted body armor hanging in the closet in the hotel in Dehradun. Maybe the writer wanted Joanna to be badly injured so that the handsome Gopan could save her and they could fall in love. That’s dandy, but making her do something so out of character bounces the reader right out of the story.
So when you’re pushing along, and you come to a crossroads in your story, do your best to make the choice that best fits your character, even if it’s not the easy choice. Your story will flow smoothly, and your reader won’t stop until he reaches the last page. Which is what we want most.