Friday, March 30, 2012

On tension and stakes and history

I've been reading Lora Innes's fabulous web comic The Dreamer for a while. It's about a modern girl who starts turning up in the Revolutionary War when she goes to sleep. At first she thinks it's just a dream, but then...well, it just seems way. too. real. Could she have really dreamed up that hot guy, Alan Warren, who seems to know her so well? How could she know about Thomas Knowlton, head of Knowlton's Rangers (forerunner of any and all US spy networks) if she doesn't pay attention in history class? When she sees The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumball at an art exhibit, she freaks. These people she's dreaming about? They're real.

There are a lot of great things about this comic. The art quality is one of the very best out there--just fabulous storytelling with small gestures and expressions. Add great dialogue, funny punchlines in the midst of heart-hitting tragedies, and some excellent pacing. Just really well done. But one of the things that gets me most as a writer is Lora's ability to tell a story we all know the ending to--and do it in a way that suspends our disbelief and makes us hope that somehow, some of these tragedies can be averted. And I think she does this by being specific.

A history textbook gives you the facts, the statistics, and the very broad, sweeping picture, in a very 20-20 hindsight point of view. The difference between that and fiction is that in a story, you have to be in the moment. Inside one person's head, not twenty thousand. It's not enough that her characters can't wait to fight back against the British. No--some of them don't really care about the "sides"--they just want the people they love to be safe. Some of them have already lost family members and are suddenly realizing that this could turn out to be much more than a game. That "sacrificing all" is more than lip service, and that "all" is considerably more than they had imagined. Mothers who support the American side are terrified that their vocal sons will be captured and hung half a world away. We might know how it all turns out--but they don't. And just because the Americans won doesn't mean everyone came home, either. From a textbook viewpoint, the Battle of Harlem Heights was a fabulous victory--the first win under George Washington, a victory to give heart to all. But Col. Knowlton was killed. Lora does a great job of making you love Knowlton as a leader, a dad, a friend--so that even though you know this battle was a good thing for America, it is a devasting scene on the page. Likewise, our fictional male lead is just realizing that he has a LOT to lose in this war. Because we know all the people he loves, and so we're scared along with him. (That guy in the painting, General Warren? That's his cousin...)

So, if you're writing historical fiction or battle scenes or even just a book where the reader knows the end from the beginning--you still have to suspend your reader's disbelief. Make them think/hope/beg that the outcome can be different than they know it is. And you do it by being specific. It doesn't matter what the whole country is doing. What matters is what your main character stands to lose on a personal level. Once you get that focus right, everything else comes in clear.

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