Monday, November 22, 2010

On endings and payoffs

I've been reading Brandon Sanderson's middle grade action/adventure/humor series, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians, to my kids. We just finished the third book, and I'm still taking apart the solution/payoff to that last book in my mind. (For those who have read it, the Himalayan kickboxing scene.) The books are funny and seemingly chaotic and rather chatty--which drove me crazy the first time I read them, but somehow on subsequent reads I've become very much hooked. The thing is, they're not chaotic at all. In the midst of all that seeming chaos and chattiness are actual plot points and character clues.

Sanderson's known for his intricate magic systems--and while this book is meant to be light and funny, the same skill shines through here. To get to that kickboxing scene, he had to use stuff he planted over the course of at least two books, things that seem completely unrelated and random. But just as Alcatraz learns to power his Talent (the unusual ability to break things, sometimes spectacularly) at a distance and to conduct it through other material, Sanderson does that with plot/structure. Somehow you get to the climax and find everything's lined up, and all Sanderson has to do is activate it. The solution is a surprise and at the same time, it's been there all along. Plus, the payoff is great regarding the characters. It's really extremely well done!

Because I'm trying to set up clues and solutions and a payoff in the book I'm drafting right now, I naturally started analyzing this. I hopped over to Sanderson's site and found this fascinating essay on magic systems. The thing is, though, it doesn't just apply to magic systems. It's really how he deals with plot.

Basically, there are two ways to look at fantasy setups and solutions. One (what he calls "soft magic") uses the magic as sort of atmosphere, and the plot solutions come from real things anybody could do, magic or not. The other, which he calls "hard magic," is where the magic rules are laid out very clearly, like tools, and the MC uses the tools at his/her disposal (ie magic we know about) to solve the problem. The point is, instead of springing new, surprise powers on the MC in their time of need, the MC has to scramble for whatever they've got on hand. Like the here-are-five-ingredients-now-make-a-gourmet-meal-of-them sort of show. So the ingredients aren't a surprise, but the final outcome is. Which is very satisfying.

What I'd add to this is that if the tools you combine to solve that problem are actually past failures, the payoff is going to be even sweeter. So, take the first book in this series. Alcatraz has gone from foster home to foster home, pushed around and abandoned because he always breaks stuff, and people can't take it. But then, he learns it's a Talent--and so when he uses it to solve a problem, it's a triumph. Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson does this, too. He goes from school to school, always having problems because of his ADHD. And then--it turns out he has this because it's all part of his half blood survival makeup. It makes him good at fighting monsters. Those are sort of along the way sorts of developments, but think of how Harry Potter finally defeats Voldemort. (Um, hopefully this isn't a spoiler to anyone...) He uses the spell everyone gets onto him for, the spell he's always used instead of killing someone, the spell people sort of think is a weak copout. (Actually, HP uses both hard and soft magic for the ultimate climax--the first part of Harry's confrontation explicitly doesn't involve magic at all. The combination of both of these, I suppose, sort of makes it the amazing adventure/fantasy/human story it is.)

So when you're looking for ways to solve the problem you've painted yourself into, take a look at what tools your MC has built up over the course of the book. Look particularly at their failures. What new and surprising--yet inevitable--solutions can you come up with based on these tools?

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